NLCS preview: Mets, Cubs meet in unlikely battle for NL pennant
For the first time ever, the Cubs and Mets will face off in a postseason series in a matchup that few expected at the outset of the season. Both were underdogs in the Division Series, at least as far as home field advantage was concerned, but they advanced by finding ways to break serve against the Cardinals and Dodgers.
Chicago swept the season series between the two teams, 7–0, but there are obvious caveats about small sample sizes and lessons of history (see the 1988 Dodgers, who beat the Mets in the NLCS despite losing 10 of 11 during the regular season). The timing of their two series matters, too. Both the May 11–14 set at Wrigley Field and the June 30-July 2 set at Citi Field fell before the late-July arrivals of Michael Conforto and Yoenis Cespedes, and both David Wright and Travis d'Arnaud were shelved by injuries; three of the Mets' seven starts, meanwhile, were taken by Jonathon Niese and Bartolo Colon, who are currently working out of the bullpen. For that matter, the Cubs were without Kyle Schwarber and multiple members of their revamped bullpen. Anyone using that 7–0 record as a talking point as to what this series portends shouldn't be taken seriously.
As you might expect given a sabermetrically-inclined braintrust, the Cubs' offense does not revolve around a high batting average and a whole lot of balls in play. In fact, the team had the league's third-lowest batting average (.244, in a virtual tie with the Mets) and put the ball in play just 61.9% of the time, less often than any team in baseball history save for the 2010 Diamondbacks. Instead, they led the league in both walks (567) and strikeouts (1,518) and ranked fifth in homers (171), the combination of which led to the second-highest Three True Outcomes percentage in history (36.4%), not to mention the majors' highest rate of pitches per plate appearance (3.97). These are not your 2014 Royals, but if you can't find some measure of entertainment from the towering home runs of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Schwarber and company—a group fresh off setting a record for a four-game postseason series with 10 home runs—consult your doctor.
In all, the Cubs ranked fourth in the league in isolated power (.154), fifth in on-base percentage (.321), sixth in scoring (4.25 runs per game) and seventh in slugging percentage (.398), and it wasn't a park-driven phenomenon; they were actually more productive on the road (4.48 runs per game) than at home (4.02). More definitively, Chicago is a young team, one whose average age, weighted by plate appearances (26.9 years) was the league's second-youngest. Thirty-one-year-old Miguel Montero and 30-year-old Chris Coghlan are the only regulars past the age of trust, while 25-year-olds Rizzo and Starlin Castro qualify as salty veterans at in this context. On the other side of the coin are rookies Addison Russell (21), Schwarber (22), and Bryant (23), and sophomores Javier Baez (22) and Jorge Soler (23). Alas, Russell is unavailable due to a left hamstring injury suffered in Game 3 of the Division Series, which opened the door for Baez—not Castro, whose move to second late in the season helped improve the team's defense—to return to his natural position.
The Cubs received above-average offensive contributions from every position except the two middle infield spots (93 sOPS+ at second base, 88 at shortstop) and rightfield (85, from a banged-up Soler and his fill-ins); the swap between Russell and Castro paid enough dividends defensively to offset that shortage. As a team, Chicago was stronger against righties (.728 OPS, seventh in the league) than lefties (.691 OPS, ninth), owing largely to the fact that two of the lineup's big thumpers, Rizzo (144 OPS+, 31 homers) and Schwarber (128 OPS+, 16 homers in just 69 games) are lefties, as are Coghlan (113 OPS+, 16 homers) and Montero (106 OPS+, 15 homers). Rizzo was the only one of that quartet to play regularly against southpaws and the others largely struggled in 60 plate appearances or fewer, but the Mets don't have much of a lefthanded presence, with only likely Game 4 starter Steven Matz and relievers Niese and Sean Gilmartin on staff.
Bryant (133 OPS+, 26 homers) is the top righty power source, but every regular on this team reached double digits in dingers, and Baez, who only homered once in 80 regular-season plate appearances, does not lack for thunder, albeit with a whole lot of swing-and-miss. Between the wild-card win over the Pirates and the Division Series win over the Cardinals, seven different Cubs have gone yard in this postseason, led by Schwarber's three, including the one that landed atop the new rightfield video board. The team does have some speed as well, ranking sixth in the league with 95 steals and seventh with a 72% success rate. Dexter Fowler stole 20 bases, Rizzo 17, Bryant 13 and Coghlan 11, with Austin Jackson totaling 17 between Seattle and Chicago. Five different players (including Jake Arrieta) have already swiped bags in the postseason, so don't be surprised if they challenge the arm of d'Arnaud, who threw out 33% of would-be base thieves.
The Mets ranked seventh in the league in scoring (4.22 runs per game), but the midsummer boost they received from the aforementioned four players conceals a drastic turnaround: Through July 23, the day before Conforto, Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe debuted, the team averaged an NL-low 3.43 runs per game, rising to a whopping 5.36 thereafter. In fact, New York scored more runs over those final 66 games (354) than it did over the first 96 (329). Aided particularly by Cespedes’s 17 homers in 57 games, the Mets finished with 177 homers (third in the league), with seven players in double figures, led by Lucas Duda (27) and Curtis Granderson (26). While they put the ball in play more often than the Cubs, the two teams are virtually even in terms of percentage of runs via homers, with Chicago third in the NL at 39.9%, the Mets fifth at 39.7.
Thanks to that revamped lineup, the Mets have options that give them average-or-better offense from every position except shortstop, where Wilmer Flores (16 homers and a 95 OPS+) at least has some pop. With Ruben Tejada lost for the year due to a broken fibula, however, manager Terry Collins can't protect Flores from righties, against whom Flores hit just .251/.279/.358 in 403 PA this year. Cespedes (35 homers and a 137 OPS+ overall), Duda (132), Conforto (132), Granderson (129), Wright (128), d'Arnaud (128) and Daniel Murphy (113) are all forces to be reckoned with, even if Duda (2-for-18 with 11 strikeouts in the NLDS) and Wright (1-for-16, albeit with five walks) are amid cold spells.
In Conforto, Duda, Granderson and Murphy, the Mets' offense leans heavily to the left, but despite the same-side struggles of Granderson (.183/.273/.286 in 143 plate appearances) and Murphy (.254/.284/.349 in 134 PA), the team actually finished with a higher OPS (.723) and NL ranking (fifth) against southpaws than they did against righties (.709, ninth). Murphy did collect two homers at the expense of Clayton Kershaw in the NLDS, and Granderson reached base five times in 12 PA against Dodgers southpaws, so expect both to be in the lineup against Jon Lester, who's lined up to start Games 1 and 5.
Conforto is likely to sit in favor of either Michael Cuddyer, who's in a 7-for-43 slump since the start of September and appears to be on his last leg, or the defensively superior Juan Lagares, who would play centerfield with Cespedes shifting to left. When he gets on base—at a .289 clip overall, but a .333 one against lefties—Lagares does offer speed, though he stole just seven bases in 10 attempts this year. The Mets were dead last in the NL in swiping just 51 bags overall, with a dreadful 67% success rate. Granderson led the team with 11 steals in 17 attempts. That said, given Montero's 20% caught stealing rate, it wouldn't be a surprise if they find the occasional opportunity to run, particularly against the notoriously pickoff-averse Lester and anyone who lapses in coverage on a shift.
If there's an advantage for either team here, it's rather slight, but it's tempting to give the benefit of the doubt to the Cubs, whose offense was more consistent over the course of the year and quite potent (4.95 runs per game) over the final third of the season. EDGE: Cubs.
Maddon has tabbed Lester to start Game 1 on seven days' rest, with Arrieta following for Game 2 on five days' rest. Given where the off days fall, that would mean bringing Lester back for Game 5 on four days' rest and Arrieta for Game 6 on five. The alternative would be to bring both back on three days for Games 4 and 5. Lester hasn’t started on three days' rest since Game 162 in 2011 (six innings, two runs, 93 pitches); Arrieta has never done so.
Roughed up for a 6.23 ERA via a .424 BABIP in April and overshadowed by the historic second-half run and overall maturation of Arrieta into a Cy Young candidate, Lester quietly posted a 3.34 ERA with a 2.92 FIP, the latter of which was the second-best mark of his career after last year's 2.80. His strikeout rate (9.1 per nine) was his best mark since 2010, and his 4.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the second-best of his career and 10th-best in the NL. A veteran of six playoff teams and two champions (the 2007 and '13 Red Sox), the 31-year-old southpaw is the most battle-tested pitcher left standing in this postseason, with 91 1/3 innings spread over 13 starts and two relief appearances, not to mention a 2.66 ERA. He threw 7 1/3 innings of three-run, nine-strikeout ball in a losing cause in Game 1 of the NLDS.
As for Arrieta, he posted a record-setting 0.75 ERA in the second half and finished the year ranked second in the league in ERA (1.77), FIP (2.35), innings (229) and WAR (8.7), cracking the top 10 in both walk and strikeout rates as well as ratio (1.9, 9.3 and 4.9, respectively). Untouchable via a five-hit, 11-strikeout shutout in the wild-card game, he was touched for four runs in 5 2/3 innings in Game 3 of the NLDS, his worst outing since June 16, and his first non-quality start after a run of 21 straight. He's topped 100 pitches in just one of his last four starts, which should help offset a preceding five-start run in which he averaged 117 pitches.
Righties Kyle Hendricks (3.95 ERA, 3.36 FIP) and Jason Hammel (3.74 ERA, 3.68 FIP)—who will start Games 3 and 4, likely in that order—both did solid work during the regular season, walking few hitters, striking out a bunch (8.4 and 9.1 per nine, respectively) and struggling with the long ball (0.9 and 1.2 homers per nine, respectively). That said, both fell short of six innings per start and made quality starts less than 40% of the time. Their short leashes were evident in the Division Series, when Maddon pulled Hendricks after 4 2/3 innings, three runs and seven strikeouts, and Hammel after three innings and two runs. Hendricks is a sinkerballer with a high ground-ball rate (51.3%) and a wide platoon split (.797 OPS vs lefties, .580 vs. rightes); lefties slugged .472 against him in 333 plate appearances, so the Mets could give him problems. Hammel was relatively neutral, platoon-wise (.696 OPS vs lefties, .728 vs. righties), though his .452 slugging percentage against the latter in 324 PA is worrisome as well. Expect both to receive early hooks.
At this writing, the Mets haven't announced the order of their rotation. NLDS Game 2 starter Noah Syndergaard was lined up to start the opener on six days of rest, but he came out of the bullpen to throw 17 pitches in a one-inning stint in Game 5 and threw roughly 100 warmup pitches, so he won't take the mound for Game 1. Instead, it will be Matt Harvey who gets the opening assignment, which sets him up to pitch Game 5 on four days' rest; the paperwork from Dr. James Andrews, agent Scott Boras and the copy editor of the Players Tribune will have to get turned around quickly to allow that. Jokes aside, that leaves the Mets lined up to throw Syndergaard in Game 2 and Jacob deGrom in Games 3 and 7, with Matz in Game 4 or as an alternative for Game 2 if Syndergaard doesn’t make a normal recovery, which could throw a wrench into these plans.
New York's rotation is one that's centered around imposing fastballs. Via FanGraphs, among NL pitchers with at least 150 innings, Syndergaard's average four-seam fastball velocity of 96.5 mph ranked first, Harvey's 95.2 mph fourth and deGrom's 94.9 mph fifth. All three were among the league's top 11 in terms of strikeout percentage, with Syndergard third at 27.5%, deGrom fourth at 27.3% and Harvey 11th at 24.9%, and all three have outstanding control of their arsenals, with strikeout-to-walk ratios north of five and modest ground-ball rates in the 44-to-46% range.
The best of the bunch in terms of run prevention was deGrom, via a 2.54 ERA and 2.70 FIP; as he showed with both his dominant Game 1 start and his bend-but-don't-break effort in Game 5, he's already worthy of a go-to reputation in the postseason. Harvey (2.71 ERA, 3.05 FIP) has much to prove to both his teammates and the general public given a workload flap largely of his own making. Syndergaard (3.24 ERA, 3.25 FIP) had trouble with the long ball during the regular season (1.1 homers per nine) but didn't give one up in 7 1/3 innings in the Division Series. All three were roughly similar in effectiveness against lefties, with OPSes allowed ranging from .663 to .691; Syndergaard had the high mark there and against righties (.601) but also the narrowest platoon split.
The wild card is Matz, a 24-year-old lefty who outpitched his peripherals in his six big-league starts amid injuries (2.27 ERA, 3.61 FIP) and who fits into the same template in terms of velocity (94.7 mph average), strikeout rate (22.8%) and ground-ball rate (45.5%). Matz, who worked five innings in NLDS Game 4, will be on a shorter leash than the rest.
Whichever way the Mets line up their rotation, their depth was enough to offset the Dodgers' one-two punch of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, and they look to have a significant advantage against the Lester/Arrieta-centric Cubs as well. A caveat, however: If the Mets start Matz over Syndergaard in Game 2, leaving just three starts from Thor and deGrom (either Syndergaard in 3 and 7 and deGrom in 4, or vice versa), the difference could be enough to tilt the balance in Chicago’s favor. EDGE: Mets.
Given the midseason turmoil that led the Cubs to experiment with closer-by-committee and to sign free agent Rafael Soriano, it may rate as a surprise that the Cubs wound up fourth in the league in bullpen ERA (3.38) and strikeout rate (23.7%), third in home-run rate (0.7 per nine) and first in FIP (3.38). The team did pull it together, and despite a few hiccups, closer Hector Rondon finished with excellent numbers: 1.67 ERA, 2.68 FIP and microscopic homer and walk rates to offset a low-for-a-closer 8.9 strikeouts per nine. He converted 30 of 34 save chances, including 21 of 22 after May 22.
Aside from setup man Pedro Strop (2.91 ERA, 3.16 FIP, 10.7 K/9), the cast of characters in front of Rondon has undergone significant evolution, with scrapheap pickups Fernando Rodney, Trevor Cahill and Clayton Richard—who combined to throw just 71 1/3 innings for the team—becoming increasingly important late in the season while Justin Grimm (1.99 ERA, 3.11 FIP, 12.7 K/9) was pushed into lower-leverage duty. Cahill (22 strikeouts in 17 innings) was called upon to protect leads in each of the Cubs' three Division Series wins, an unimaginable scenario when he was being lit up for a 7.52 ERA with the Braves earlier in the season. Credit Joe Maddon for finding a method to the matchup-based madness with this collection of seemingly unimposing parts, and note that both southpaws, Richard (.234/.269/.266 in 67 plate appearances) and Travis Wood (.231/.297/.300 in 145 PA), have been effective at shutting down same-siders.
The Mets' bullpen, which was only middle-of-the-pack in terms of effectiveness during the regular season as a unit—their 3.48 ERA and 3.60 FIP both ranked seventh, and their 23.2% strikeout rate was fifth—sported a significantly new look in the Division Series, with Collins doing his best to keep the ball in the hands of a very short list of pitchers via multi-inning stints. The surprise was that Colon was the first reliever called upon in Games 2, 3 and 4, his first relief appearances since 2011, but it proved to be an inspired choice. The 42-year-old righty threw two innings apiece in the last two of those games, pounding the strike zone relentlessly with the variants of his fastball. Likewise, closer Jeurys Familia, who retired all 16 batters he faced in the NLDS, was used for long saves of 1 1/3 and two innings in Games 1 and 5, respectively. Familia converted 43 saves in 48 opportunities during the regular season en route to a 1.85 ERA, with a 2.74 FIP and a stellar 4.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Late-season additions Tyler Clippard and Addison Reed, both of whom have closed in the past elsewhere, are the preferred setup men, though Clippard hit a rough patch in the first half of September, allowing four homers in a six-game span shortly before being sidelined by back tightness. Gilmartin held lefties to a .260/.317/.344 line in 104 plate appearances; he's the matchup lefty. Niese (.305/.346/.44 in 166 PA againsnt same-siders) is more likely to see lower-leverage duty, as are the likes of Erik Goeddel and Hansel Robles.
Neither of these bullpens are star-laden units, and much depends upon how they're deployed, with both managers taking advantage of the postseason format in different ways. Maddon has shown a willingness to start matching up in the fourth inning if necessary, à la Tony la Russa in 2011, while Collins did his best to concentrate as many innings a few trusted hands, even calling upon Syndergaard to relieve in Game 5. Call this one a tossup. EDGE: Neither.
The Pick: Mets
These two teams are fairly evenly matched, but the separator is the depth of the Mets' rotation, which has already shown it can match up with the most top-heavy around. Based upon that and the way the two rotations would fall if this goes the distance—likely pairing Hendricks or Hammel versus deGrom—the call here is New York advancing to the World Series.