Five ways the Cubs can get back into the NLCS against the Mets
The Cubs are in a 2–0 hole in their National League Championship Series against the Mets, which means that history is not in their favor when it comes to ending their 70-year pennant drought or their 107-year championship drought. Historically speaking, teams down 2–0 in a best-of-seven series have come back to win just 17% of the time.
At the risk of overthinking things and squinting too hard at small sample sizes on the stat sheets, here's what the Cubs have to do to come back in this series—all of which is easier said than done, of course.
1. Go yard
Well, sure. The Cubs ranked fifth in the NL during the regular season with 171 homers and set a record for a four-game postseason series by bashing 10 against the Cardinals in the Division Series. Including their two homers in the NL wild-card game against the Pirates, they've hit 13 homers in this year's playoffs, but have just one—by Kyle Schwarber in the fourth inning of Game 1, off Matt Harvey—in this round.
There's no getting around the fact that this is who the Cubs are. During the regular season, they posted the second-highest Three True Outcomes percentage and second-lowest balls-in-play percentage in major league history; they tend to walk, strike out or homer more than any other team we've ever seen this side of the 2010 Diamondbacks. They scored 39.9% of their runs via homers this year, the NL's third-highest rate, and when they homered, they went 66–28 for a .708 winning percentage, higher than any team this side of the Cardinals. Of course, when they didn't, they went 29–37 (.439), which was still the league's third-best record in those situations—you can't win 97 games without finding a few different ways of doing so. Obviously, though, homering would help their cause considerably.
The good news is that the Cubs have their share of sluggers who can do just that in Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and company; in fact, nine different Cubs reached double digits in homers. Statistically, Wrigley Field had the NL's second-highest rate of home runs per batted ball at 4.3%, behind only Miller Park (4.4), and the Cubs' rate at home (4.8%) was the league's highest. What's more, Game 3 starter Jacob deGrom, who represents the first hurdle they must surmount, was particularly vulnerable to the long ball away from Citi Field, yielding 1.3 homers per nine on the road in 2015, the 11th-highest of 52 qualified NL starters. The Cubs faced him at Wrigley Field on May 11 and cuffed him for four runs in five innings thanks to homers by Bryant and Rizzo. That's the template they need to follow on Tuesday in order to avoid plummeting into a three-games-to-none hole.
2. Find a better two-strike approach
Nobody likes hitting with two strikes, as there's almost no margin for error. The stat sheets say the Cubs aren't very good at doing so: During the regular season, their .154 batting average with two strikes was the league's lowest mark by 19 points—a whopping margin when one considers that the gap between No. 14 (the Brewers at .173) and No. 1 (the Giants at .195) was just 22 points. Likewise, Chicago's .467 OPS under such circumstances (including a .231 on-base percentage and .236 slugging percentage) was the league's worst by 19 points.
Chicago has struggled to an even greater extent in this series with two strikes, going just 2-for-41 with one walk and 20 strikeouts, though in the previous two rounds, the Cubs hit .170 (14-for-82) with seven homers in two-strike counts. In deGrom, they'll face a pitcher who was one of the best with two strikes, as his .375 OPS allowed in such situation ranked as the NL's fifth best behind Francisco Liriano (.326) and the trio of top Cy Young contenders (Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw). If you want a bit of extra good news for the Cubs, Game 3 starter Kyle Hendricks was just behind deGrom at .383. Both starters were tied for second in the league with two homers allowed under such circumstances.
With a little stat-based scouting, via Brooks Baseball, we can say that historically speaking, when deGrom gets two strikes against righties, he's most likely to use his four-seamer (47.6% of the time), followed by his slider (17.6), sinker (13.5) and changeup (12.2). Against lefties, the heater is again far more likely, at 48.2%, followed by the changeup (17.0), slider (14.2) and sinker (11.2). Looking only at 2015 data, against righties he has become a bit more likely to go to the sinker (14.9%) than the changeup (14.1) or slider (13.9); against lefties, the larger trend holds.
Against lefties, deGrom is a bit more likely to use the four-seamer in two-strike counts the first time through the order (53%) than the second (47) and a lot more likely to go to the curve in the follow-up (18%, as opposed to 7.0 the first time). Against righties, four-seamer usage on the third (or fourth) time through the order plummets from 50% to 38%, with the changeup rising from 11% the first time to 13 the second to 22 the third time, and the sinker from 12% to 15 to 20 along that same timeline.
3. Summon Tony La Russa, again
In Hendricks, the Cubs are at a decided disadvantage relative to deGrom, and the same might be said for possible Game 4 starter Jason Hammel relative to opposite number Steven Matz. Either way, Chicago doesn’t have a pitcher who's likely to go deep into either game: Neither Hendricks nor Hammel averaged six innings per turn on the season, and both made quality starts less than 40% of the time. During the Division Series, Cubs manager Joe Maddon hooked Hendricks after 4 2/3 innings in Game 2 and used three relievers the rest of the way; in Game 4, he took out Hammel after three and called upon seven relievers to get him home.
Both games resulted in wins, and the approach was reminiscent of La Russa's handling of the Cardinals in the 2011 postseason. Six of St. Louis' 11 wins that fall came in games where La Russa's starters got the hook before completing five full frames, as the master of the matchup went batter by batter the rest of the way; meanwhile, the Cardinals lost just two such games, and of course, they wound up winning the World Series. In the wild-card era, no other team has won more than three games under such circumstances, though the 1996 Yankees, 2002 Angels and '14 Giants won championships doing just that.
Hendricks is a sinkerballer with a wide platoon split (.797 OPS vs lefties, compared to .580 vs. righties); lefties slugged .472 against him in 333 plate appearances, so if he even makes it through the order twice, it would be best for Maddon to pull the plug once his starter turns over the lineup to face leadoff hitter Curtis Granderson, No. 3 hitter Daniel Murphy and No. 5 hitter Lucas Duda. Lefties Clayton Richard (.234/.269/.266 in 67 PA) and Travis Wood (.231/.297/.300 in 145 PA) have been effective at shutting down same-siders this year, and both are capable of pitching multiple innings if need be. Hammel was relatively neutral, platoon-wise (.696 OPS vs lefties, .728 vs. righties), though his .452 slugging percentage against lefties in 324 PA can cause problems as well—but that's an issue for Game 4, and Maddon needs to go all-out to win Game 3 first.
4. Avoid Murphy's Law
Whether we're talking about the Mets' second baseman (3-for-7 with two huge homers in this series and hitting .357/.379/.929 with five homers in 29 postseason plate appearances) or the cursed goat whose banishment from Wrigley Field has—according to legend, at least—caused the Cubs' pennant drought, Chicago needs to avoid being hurt by all things Murphy. Easier said than done, sure, but the former, a .288/.331/.424 career hitter, has to cool off at some point, and statistically speaking, the odds of his homering on a waaaaay down-and-in pitch like the one he hit off Jake Arrieta in Game 2 are approximately a million to one. Statistically, Murphy was the majors’ hardest hitter to strike out this year; Hendricks and company need to focus not on attempting to make him swing and miss but on his putting the ball in play, as his batting average in the postseason when he does is just .278.
As for the latter, even with Murphy’s owner, Billy Sianis, having claimed in 1969 that the curse was lifted, perhaps a little goat sacrifice is in order. According to at least one report, Bryant is the man to turn to here.
5. Channel the Idiots
Given a good chance that the Cubs lose Game 3 in spite of this wealth of helpful advice, the one thing they do have going for them is a connection to the only team ever to surmount such a deficit in the postseason: the 2004 Red Sox. Both club president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer were part of that braintrust, and minor-league hitting instructor Manny Ramirez was on that team as well. Those three should be dipping into their frequent flyer miles and unused cell phone minutes to bring back Johnny Damon, Kevin Millar, Pedro Martinez and others connected to that comeback. Perhaps they should even squirt ketchup on their starting pitchers' socks (we'll stop short of suggesting medical experiments involving cadavers unless Hendricks, Hammel or another starter is particularly gung-ho), or squeeze David Ortiz into Tommy La Stella’s uniform, as the two might well have been separated at birth. Surely, an unorthodox manager such as Maddon has already suggested these things and has a few more just like them up his sleeve.