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World Series Case For: Cubs, Indians each look to end title drought

Chicago and Cleveland will bring the league’s two longest title droughts to their World Series matchup. Here’s a look at each team’s strengths and weaknesses that could tip the series.

From the standpoint of ending championship droughts, the 2016 World Series matchup couldn't be more ideal, as it pits the two teams with the longest active dry spells. The Cubs last won in 1908, and they're in their first World Series since '45. The Indians, meanwhile, last won in 1948; their 68-year drought has been surpassed only by the Cubs and the since-ended ones of the White Sox (87 years), Red Sox (85 years) and Phillies (77 years).

The ghosts of the Billy Goat and Rocky Colavito won't be playing in this World Series, and for that matter, neither will the pair who helped to end another famous drought involving some guy named Ruth: Chicago president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and Cleveland manager Terry Francona, though their decisions will obviously have roles here. In looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams, here's what stands out.

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The Case for the Cubs

For all of the pundit paeans to small ball, power has predominated during this postseason. Teams that have out-homered their opponents are 25–2. The Cubs have out-homered their opponents 12 to 4, the Indians 11 to 5—a large part of the reason that both are here. Home runs have accounted for 42% of all runs scored in the postseason, up from the major league average of 39.2%, and while the Indians have gotten the larger share of their runs via homers than the Cubs (55.6% to 41.7%), during the regular season, the advantage was with Chicago (39.6% to 35.3%).

Digging a bit deeper, this is an area where the Cubs have an advantage. During the regular season, they out-homered opponents 199 to 163, a net of 36 homers. The Indians were actually out-homered, 186 to 185. Both teams had two players with at least 30 homers (Kris Bryant with 39, Anthony Rizzo with 32 and both Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana with 34) plus another one with at least 20 (Addison Russell with 21, Jason Kipnis with 23). But beyond that, the Cubs had six more players in double digits, including part-time catchers Willson Contreras and Dave Ross (12 and 10, respectively) and reserve outfielder Jorge Soler (12); the Indians only had four more players in double digits.

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While both teams have shed some of their more homer-prone pitchers, those that remain for the Cubs are the stingier ones. Among those in the mix to start, Chicago's front four yielded 0.87 homers per nine, and the Indians' more fluid group (where health could determine the actual participants) 1.16 per nine. Josh Tomlin’s 1.87 per nine was the third-highest among all qualified starters.

Indeed, the Cubs boast the deepest rotation of the postseason field, with reigning NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta; two of this year's top candidates in Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester, who finished first and second in ERA (2.13 and 2.44, respectively); and battle-tested veteran John Lackey. All four pitchers prevented runs at a clip that was at least 20% better than league average, and the unit has delivered a 2.56 ERA with 42 strikeouts in 56 1/3 innings in the postseason. Manager Joe Maddon is likely to tab Lester (0.86 ERA in 21 innings over three starts, furthering his status as one of the era's top postseason pitchers) to start Game 1, followed by Arrieta, Hendricks and Lackey, the last of whom has put together just a pair of four-inning starts and allowed a total of five runs so far.

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Thanks to Francona's quick hook and deft use of his bullpen, the Indians' rotation has actually posted a superior 1.86 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings so far, with Game 1 starter Corey Kluber delivering an 0.98 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 18 1/3 innings over three starts, one on three days of rest. While it's a big step down to Tomlin and the rest of the group, the unit could be stronger than it's been at any other time this postseason thanks to the team's off days. Danny Salazar, who pitched to a 3.87 ERA and 3.74 FIP with 10.6 strikeouts per nine in the regular season but has been out since Sept. 9 due to forearm tightness, has been rehabbing his way back to the point that he could be an option to start a game, or at least be part of the staff. Trevor Bauer, whose pinky gash chased him from ALCS Game 3 after just 2/3 of an inning, has apparently healed enough to start either Game 2 or Game 3 (with Tomlin in the other spot), giving Francona more flexibility than he's had all October.

Offensively, the Cubs and Indians were third and fourth in the majors in scoring at 4.99 and 4.83 runs per game, respectively. Both teams were slightly above-average against righties, each with a wRC+ of 103. Against lefties, the Cubs were superior (116 to 100), which could matter if the Indians start ALCS Game 5 hero Ryan Merritt, but beyond him and the dominant Andrew Miller, there's less room to take advantage of this than there is for the Indians against Lester and relievers Mike Montgomery, Travis Wood and Aroldis Chapman. On the other side of the ball, the Cubs were more effective against batters of either hand, with a substantial gap against righties (.619 OPS allowed to .728), and much of Chicago's offense—Bryant, Russell, Javier Baez, Contreras and Ross—swings from the right side.

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On the subject of offense, the Cubs could gain an additional weapon in the World Series: Kyle Schwarber. Last year as a rookie, Schwarber hit .244/.355/.487 with 16 homers in 69 regular season games, then added five postseason homers in nine games. The 23-year-old lefty-swinging slugger played just two games this year before suffering a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, but he has rehabbed his way to the point of getting at-bats in the Arizona Fall League, and could be added to the World Series roster to serve as the DH for the games in Cleveland. Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering that when the games are in Wrigley Field, either Santana or Napoli will have to come off the bench as the other plays first base. 

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While the Indians had the AL's second-best defense in terms of defensive efficiency (.696) and were sixth in Defensive Runs Saved (16), the Cubs had the majors' best defense via both measures (.728 and 95, respectively). In fact, Chicago's Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency of 6.38 (that's percentage above average) is the majors' best since 1950. Cleveland's 0.47 was a solid but unexceptional 10th in the majors this year.


The Case for the Indians

Pinning home-field advantage to the result of the All-Star Game isn't Major League Baseball's best idea, but it's a reality, and by dint of the AL's 4–2 victory in this year's contest, the Indians will be the ones who have it. Cleveland finished the season tied with the Rangers for the AL's best home record (53–28) with a far more modest road record (41–39). By comparison, the Cubs had the majors' best record at home (57–24) and its second-best record on the road (46–34). Updating Cliff Corcoran's research, teams with home field advantage have won 55.6% of all postseason best-of-seven series (85 of 153) and 71.4% of those in the two-wild-card-teams era (10 of 14).

What's more, in the wild-card era, it's been a rarity for 100-win team to win a championship, with only the 1998 and 2009 Yankees doing so. Those two teams and the 2007 and '13 Red Sox are the only ones to finish with the regular season's best record and win the World Series.

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Still, history and home-field advantage will take a team only so far, and the Cubs have the edge in most areas of the game. The two areas where the Indians have the clearest advantages are in the bullpen and on the base paths. With regards to the bullpens—both upgraded, notably, by the acquisitions of the Miller and Chapman from the Yankees in late July—Cleveland's unit had the majors' fourth-best ERA (3.45) and fifth-best FIP (3.66); the Cubs were eighth in ERA (3.56) and 14th in FIP (3.87). Indians relievers had significantly better walk, home-run and ground-ball rates, and the Cubs' edge in strikeout rate is partially attributable to the difference in leagues. Adjusting for ballpark shows an even clearer edge: Via FanGraphs, the Indians' unit had an 81 ERA- (19% better than average) and an 86 FIP- (14% better than average) compared to the Cubs' 86 ERA- and 94 FIP-.

The postseason has been a tour de force for the Indians' bullpen, which has combined for a 1.67 ERA in 32 1/3 innings, struck out 41 (32% of all batters faced) and walked seven. Miller has pitched 11 2/3 scoreless innings, striking out 21 (51% of batters faced), walking two and allowing just five hits, and Cody Allen has 7 2/3 scoreless innings with 12 strikeouts (39% of batters faced), three walks and five hits. The pair are capable of providing Francona with a combined four innings in a game, with Miller pitching on back-to-back days even after a two-inning, 24-pitch performance. Righties Dan Otero and Bryan Shaw aren't as dominant, but both have gotten big outs.

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The Cubs' bullpen, by comparison, has posted a 3.53 ERA in 35 2/3 innings in the postseason, with just 29 strikeouts (20% of batters faced) and 13 walks. Chapman has a 3.38 ERA and 10 strikeouts in eight innings, but only in the NLCS Game 6 clincher has he entered in an eighth inning and come through without allowing either an inherited runner or one of his own to score. Montgomery has given the team 9 2/3 innings with a 3.72 ERA, and Wood has helped with both his bat and his arm. But Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm have been shaky, combining to allow six runs in 9 2/3 innings, and Carl Edwards Jr., who's provided 3 2/3 scoreless innings, left Game 5 with left hamstring tightness, though it hasn't been hinted that he'll be left off the World Series roster.

As for speed and base running, the Indians' 134 steals and stellar 81.2% success rate both led the AL, and their 18 base-running runs—including advancement on hits and outs—led the majors, according to Baseball-Reference. Rajai Davis led the league with 43 steals (in just 49 attempts) and ranked second in the AL in base-running runs (seven), and as he showed in ALCS Game 2—when he stole second, took third on a wild pitch and scored the game's deciding run—that value is real. Jose Ramirez (22-for-29 in steals), Francisco Lindor (19-for-24) and Kipnis (15-for-18) all pose threats to run, particularly given that Cubs catchers threw out just 22% of stolen base attempts, the majors' sixth-lowest mark, though both Ross (27%) and Contreras (37%), who have combined to start eight of the team's 10 postseason games, were far more effective than Miguel Montero (11%). Suffice it to say that the Indians may have better luck seizing the opportunity to run on Lester than the Dodgers did.

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As for the Cubs, they were 11th in the NL in steals (66) and 12th in success rate (66%), combining to be a modest two runs above average in all base-running endeavors. Dexter Fowler (13-for-17, +4 runs), Baez (12-for-15, +2) and Jason Heyward (11-for-15, +1) are their big threats to run; Baez has swiped two of the team's three bases in the postseason. The Indians allowed a major league-low 51 steals this year, with their catchers nabbing 39% of stolen base attempts (second); Roberto Perez, who's caught every inning of the postseason for them, caught half of all attempts against him.

All of that may not be enough, but the Indians have been underestimated by many (including this scribe) at every turn this postseason, and yet they’re still here. That said, the Cubs not only have so many strengths and so few weaknesses, they appear to be unburdened by the weight of the history that’s made this march so notable. The prediction here is that they finish the job in six games.