Watch the historic 2016 World Series live on Fox. Game 1 is Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET.
CLEVELAND—The World Series is the last chapter of the Grapes of Wrath epoch for either the Cubs or Indians. The rain jug of fulfillment, gone bone dry for 176 combined seasons for the two franchises, will overflow for one of them. Welcome to the Jose Cardenal World Series.
Cardenal is one of 2,849 players to play in the championship drought years for the Cubs (1909 to 2015) or the Indians (1949 to 2015), but the only one to log at least 300 games for each franchise within those lost eras. Cardenal may be better known for the original excuses he would offer for not playing (i.e., an eyelid stuck open, loud crickets that prevented sleep, etc.). Legendary Chicago columnist Mike Royko liked to refer to the outfielder as “the immortal Jose Cardenal” on account of such ingenuity, calling him “an inspiration to those of us who believe in sleeping late, walking slow and calling in sick at the office.”
This World Series will be a good reason for calling in sick at the office. Your late nights should include riveting if not painstaking baseball, if this postseason of 7.32 pitching changes per game (second most of all time) is an indication.
It’s the Cubs and the Indians. Charlie Brown vs. Adlai Stevenson. Two perennial losers, but somebody has to win. If you want to boil down the series to its essence, it is this: the best team in baseball vs. the best base-running team in baseball. Chicago has the better roster and will win if all things are equal. Cleveland has the more opportunistic team and will win if the game is decided on the margins.
During the NLCS, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had this observation about facing Cubs lefthander Jon Lester: “We have to disrupt him. He’s too good if you try to beat him straight up.” Los Angeles feigned bunts and it feigned steals, but it didn't follow through on such threats with enough frequency, and it lost both games Lester started, Games 1 and 5.
“Yes, I saw what they did,” said Cleveland outfielder and disrupter-in-chief Rajai Davis of the Dodgers' tactics. “They didn’t do it right. You have to be able to have somebody who goes, and once that happens, others follow. I get it. You get so far off the base and it’s uncomfortable. You’re thinking, ‘This is the major leagues. He’s got to throw over.’ But you have to convince yourself to just go.”
While winning seven of eight games so far in the postseason, the Indians have attempted just five stolen bases, three successfully, but they must set the tone in Game 1 with aggressive base running. It’s not only the right thing to do against Lester, whose problem throwing to bases is infamous, but it's also their standard mode of winning games. During the regular season, the Indians ranked first in the majors in scoring from second base on singles (129 times), second in stolen base percentage (81%) and extra bases taken (45%), third in percentage of times scoring after reaching base (34%) and fourth in stolen bases (134).
The Cubs, meanwhile, want starting pitchers Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey and closer Aroldis Chapman to eat up almost three-quarters of the innings in the series, as they did in the NLCS against Los Angeles (74.2%). The good news for Cleveland is that all five of those men are poor at defending the running game, having allowed a success rate on steal attempts of 77%, above the major league average of 72%. For all of Lester’s troubles holding runners, Arrieta—who usually is paired with catcher Miguel Montero, the least effective thrower among Chicago’s three catchers—is even easier to steal against.
“This is the kind of team we have: We are always looking to get 90 feet closer to score,” said Davis, who manufactured what proved to be the winning run of the Indians' 2–1 victory in ALCS Game 2 by stealing second base, moving to third on a wild pitch and scoring on a single. “We’re going to push it at every opportunity, whether that’s stealing bases, going from first or third or being aggressive on balls in the dirt. Whatever it takes, we’re trying to get closer to home.”
Such daring is admirable, but is it enough to win a series? Legendary pitchers like Nolan Ryan (75%), Greg Maddux (76%) and Dwight Gooden (78%) were notoriously poor at defending the running game, but it hardly mattered because they were so good at getting the next hitter out.
Lester fits the same unbreakable mold. When it comes to giving up bases but not runs, he is historically great. He allowed just four hits all year with two outs and runners in scoring position. The .065 batting average he allowed in such spots is the lowest in 30 seasons among starters who faced at least 60 batters in those clutch spots. Moreover, when Chicago allowed two stolen bases or more, it was 20–17, hardly a fatal flaw.
The Cubs have the better starting pitching, the better defense and the deeper lineup, especially if Kyle Schwarber—the 23-year-old slugger who has been out since the first week of April with an ACL injury—is the DH for the games in Cleveland, which is expected.
Schwarber hit 16 home runs in 69 games as a rookie in 2015 and then five more in the postseason, but he missed all but the first four games of the season after tearing up his left knee. Chicago hoped he would be able to resume playing in the second half of winter ball. But when Schwarber visited doctors last week for his standard six-month checkup, the medical professionals were astounded at his progress. They found him to be a month ahead of schedule and cleared him to resume baseball activities.
Suddenly, the club's front office executives began to think he might return for the World Series. They moved him from the 60-day disabled list onto the 40-man active roster so that he could play in the Arizona Fall League just a few days ago. On Monday they watched a live video feed of his AFL at-bats, which included a liner to second base hit at 110 mph, a stinging double (on which Schwarber fairly jogged to second base), a walk and two slides into bases. They then put him on a private jet to Cleveland.
Welcome to new age baseball: medical miracles, live video feeds and private jets.
“Kyle is such a natural hitter,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said, “that I don’t worry about his timing.”
“Kyle is such a well-liked player on this team,” president Theo Epstein said, “that he could give us a jolt just being back and in the lineup.”
It doesn’t seem to be a huge risk, given that the medical professionals have given him full clearance physically. The risk is that his timing is poor against major league pitching, which he hasn’t seen in 201 days. It’s quite the ask: Sit for almost seven months, then try to hit the Indians' Corey Kluber, a former Cy Young Award winner, in Game 1 of the World Series. But that’s how highly Chicago regards Schwarber, who even with rust is a better option than Jorge Soler or Chris Coghlan, the other candidates to DH.
In addition to Cleveland’s base running and Schwarber’s bat, here are nine other issues that could tilt the series:
1. Kluber. The Indians' ace, who finished the regular season ranked in the top five in the American League in virtually every pitching category, could start three times in this series. Cleveland pitching coach Mickey Callaway said that starting Kluber on short rest in Games 4 and, if necessary, Game 7 is an option. Kluber started on short rest in ALCS Game 4, and despite taking his team's only loss of the postseason to date, that experience, Callaway said, convinced Kluber and the coaching staff that he is well-equipped for it.
2. Danny Salazar. He hasn't pitched since Sept. 9, but the Indians' 26-year-old righthander may get a spot start against the Cubs, though after dealing with a forearm strain he can throw only about 70 pitches, or roughly four innings. “After that,” Callaway said, “the next time you see him throw will be spring training.”
3. Curveballs in fastball counts. Cleveland—especially starters Kluber and Josh Tomln and closer Cody Allen—destroyed the fastball-loving Blue Jays by spinning the baseball. And why not? Toronto ranked eighth in the majors is hitting against fastballs but only 26th against curves. “When you see their PITCHf/x numbers against four-seamers and sinkers,” Allen said about the Blue Jays, “and then see what they are against breaking balls, you do the smart thing.”
The same logic applies to pitching to the Cubs. Chicago ranked fourth against fastballs but only 18th against curveballs.
4. Jason Heyward. I told you before the postseason that Heyward, with his obvious swing flaws, presented the Cubs with a Nick Swisher/Reggie Sanders problem: a good hitter who gets exposed in the postseason and presents opponents with a bailout spot in the lineup. Big situations always come his way because teams will not give in to the hitters in front of him. Heyward is hitting .071 (2-for-28) in the postseason and has repeatedly left runners on base. Cubs manager Joe Maddon likes Heyward's defense in rightfield, but the pressure will be on Maddon to see if he will stick with Heyward not just in the starting lineup but also in run-scoring possibilities when his spot comes around. Heyward can make moot his poor season to date with just one big hit in the World Series.
5. Scoring first. Indians über-reliever Andrew Miller has been almost unhittable and has entered games in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth innings this postseason. But here’s the secret about how to neutralize Miller: He has yet to come into a postseason game in which Cleveland is tied or trails.
Keep this in mind as we talk about the power of the post-modern bullpen: Teams that score first this postseason win 70.4% of the time, including 100% of the time in the LCS (10–0). Games are decided early and preserved late.
6. Anthony Rizzo. The Chicago first baseman is likely to see Miller once per game, but every other at-bat he takes is likely to come against a righthanded pitcher. Rizzo posted a .970 OPS against righthanders this year, the seventh best in baseball, and an .832 mark against southpaws.
7. Defense. The Cubs have not allowed an unearned run in 120 consecutive innings since Sept. 29. Edge: Chicago.
8. Weather. This is the latest date on which the Cubs have ever played baseball. Cold and sometimes wet weather are in store. Any conditions other than ideal conditions favor the inferior team. Edge: Cleveland.
9.Home field. It’s not as big an advantage as you see in other sports. Home teams have won 55% of all World Series games. The bigger advantage rests with whoever wins Game 1, regardless of where it is held. Game 1 winners go on to win the World Series 64% of the time (70–40). Edge: Whoever wins Game 1.