The Cleveland Indians will host Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night at Progressive Field, vying for their first World Series title in 68 years. Their opponent, the Chicago Cubs, will battle for their first World Series title in 108 years. That makes this year's Fall Classic a contest between the two teams with the longest combined championship droughts in U.S. sports history.
It also could produce phenomenal one-on-one battles, particularly late in games. Here's a breakdown of how the 2016 World Series might go.
The biggest edge in any department belongs to the Cubs' starting pitching. Jake Arrieta is the defending National League Cy Young winner ... and he's the de facto No. 3 starter at this stage of the season. That's because Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks have emerged as the best 1-2 punch in all of baseball. Lester mowed down Dodgers hitters in his two NLCS starts, allowing a single run in each. Meanwhile, Hendricks might have pulled off the spectacularly rare feat of a complete-game shutout at Wrigley Field in the playoffs, if not for Joe Maddon's understandable caution. Instead, Hendricks delivered 7 1/3 innings of shutout ball, allowing only two hits and facing only one batter more than the minimum.
Put another way, the Cubbies won't have anyone like this guy taking the ball for them.
single greatest moment in Cubs history pic.twitter.com/RebIowUda8— Andrew Barber (@fakeshoredrive) October 23, 2016
After 2016 AL Cy Young contender (and '14 winner) Corey Kluber, the Indians can't match the Cubs' talent. Their best hope lies in their starters' ability to defy a weaker pedigree and keep the recent good times rolling. Josh Tomlin's first 25 starts this season -- much like the rest of his career -- were a homer-filled roller-coaster ride, with the soft-tossing right-hander allowing a league-leading 35 homers while posting a 4.89 ERA, offsetting his AL-low walk rate. An adjustment made in tandem with sharp pitching coach Mickey Callaway enabled him to hold batters to a .216 batting average, zero walks and a 1.69 ERA in his final 26 2/3 regular-season innings, with only two more combined runs allowed in two playoff starts against the potent Red Sox and Blue Jays. Rookie Ryan Merritt's series-clinching performance in Game 5 of the ALCS was even more unlikely, with 4 1/3 masterful innings against Toronto belying his modest track record, which included getting drafted 488th overall five years ago and only 11 major-league innings under his belt before Wednesday's impressive start. The Indians need repeats by Tomlin and Merritt, quality innings from bloody-fingered righty Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar and his sky-high walk rate to flourish in his first time on the mound in seven weeks (now that he's on the Series roster) ... these are the unlikely scenarios the Indians need to swing their way to hang with the Cubs' rotation.
Of course you could have said the same about the ALCS, which the Indians won convincingly despite a sizable on-paper rotation disadvantage. Cleveland's best hope to shock the world again will be for its starting four to at least keep pace with the Cubs' starters, allowing the Indians to make their mark in other ways.
|CF Dexter Fowler||.276/.394/.447||129|
|3B Kris Bryant||.292/.385/.554||149|
|1B Anthony Rizzo||.292/.385/.544||145|
|LF Ben Zobrist||.272/.386/.446||124|
|2B Javier Baez||.273/.314/.423||94|
|RF Jason Heyward||.230/.306/.325||72|
|C Wilson Contreras||.282/.357/.488||126|
|SS Addison Russell||.238/.321/.417||95|
|DH Carlos Santana||.259/.366/.498||132|
|2B Jason Kipnis||.275/.343/.469||117|
|SS Francisco Lindor||.301/.358/.435||112|
|1B Mike Napoli||.239/.335/.465||113|
|3B Jose Ramirez||.312/.363/.462||122|
|RF Lonnie Chisenhall||.286/.328/.439||103|
|LF Coco Crisp||.231/.302/.397||90|
|CF Tyler Naquin||.296/.372/.514||135|
|C Roberto Perez||.183/.285/.294||58|
The Cubs are perceived as an offensive powerhouse, and for good reason: Led by twin MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, the North Siders produced the NL's best offense and third-best in all of baseball. Strip out pitcher batting and the Cubs finished in a virtual dead heat with the Red Sox for the majors' top offense. Thing is, the Indians weren't far behind, riding a balanced attack to produce the sixth-best hitting line in MLB (albeit 12th if we eliminate pitchers' at-bats).
Day-to-day lineup decisions could close that already small gap. If we focus on results against right-handed pitchers only, the two clubs come in at a virtual tie. With the Indians' top three confirmed starters all right-handed (lefty Ryan Merritt could start Game 4, but that hasn't been confirmed), the Cubs' best-in-baseball performance against left-handers gets negated, at least in the early innings.
The Cubs could seek to improve their lineup vs. righties by turning to young slugger Kyle Schwarber. The 23-year-old outfielder appeared to be out for the year after tearing his ACL in his second game of the season. But after a successful stint in the Arizona Fall League, Schwarber will join the Cubs in Cleveland, with the possibility of being activated in time for the first time Tuesday night. His potent bat (and weak defense) could make him a strong DH candidate for the first two games in the AL park. Then again, Schwarber's six months on the shelf, combined with other viable options, could make that decision a risky one.
On the other side, the Indians will look to revive an offense that struggled mightily in the ALCS, only to get bailed out by sparkling run prevention. Cleveland scored only 12 runs in five games against the Blue Jays, averaging five hits a game. Jason Kipnis went 1 for 19, Jose Ramirez 1 for 17; Carlos Santana, Tyler Naquin and Roberto Perez batted .167, .167 and .143.
The Indians hope those are small-sample anomalies, prime for some position regression against the Cubs. If they can get back to putting runners on, they could present big problems for Chicago on the basepaths. Cleveland led the AL with 134 stolen bases, and Lester and Arrieta both ranked in the top five for most stolen bases allowed by starting pitchers. The Game 1 (and Game 5, if necessary) battles against Lester could be fascinating. As Fangraphs writer Jeff Sullivan wrote during the NLCS, runners take huge leads on Lester, but often seem to have a weird mental block about actually taking off for second base.
Moreover, the Indians' edge on the basepaths may not be as big you think: Though the Cubs stole a modest 66 bases, their smart and precise actions on the basepaths made them the fifth-best baserunning team in the majors this year; Cleveland ranked third. OK, go ahead and deduct a bit for any time Schwarber gets on base.
Schwarber reaches via defensive misplay. Tried for 2B and slid, running gingerly. Opted to not try for third after 2nd overthrow. pic.twitter.com/45raEYYced— Eric Longenhagen (@longenhagen) October 24, 2016
Yankees teammates only three months ago, Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller are now linchpins in opposite bullpens. Chapman gave the Cubs the power arm they needed at the back of the bullpen when Hector Rondon slipped and Pedro Strop got hurt, as well as the impact left-hander they lacked in late innings. Still, Chapman has been the clear runner-up in terms of the two southpaws' respective value, struggling at times to find the strike zone, and getting hit hard at times in the NLDS and NLCS.
Miller has had no such problems. In 11 2/3 playoff innings this fall, he has allowed no runs and only seven baserunners, while striking out 21 of 41 batters. Where a typical power lefty might give opposing hitters a chance if they can somehow lay off the hard slider in the dirt, Miller pounds the strike zone with that pitch, yet does so in a way where, even when everyone in the ballpark knows it's coming and it screeches into the zone, no one can square it up. Terry Francona's hyper-aggressive use of Miller, in which the Indians skipper will use him in any close game, and typically ask for something like five to nine outs when he does, makes the lanky lefty an even more formidable opponent.
Both bullpens boast impressive depth beyond the relief aces.
Cody Allen has been unhittable this month in his role as something close to a traditional closer. He's supported by righty-crusher Bryan Shaw (right-handed hitters batted only .214 against him, thanks largely to his own wipeout slider), Dan Otero (maybe the most underrated reliever in the AL; right-handed hitters posted a .529 OPS against him, while lefties managed an even weaker .522) and an able cast of long relievers.
Maddon might not be quite as daring with his bullpen usage as Francona, but that's largely because he doesn't need to: With Rondon, Strop and youngster Carl Edwards Jr. as top right-handed setup options, Mike Montgomery emerging as a first-guy-out-of-the-pen option who could keep a game close should one of the vaunted starters falter, and veterans Justin Grimm and Travis Wood having been through the playoff ringer before, there aren't any bad options.
Going by Baseball Info Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved, the Cubs were by far the best defensive team in baseball. And while advanced defensive metrics don't go back in time all that far, near as we can tell this might be one of the best defensive teams in decades. Per BIS, the Cubs saved 107 more runs than the average team. If we use the sabermetric formula of 10 runs equaling one win, that means that on defense alone, the Cubs added nearly 11 wins to their ledger.
We might see that defense weakened a bit during this Series, though. Three-time Gold Glove winner Jason Heyward was an offensive liability all season, ranking as the worst everyday right fielder in the majors with the bat ... by a mile. With a brutal 2-for-28 mark this postseason, calls have intensified for the Cubs to bench Heyward against certain pitchers, and Maddon has responded, spotting Jorge Soler and Albert Almora in right in specific spots. The Cubs' defense would remain strong even without Heyward, with athletic players at every position and the supernaturally gifted Javier Baez anchoring the infield from second base.
How the Cubs handle right field could be an interesting subplot nonetheless, though, especially given how great a job Francisco Lindor and company did in turning around a defense that went from worst in the league early last season to fourth-best in the AL (plus-37 runs by DRS) this year.
World Series Pick: in 6
Twice this postseason, the Indians appeared overmatched. First, Boston's best-in-baseball offense figured to beat up on Cleveland's injury-riddled rotation. Then, the Blue Jays figured to parlay their deep starting pitching and collection of power bats into a World Series berth, only to get knocked out by the Indians' combination of surprise starting pitching, solid defense, timely hitting and unhittable bullpen.
And yet, I'm picking against them one more time. The Cubs' three aces, two MVP candidates, airtight defense, deep bench and a bullpen that's almost as good as Cleveland's just looks like too much to handle. That said, if the Indians can get Miller into games with the score even close, the possibility of holding the fort for two or three innings while a comeback percolates can't be ruled out. I'm calling the end of 108 years of futility, but expect this to be a great, highly competitive series anyway.