Schedule:

Game 1 – Friday, 10/9 6:30 PM EDT at St. Louis

Game 2 – Saturday, 10/10 5:30 PM EDT at St. Louis

Game 3 – Monday, 10/12 at Chicago

Game 4 – Tuesday, 10/13 at Chicago (if necessary)

Game 5 – Thursday, 10/15 at St. Louis (if necessary)

 

St. Louis Cardinals: 100-62 (best record in the National League and, for that matter, all of baseball). 56-33 (first) before the All-Star break, 44-29 (third) since.

  • Run differential: +122 (first), won-lost four games better than Pythagorean projection. (Technical note: Throughout this, I’m using the Pythagenpat projection, substituting an exponent of 1.83 for 2.) Before the All-Star break: +91 (first), won-lost equal to Pythagorean. Since the All-Star break: +31 (sixth), won-lost four games better than Pythagorean.
  • Splits: 55-26 at home (tied for first), 45-36 on the road (tied for second), 75-42 vs. righties (first), 25-18 vs. lefties (third), 54-31 vs. teams with losing record (fourth), 46-31 vs. teams .500 or better (first)
  • Scoring: 3.99 runs scored per game (eleventh in the league), 3.24 runs allowed per game (fewest in the league). Before the All-Star break: 3.99 runs scored per game (eighth), 2,97 runs allowed per game (first). Since the All-Star break: 4.00 runs scored per game (thirteenth), 3.58 runs allowed per game (first).
  • Offense:  Batters’ slash line: .253 (sixth)/.321 (sixth)/.394 (ninth), 96 wRC+ (sixth) . Before the All-Star break: .257 (fourth)/.323 (fourth)/.389 (eighth), 95 wRC+ (fourth). Since the All-Star break: .248 (thirteenth)/.319 (eighth)/.401 (tenth), 98 wRC+ (ninth).
  • Pitching: 2.94 ERA (first), 3.48 FIP (fifth), 3.71 xFIP (seventh), 4.24 DRA (sixth). Before the All-Star break: 2.71 ERA (first), 3.33 FIP (fourth), 3.68 xFIP (fifth). Since the All-Star break: 3.22 ERA (first), 3.67 FIP (sixth), 3.76 xFIP (seventh).
  • Defense: .688 DER (eighth), 14 DRS (fourth), 12.1 UZR (fifth).

Chicago Cubs: 97-65 (third best record in the National League and, for that matter, all of baseball). 47-40 (fifth) before the All-Star break, 50-25 (first) since.

  • Run differential: +81 (third), won-lost seven games better than Pythagorean projection. Before the All-Star break: +16 (sixth), won-lost two games better than Pythagorean. Since the All-Star break: +65 (second), won-lost six games better than Pythagorean.
  • Splits: 49-32 at home (tied for fourth), 48-33 on the road (first), 77-51 vs. righties (third), 20-14 vs. lefties (second), 53-33 vs. teams with losing record (fifth), 44-32 vs. teams .500 or better (third).
  • Scoring: 4.25 runs scored per game (sixth), 3.75 runs allowed per game (fourth). Before the All-Star break: 3.85 runs scored per game (eleventh), 3.67 runs allowed per game (fifth). Since the All-Star break: 4.72 runs scored per game (second), 3.85 runs allowed per game (third).
  • Offense:  Batters’ slash line: .244 (fourteenth)/.321 (fifth)/.398 (seventh), 96 wRC+ (eighth) . Before the All-Star break: .239 (thirteenth)/.315 (ninth)/.374 (eleventh), 88 wRC+ (eighth). Since the All-Star break: .250 (ninth)/.328 (second)/.426 (fourth), 105 wRC+ (fourth).
  • Pitching: 3.36 ERA (third), 3.30 FIP (first), 3.37 xFIP (second), 3.93 DRA (second). Before the All-Star break: 3.31 ERA (fifth), 3.34 FIP (fifth), 3.48 xFIP (second). Since the All-Star break: 3.39 ERA (second), 3.23 FIP (first), 3.23 xFIP (first).
  • Defense: .695 DER (third), 10 DRS (fifth), 23.4 UZR (third).

There were two stories surrounding the 2015 Cardinals. The first is pitching. Since the Year of the Pitcher in 1968, the Cardinals’ 2.94 ERA is the fourth lowest in the majors in a non-strike-shortened year, and their 77 ERA- is the fourth best since World War II. The team’s less gaudy FIP, xFIP, and DRA figures indicate that the Cardinals have benefited from some good fortune (as Ben Lindbergh has noted), but the game results have been outstanding.

The secondary story is the team’s resiliency. They’ve compiled the best record in the game while getting just 28 innings from Adam Wainwright, 277 plate appearances from Matt Holliday, and 186 plate appearances from Matt Adams. They enter the postseason with their strikeout leader, Carlos Martinez (14-7, 3.01 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 4.33 DRA) disabled and their perennial All-Star catcher, Yadier Molina, questionable. Wainwright, Holliday and Adams are back, but Wainwright (three innings pitched since April) is available only out of the bullpen. Holliday’s hit .182/.217/.318 since his return and Adams, who isn’t on the NLDS roster, .226/.273/.387 since his, raising concerns about whether they’ve got their timing back on the plate. For that matter, Randal Grichuk, who put up Rookie of the Year-contending numbers after replacing Holliday, is hitting just .206/.289/.441 since his return from injury. Yet the Cardinals have kept on winning all year.

The reason is that, cluster luck and injuries aside, this is a very good club. They have two of the game’s best position players, right fielder Jason Heyward (5.6 WARP, 6.5 bWAR, 6.0 fWAR) and third baseman Matt Carpenter (4.9 WARP, 4.0 bWAR, 5.2 fWAR). They got strong contributions from their durable middle infielders, second baseman Kolten Wong (3.1 WARP, 2.2 bWAR, 2.3 fWAR) and shortstop Jhonny Peralta (4.1 WARP, 1,8 bWAR, 1.7 fWAR). They filled outfield gaps with surprisingly good rookies Grichuk (.276/.329/.548 in 350 plate appearances), Stephen Piscotty (.305/.359/.494 in 256 plate appearances, coming back from a scary collision in the outfield in Pittsburgh last week), and Tommy Pham (.268/.347/.477 in 173 plate appearances).

The Cubs’ story has been wrapped up in rookies and 107-year droughts and Joe Maddon and Jake Arrieta. As the figures above indicate, though, this is a good (if somewhat lucky–no team in baseball exceeded its Pythagorean expectation by more than the Cubs) team. The reason I present first- and second-half figures above is to discern a change, and you can see one for the Cubs; they got better at everything after the All-Star break. The Cardinals were a strong pitching team throughout the year whose offense slumped in the second half of the year as player after player went down with injuries. The Cubs became a better hitting team and a better pitching team as the year progressed. Installing rookie Addison Russell at shortstop solidified the defense, rookie catcher/left fielder/walking tree trunk Kyle Schwarber came up for good in July and posted an .842 OPS, first baseman Anthony Rizzo had a second straight All-Star season, and third baseman Kris Bryant is going to win the Rookie of the Year in a landslide despite one of the most competitive rookie fields of all time. The Cubs strike out far more frequently than any other National League club, but they make up for that by having the second-highest walk rate. Even if all the Cardinals hitters who were hurt return to form, the Cubs look like the better offensive team

The Cardinals pitching staff, even with the absence of Wainwright and the loss of Martinez, is formidable. They’ll start John Lackey Friday against the Cubs, following by Jaime Garcia on Saturday, Michael Wacha on Monday, and Lance Lynn (if needed) on Tuesday. Wacha’s had a worrisome second half of the year, with a 4.01 ERA, 4.93 FIP, and 4.28 xFIP, all well above his first half comparables of 2.93, 3.13, and 3.61, respectively. But Lackey’s put up better numbers in the second half of the year than the first, Garcia’s been consistently good since joining the club in an injury-shortened (20 starts) season, and Lynn maintained, for the second year in a row, an ERA (3.03) well below his FIP (3.44) and xFIP (3.90). The Cardinals enter the Divisional Series with arguably the best four-man rotation in the postseason given that the Pirates’ foursome of Cole, Liriano, Happ, and Burnett will be watching the games on TV. The Cubs, who used Cy Young candidate Arrieta in Wednesday’s wild card game, will start Jon Lester Friday and and Kyle Hendricks (whose 3.87 DRA is lower than any Cardinals starter other than Garcia) on Saturday. Scary monster Arrieta gets the start Monday.

In the bullpen, the Cardinals have the edge, with a relief ERA over a half a run better than the Cubs’ (though, this being the Cardinals, they had a higher FIP, xFIP, and DRA). But they’re not worry-free. Their closer, Trevor Rosenthal (48 saves) had a 1.49 ERA through games of September 24 before two losses to the lowly Brewers, in which he allowed five runs and two homers in a total of one inning, ballooning it to 2.13; his last appearance lowered it to 2.10 for the season. He and setup man Kevin Siegrist (28 holds, six saves) were fourth and second, respectively, in the National League in relief pitches thrown this season. They had a combined 1.52 ERA before the All-Star break that nearly doubled, to 2.98, after the break. Granted, a 2.98 relief ERA is pretty good considering that National League relievers had a 3.94 ERA in the second half of the year, but it’s not the shutdown performance the team enjoyed in the first half of the year. Beyond those two, the Cardinals have a deep bullpen, and of ten pitchers who relieved in 15 or more games for the club this year, only designated ground ball producer Seth Maness and two guys who aren’t on the NLDS roster, Mitch Harris and LOOGY Randy Choate, had ERAs over 3.00. The Cubs’ bullpen, led by closer Hector Rondon (1.67 ERA, 30 saves), setup man Pedro Strop (2.91 ERA, 81 strikeouts in 68 innings), and converted starter Travis Wood (5.06 ERA in nine starts, 2.95 ERA in 45 relief appearances), is solid, but not as good as the Cardinals’ when the Redbirds are on.

Molina’s injury will loom over the series. Supposedly, his thumb’s feeling better, and he can catch and hit. We’ll see. Truth is, he was having a bad year–pretty clearly the worst offensive player in the Cardinals lineup–but he’s given outsized credit for the pitching staff’s successes, and he can still shut down the running game (and the Cubs were sixth in stolen bases, with 95). If he can’t play, expect a lot of shots of him sitting in the dugout as the national TV announcers rhapsodize about his leadership, presence and intangibles. Actually, we’ll likely get that if he can play, too. (There’s probably a good drinking game waiting to be proposed here.)

Sizing Up the Divisional Series: There are three great baseball rivalries that have stood the test of time: Red Sox-Yankees, Dodgers-Giants, and Cardinals-Cubs. (To the fans of those six teams: I presented each team within the rivalry alphabetically. Don’t jump on me.) What makes a rivalry great, of course, is not the players–I really doubt that Anthony Rizzo bears any particular animus toward Matt Carpenter, e.g.–but the fans. I have friends who are Cardinals fans, and friends who are Cubs fans, and they really do detest the other team, even when it’s not competitive. For the rest of us, it’s interesting to see this sort of thing play out.

The Cardinals won the season series, 11-8. Despite the injury to Martinez, the Redbirds have four established starting pitchers, arguably two more than the Cubs, and you need four in a best-of-five series unless somebody goes on short rest. And the unstoppable Jake Arrieta will be able to pitch only one game for the Cubs. Still, there are a lot of questions about the Cardinals: the health of Molina, Holliday, Grichuk, and Piscotti; what’s going on with Wacha; whether Rosenthal and Siegrist have been worn down. Cubs manager Maddon is viewed as a superior tactician to the Cardinals’ Mike Matheny as well. Sentiment will be in favor of the Cubs, who haven’t been to the Series since 1945 (or, as Steve Goodman sang, the year we dropped the bomb on Japan) or won it since 1907. I’m there as well. Cubs in four.

 

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