October 2, 2007
Cubs versus Diamondbacks
Who would have thunk that we'd see the Diamondbacks playing the Cubs in a postseason series? Well, you'd might have thunk it if you'd done been reading PECOTA, which predicted both of these mild surprises. That not withstanding, this is not the even matchup that you might expect from two teams that took until the last weekend of the season to confirm their date at the prom. One of these clubs, if fact, has no excuse for losing.
CF-R Chris B. Young (.237/.295/.467/.259/15.5)
LF-R Alfonso Soriano (.299/.337/.560/.292/42.1)
What a strange, strange mix of talent we've got on the 2007 Chicago Cubs. The lineup has its high-paid superstars, its cagey veterans, two rookies who nobody thought would play much of a role with the club this year, and a decided Eurotrash feel with names like Alfonso, Geovany, Jacque, Aramis, and Theriot; that could be the VIP list at a Prague disco. A few of these options are flexible. Lou Piniella has dropped strong hints that Soto will be his primary catcher in the playoffs, and Soto made most of the starts in meaningful games in September, but Jason Kendall might spot him at least once or twice. Matt Murton should replace Cliff Floyd against lefties in what's turned out to be a fairly straightforward platoon-and Ramirez gets promoted to the cleanup spot when this happens-while Mike Fontenot is a threat to play any given day at any of several positions.
But strange does not equal bad. Almost like an NBA coach, Piniella needed some time to settle on his rotation, and once he did the results were fairly constructive-the Cubs' offense got better as the season wore on, and they had their best month in September, scoring 4.96 runs per game. What's also remarkable about this group-and this goes for most of the Cubs' pitchers as well-is that pretty much everyone but Soto came very close to his PECOTA projection. The regular season, particularly in the second half of the year, provided a very honest representation of what the Cubs are going to get in October.
The critique, of course, is that the Cubs have their hitters in the wrong order; Theriot's OBP started high and then drifted down to .326 by the end the season. Still, some of that can be mitigated by playing matchups and platoons, and at the end of the day the Cubs scored 114 runs in the first inning this year, a figure that ranks right in the middle of the pack amongst playoff entrants.
The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, have one of the worst lineups ever for a team that reached the playoffs, a group that resembles the 1988 Dodgers sans Kirk Gibson. What sort of odds could you have gotten at the start of the year that both Justin Upton and Augie Ojeda would be playing key roles in October? As with the Cubs, the D'backs have a few choices to make-Tony Clark instead of Conor Jackson at first, perhaps Miguel Montero at catcher, and maybe Jeff Salazar in right, which has become more attractive as Upton has slumped. Unlike the Cubs, however, the Diamondbacks do not seem to be picking up any particular synergies when they go with these alternates; it is more a case of beggars being choosers, but still having to go begging. Also unlike the Cubs, there are a significant number of players in the D'backs lineup who underperformed their PECOTA projections, most notably Stephen Drew; this lineup would look much less dysfunctional if you replaced his actual .238/.313/.370 with his projected .287/.349/.504. The Snakes did play a little bit better in the second-half, including a wholly decent .272/.354/.457 in September play, which is what you'd expect from a group that includes so many youngsters, but any extra credit that they'd get for that is undermined by the absence of Orlando Hudson. Overall, the Cubs are probably two-thirds or three-quarters of a run better per game on neutral ground, which is a really substantial advantage.
1B-S Tony Clark (.249/.310/.511/.271/7.3)
OF-R Matt Murton (.281/.352/.438/.271/7.3)
If the Cubs go with exactly this group-and there's a chance that Ward isn't healthy enough to make it or that Pie gets bumped-it might be the best October bench I've seen since I started doing these previews. Everyone has their uses-well, okay, maybe not Jason Kendall, but the Cubs have a whole store of ready defensive replacements and pinch-runners. They also have a couple of different types of pinch-hitters, not just lefties and righties, but also guys who can punch the ball into play, or take a walk, or aim for the fences, all of which have somewhat different uses in the situations that come up in close games. The bench is a real asset for the Cubs, and could go a long way toward counteracting the Diamondbacks' solid bullpen, particularly since the D'backs' strategy is pretty much going to have to involve hoping for a lot of 3-2 ballgames.
As for the Diamondbacks, this is about what you'd expect on the bench of a team that finished 14th in their league in run scoring. There's nobody that's good enough to start for a playoff-caliber club, nor, with the possible exception of Clark, for a second-division club. Emilio Bonifacio might join or displace Callaspo on the roster, but the infield backups are a reminder of what sort of scenarios have to transpire for Augie Ojeda to be your everyday second baseman. This is not meant as a slight against Bob Melvin or Josh Byrnes; a lot of things have gone wrong for the Diamondbacks' offense this year, like the injuries to Hudson and Chad Tracy, and the disappointing performance of someone like Carlos Quentin. It's just that when this many things go wrong, a team usually does not make the playoffs. It's hard to jam on these Diamondbacks, yo.
Jason Marquis did a huge favor to the Cubs by stinking up the joint in a relief appearance on Sunday. As a result, Piniella is now leaning toward bumping Marquis and going with a three-man rotation, which really only boils down to starting Zambrano on short rest in Game Four since the Game Five starter (Lilly, probably) will have his full four days' rest. This decision makes all the sense in the world. The Cubs' rotation drop-off comes right between their third and fourth slots, and Zambrano is a durable and resilient pitcher who should take to the short rest just fine. Lest you worry that Piniella will flip-flop on his decision, consider how the scenario plays out. If the Cubs are playing a Game Four, that means one of two things: either they're down 2-1 in the series and face an elimination game-and Jason Marquis is not going to start an elimination game-or they're ahead 2-1 and have the chance to wrap the series up at home, or else travel to Arizona for a Brandon Webb start. From the perspective of conventional wisdom, that's pretty darn close to a must-win ballgame, and conventional wisdom happens to coincide with unconventional wisdom in this case.
The other dynamic from the Cubs' side is that Zambrano, Ted Lilly, and Rich Hill are strong secret sauce pitchers, which is a shorthand for saying that they're power arms, if not in repertoire in Lilly's case, then at least in approach. The secret sauce likes power pitchers because power pitchers hold up better against power bats, of which you're usually facing a lot of in the playoffs; in the Diamondbacks' case, that does not happen to be true. The Cubs have three pretty good starting pitchers, so the key in this series might not be so much beating the Diamondbacks as not beating themselves with walks.
The Diamondbacks really might want to consider going all Old Hoss Radbourn and going with a one-man rotation. Brandon Webb ought to be his customary top-notch self-I'm going to enjoy watching Ryan Theriot trying to bunt his way on before realizing that half the pitches are landing at his feet and meekly grounding to second. But after Webb, Arizona's a really heavy underdog when anyone else takes the hill. A particular problem is Livan Hernandez, who unless he was saving himself for October, finished with some awfully Trachselesque ratios; let's remember that this is a pitcher that wasn't good enough for the Nationals to keep. The implied tactical error is pitching Hernandez at all; instead the D'backs should be going with a three-man rotation of Webb, Davis, and Owings.
RHP Jose Valverde (64.1, 2.66, 4.3, 3.31)
RHP Ryan Dempster (66.2, 4.73, 2.7, 4.26)
Much has been made about the performance of the Diamondbacks' bullpen, and rightly so; it's one of the big reasons that they went 90-72 in spite of allowing more runs than they scored. That article I linked to is worth a read, by the way. We've truly entered a new age when a guy from the Washington Post can ask entirely serious questions to the Diamondbacks about the Pythagorean Theorem and get entirely serious responses; Conor Jackson almost seemed apologetic about it.
The problem is that I'm not sure if the Diamondbacks have a great bullpen so much as a good bullpen that had a great year. Take a look at those QERAs-you've got two excellent power arms in Jose Valverde and Juan Cruz, and you've got enough depth to give teams some different looks. You've also got Melvin deploying all the assets correctly. But what this bullpen really reminds me of is the 2005 White Sox, with Valverde playing the role of Bobby Jenks. The White Sox pen held up just fine in the postseason, so this might be taken a as a good omen. But that unit also revealed its true colors over the next couple of seasons: a good closer supporting a basically league-average staff. Arizona's is a pretty good bullpen, but it's not a good enough bullpen to carry a team.
The Cubs, meanwhile, make for a natural analogy to the 2006 Tigers-Ryan Dempster:Todd Jones::Carlos Marmol:Joel Zumaya. What's funny is that there hasn't been nearly as much of a closer controversy in Chicago this year (one exception was Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who lobbied for Marmol in a recent appearance on Comcast SportsNet). If anything, the problem might be worse in this instance. Whereas Zumaya accumulated a closer-worthy leverage index, Marmol is ranked well behind not just Dempster but also Bob Howry and Will Ohman in the Cubs' pecking order; 19 of his 59 appearances came with a score differential of four or more runs. Although Piniella has come to trust Marmol over the course of the season, this decision is hard to defend, and it's incongruous with Piniella's practices on the offensive side, where he's demoted incumbents in favor of Soto and Theriot. Still, this is a decent enough bullpen, and it would be easy to overstate their deficit from the Diamondbacks.
The Cubs ranked third in baseball in both FRAA (+32) and Defensive Efficiency (.712). What's surprising is where most of this came from. The highest-rated defenders on the Cubs this year were Alfonso Soriano (+16 overall, +15 in left field) and Aramis Ramirez (+19). In the case of Soriano, this isn't entirely unexpected-he also rated well there last year, is much speedier than most other corners, and has just enough arm that baserunners challenge him more than they should. Ramirez, on the other hand, looks like more of a fluke, although I know one season ticket-holder who believes the improvement is legitimate. The Cubs also get good defense out of Derrek Lee and surprisingly so from Jacque Jones, who quietly demystified the notion that there is all that much difference between the skill set of a center fielder and a corner guy. On the other hand, Kendall allowed 52 of 57 runners to steal successfully against him since joining the Cubs, so he's a real problem, but if Piniella goes with Soto, it is another problem solved.
The Diamondbacks' defense took a huge blow with the loss of Orlando Hudson, particularly given the groundball proclivities of their pitching staff. They still have Eric Byrnes, who plays like Jim Edmonds Lite in left, and the strong-armed Chris Snyder behind the plate, but their shortstop defense is a little clunky, and some of the youngsters at the corners are a little green. All in all, it's another area where the D'backs can't really lay a claim to being better than league-average.
Piniella tends to be fairly apolitical, going basically with the lineup that he thinks gives him the best shot to win everyday, which is more of an asset than it seems like at first glance. He's already moving in the direction of getting the two most important decisions right-going with Soto instead of Kendall, and a three-man rotation instead of four. So, c'mon, Lou, let's go for the trifecta and make Carlos Marmol our closer! We'll make the governor happy!
Bob Melvin has developed some reputation for getting the close decisions right, which is what's going to happen when your team goes 32-20 in one-run games. But he doesn't overmanage; his Diamondbacks stole bases at a very high success rate, which speaks well to his discretion, and while he sacrifices fairly often, that's perhaps a necessary evil for a team that needs to scratch and claw for runs. His bullpen management, of course, deserves some praise, so here's some more.
The simplest way I can conceive of this is that the Cubs are the equivalent of a true 92-win team when any of Zambrano, Hill, or Lilly are starting (which should be always in this series). That might seem high, but remember, we're purging some of those marginal Jason Marquis outings, and we're getting some of the best lineups that Piniella has put together all season. The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, are probably more like a 90-win team when Brandon Webb is starting, and a 70-win team when he is not. I hope that doesn't seem harsh; maybe I'm giving Conor Jackson some bulletin-board material. But when your best hitter is Eric Byrnes, and your starting pitcher is Livan Hernandez-I don't care if you've got Satchel Paige in your bullpen, you're battling uphill.
Adjusting those numbers for home-field advantage and plugging them into the log5 formula, we come up with the following basic estimates of win probability:
Game 1 Cubs (Zambrano) 47% at Diamondbacks (Webb) 53% Game 2 Cubs (Lilly) 59% at Diamondbacks (Davis) 41% Game 3 Diamondbacks (Hernandez) 33% at Cubs (Hill) 67% Game 4 Diamondbacks (Owings) 33% at Cubs (Zambrano) 67% Game 5 Cubs (Lilly) 47% at Diamondbacks (Webb) 53%
These numbers, in turn, produce the following outcomes for the series:
Diamondbacks Win in 3 7.0% Cubs Win in 3 18.8% Diamondbacks Win in 4 10.2% Cubs Win in 4 28.9% Diamondbacks Win in 5 18.5% Cubs Win in 5 16.5% Diamondbacks Total 35.7% Cubs Total 64.3%
That strikes me as about right. The Cubs have the much better offense, and frankly if Jason Marquis is excised, their edge in the rotation might be nearly as large. Even the D'backs' home-field advantage is questionable, since the Cubs have a lot of roots in the Phoenix area, and might get as much of a third of a crowd to support them, as well as the royal treatment at the local strip joints. The other thing to notice is that most of the times the Cubs win this series, they're going to do so in three or four games, since Game Five involves going up against Brandon Webb in 'Zona, the only permutation where the Cubs aren't favored. Although the best wager would be Cubs in four, I am going to go out on a little bit of a limb and predict a Cubs sweep.