The Cubs knocked Pirates ace Gerrit Cole out of the Wild Card game after just five innings, while their own dominating ace did what he’s done for months: Dominated. They now head to St. Louis for their first ever playoff clash with their arch-rivals.
The Cardinals have been banged up for most of the season, yet still managed to win 100 games and deliver baseball’s best record. After dominating the young Cubs early in the season, the perennial division winners fell to the North Siders in a pair of September series.
These two teams have the two best records remaining in the playoffs, the longest rivalry of the group, and outside of the Los Angeles Dodgers are the most storied franchises still playing. Oh, and did I mention it’s the first ever playoff matchup between these two? (I did actually, right there at the top.) To say there may be some build up for this series is an understatement.
CF-S Dexter Fowler (.250/.346/.411/.281)
LF-L Kyle Schwarber (.246/.355/.487/.307)
RF-L Chris Coghlan (.250/.341/.443/.279)
1B-L Anthony Rizzo (.278/.387/.512/.328)
3B-R Kris Bryant (.275/.369/.488/.317)
2B-R Starlin Castro (.265/.296.375/.243)
C-L Miguel Montero (.248/.345/.409/.279)
SS-R Addison Russell (.242/.307/.389/.252)
3B-L Matt Carpenter (.272/.365/.505/.317)
CF-R Tommy Pham (.268/.347/.477/.298)
RF-L Jason Heyward (.293/.359/.439/.294)
LF-R Matt Holliday (.279/.394/.410/.299)
SS-R Jhonny Peralta (.275/.334.411/.273)
1B-L Brandon Moss (.250/.344/.409/.271)
C-R Yadier Molina (.270/.310/.350/.239)
2B-R Kolten Wong (.262/.321/.386/.259)
Our predictions for these lineups are sketchy, at best, right now. Trying to figure out how Maddon will fill out his order one through nine has been an impossible task all season, and it’ll only get less clear during the playoffs. (See, for instance, the decision to bench Coghlan in the Wild Card game.) The Cardinals have dealt with injuries throughout the season and have been forced to pull from their depth. However, the players have been up to the task and it’s created a conundrum for manager Mike Matheny as he has to wrestle with both lineup and roster decisions.
The bottom line is both these teams are deep, but the Cubs in particular have gone from a middling offense to a powerhouse. After averaging 3.9 runs a game in the first half, the Cubs bats caught fire and delivered 4.7 runs per in the season’s final 75 games. Put another way, they scored 19 more runs in 12 fewer games in the second half. So if you watched this Cubs team in the season’s first few months and don’t understand the hype, just know that things are very different. Fowler bounced back from a rough first half with an .852 OPS in the final two and a half months of the season. Bryant had an awful July, then slashed .323/.400/.567 in August and September. Schwarber arrived and immediately had an impact, Castro in September found his stride—actually, found a much better player’s stride—after a disastrous first five months, and the team’s depth was thickened through call-ups, better health, and some small trades. This is an offense to be reckoned with, and the Cardinals are well aware of that—the Cubs put up 53 runs against them in their final nine matchups.
Despite being shutout in their final three games, the St. Louis offense has been rather consistent this season—and that’s to say they’ve been perfectly average. Their 4.0 runs per game ranked them 11th in the NL and their .716 OPS had them eighth. The health and effectiveness of Holliday and Molina could be key, but they really need the reliable cogs Carpenter and Heyward to deliver. Pham seemingly emerged out of nowhere—a regular occurrence in St. Louis—and if Matheny rightly gives him the nod over Jon Jay, it’ll be well earned. Pham ended the season posting a .943 OPS with four home runs, four triples, and three doubles in his final 110 plate appearances.
INF-L Tommy La Stella (.269/.324/.403/.269)
INF-R Javier Baez (.289/.325/.408/.268)
OF-R Jorge Soler (.262/.324/.399/.263)
OF-R Austin Jackson (.236/.304/.375/.247)
OF-R Chris Denorfia (.269/.324/.399/.269)
C-R David Ross (.176/.267/.252/.203)
INF-L Greg Garcia (.240/.337/.387/.278)
INF-R Matt Reynolds (.230/.315/.398/.253)
OF-R Jon Jay (.210/.306/.257/.214)
OF-R Randal Grichuk (.276/.329/.548/.316)
OF-R Stephen Piscotty (.305/.359/.494/.314)
C-R Tony Cruz (.204/.235/.310/.179)
Ross will start Game One with Jon Lester on the mound, but the rest of the time he’ll be backing up Montero. He’s in there for his glove and leadership, so don’t expect much from him outside of the intangibles that often go overlooked. Prior to the Wild Card game Joe Maddon referred to La Stella as the team’s most underrated bat, so expect him to get some starts, possibly quite a few of them. Soler never took back his starting role when he returned from the DL in mid-September, but his power has re-surfaced, as he’s slugged .609 in a small sample during that time. Jackson and Baez will be used as defensive replacements late in games when the Cubs are ahead, as could Denorfia, depending on the outfield alignment.
Grichuk gives the Cardinals significant pop off the bench (.272 ISO and 47 extra-base hits in 103 games), but his iffy elbow brings questions as to whether he can play the outfield much without being a liability with throws. Reynolds brings power—and when facing lefties, some decent on-base skills—but also a lot of swing-and-miss. A rookie like Grichuk, Piscotty has been impressively consistent with the bat this season, bringing a strong hit tool and producing a .314 TAv. There’s a good chance that Tony Cruz will become a huge piece of this puzzle with Molina’s health a big question heading into Friday’s game.
One thing is sure: Both benches will play a significant role in this series.
Here’s the deal: I’m not going to waste your time explaining how great Arrieta has been. He was brilliant in the Wild Card game—as he’s been all season—and don’t expect that to stop anytime soon. No, Game Three isn’t already in the Cubs’ win column—but it feels that way, and there’s no real reason to argue otherwise. Among the other starters, let’s focus quickly on Hendricks and Hammel.
Both have had their issues in the second half, and in a span of 12 starts from July to September Hendricks averaged just over five innings per start, posted a 5.54 ERA, an 8.3 percent walk rate (rough for a pitcher who relies so much on command), three HBPs, and eight home runs. Early during the rough stretch, Hendricks talked to me about how he’d identified issues with his mechanics and how he was working to rectify those issues. During that time, I continued to check in with him and he said it was coming and going, and right before a start against Milwaukee, Hendricks said he believed he had everything right, mechanics-wise. He was solid in the outing against the Brewers, going six innings, striking out eight and walking none while giving up three runs,;however, his final two starts were nothing short of brilliant. He combined to throw 12 innings, striking out 17, walking just two, giving up just three hits, and allowing zero runs. He’s striking out more batters than ever before, as his K rate this season jumped eight points, to 22.6 percent.
He gets the nod over Hammel in Game Two, who will be available out of the bullpen for the first three games of the series and may start Game Four depending how things are looking at that point. Hammel had a nice outing to end the season (five shutout innings against the Reds), but his performance after missing time with a hamstring strain was poor. After walking just 18 batters in his first 103 2/3 innings, Hammel walked 22 in his final 67; he posted a 5.10 ERA in that final stretch, with just two quality starts in his final 14. . There are numerous issues to point to for Hammel’s drop in production since a dominant start in which he commanded his fastball perfectly and utilized his slider well, but primarily, as he and Maddon will tell you, it starts with the fastball command.
The Cardinals had a historic run of pitching, but much like their clutch hitting in 2013, there seemed to be an extended bit of luck behind it all—and the above DRAs seem to indicate as much. Things started to go awry in September for them though, as their 4.01 ERA from the starters looks a bit different than the 2.99 mark they posted for the season.
After holding the Cubs to just one run in six innings in his first start against the Cubs this season, Wacha gave up 15 run in 15 innings in his final three starts against them. Lynn had similar success early on against Chicago (6 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 9 K), but in his final three starts, he failed to get out of the fourth twice, and combined to toss 11 2/3 while giving up 14 earned runs. Lackey has been strong against them all year, allowing just three total runs in his three outings, all of which were very impressive. As far as Garcia goes, against lefties the Cubs strike out 9 percent more often, have a slightly lower OBP, and their ISO drops by 26 points. Those are all significant numbers, and explain why the Cardinals’ lone southpaw starter will follow Lackey in the rotation. Look for Soler and possibly even Jackson to get the start in that game.
Relief Pitcher (Innings, ERA, DRA)
RHP Hector Rondon (70, 1.67, 3.18)
RHP Pedro Strop (68, 2.91, 2.67)
LHP Travis Wood (100.2, 3.84, 3.91)
RHP Justin Grimm (49.2, 1.99, 3.53)
RHP Fernando Rodney (62.2, 4.74, 5.61)
LHP Clayton Richard (42.1, 3.83, 4.86)
RHP Trevor Cahill (43.1, 5.40, 4.76)
RHP Trevor Rosenthal (68.2, 3.75, 3.59)
LHP Kevin Siegrist (74.2, 2.17, 3.66)
RHP Jonathan Broxton (60.1, 4.62, 4.64)
RHP Adam Wainwright (28, 1.61, 4.22)
RHP Seth Maness (63.1, 4.26, 5.65)
RHP Carlos Villanueva (61, 2.95, 4.06)
LHP Tyler Lyons (60, 3.75, 5.50)
Rondon is the Cubs’ rock. Rodney, DFA’d after a rough start in Seattle, has been brilliant in his very short stint with the Cubs, posting a 0.75 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 12 innings. The Cubs have a few long men in Richard, Wood, and Cahill, with the latter two performing particularly well since moving into bullpen roles. But of their relievers, Strop may be the key for the Cubs.
Strop has made 11 appearances against St. Louis, going 7 1/3 innings, giving up nine runs, two home runs, and six walks. Outside of one terrible inning against Detroit, it’s by far the worst Strop has done against any team this season and it includes multiple high-profile blow-ups. There were the three runs he allowed in the seventh inning on May 4th that put the Cardinals up 9-8, a game the Cubs 8-4 but lost 10-9. On June 26th, Strop gave up a game-tying, pinch-hit solo home run to Greg Garcia in the eighth inning in a game the Cubs lost 3-2. In early July, the Cubs came storming back from a 4-0 deficit to hold a 5-4 lead into the ninth. Strop was in to close, and after two quick outs he walked Carpenter and allowed a crushing two-run shot to Peralta in another Cubs loss. His most recent Cardinals implosion came on September 9th, in which he recorded an out, then walked a batter and gave up a single before he was lifted for a reliever. Both runners would come around to score in a game the Cubs ended up losing 4-3. Since then he’s tossed two scoreless frames against St. Louis, allowing just one hit in the process. Perhaps those last two outings are something Strop can build upon when he’s called out of the ‘pen in the NLDS.
The Cardinals bullpen has a nice 2.82 ERA, but their peripherals aren’t as shiny. They walk their fair share at 8.9 percent and are middle of the pack with a 22.6 percent strikeout rate. They do a great job of keeping the ball in the park (their 8.4 percent HR/FB is second in baseball), and as mentioned in the Lindbergh piece linked earlier, this group does an tremendous job with runners on base, with a LOB% of 80.2 percent that’s topped only by the Royals.
Individually, Rosenthal, Siegrist, and Broxton each have strikeout rates above 25 percent, but the latter two both walk batters above a 10 percent rate. Both Broxton and Maness are great at getting the groundball, but both have had home run issues when they allow balls hit in the air. Villanueva and Lyons can serve as long men, with Lyons also serving as a key second lefty against a team with the likes of Schwarber, Rizzo, Coghlan, Montero, and La Stella all lurking as legitimate threats from the left side. Everyone seems to be pointing to Wainwright as some sort of key to the postseason roster, but since he can’t start and is unlikely to be used on back-to-back days, his impact is somewhat limited. He could still very well get a huge out in this series—have no doubt, he’s still extremely effective—but it’s hard to imagine his presence shifting things in the Cardinals’ favor.
The Cubs can put out a questionable defensive unit at times, with the inexperienced Schwarber roaming the outfield, Coghlan taking odd routes in whichever corner he’s assigned, and La Stella an average at best glove. However, part of the impressiveness of their depth is their ability to quickly upgrade to a strong defensive unit. Javier Baez is a plus glove at second and third base, and Austin Jackson can man either corner and will even be strong in center if anything happens to Fowler. The two biggest keys are Russell’s move to shortstop from second, where he’s shown he can play at an elite level defensively, and Bryant’s significant improvement over the course of the season. Once believed to be a liability, Bryant’s footwork and throwing mechanics have both advanced nicely over the season, to the point where he’s regularly making brilliant plays (see Wednesday’s double play off the bat of Aramis Ramirez in the seventh inning). His errant throws have become rarer.
And while the Cubs have gone on the defensive spectrum over the summer, the arrow is clearly pointing down for the Cardinals. As Matt Trueblood noted recently in the Chicago Tribune:
The Cubs' -1.29 PADE in 2014 was the 10th-worst in MLB, but this year, their PADE is 2.17 — good for fourth-best. Notably, their 8.14 PADE in September was not only the best in baseball, but 20 percent better than the second-best month any team had all season.
The Cardinals found themselves 25th in baseball for the month of September. With an ailing Molina, it’s become clear that the only plus defender on the Cardinals is Jason Heyward.
Matheny has done a brilliant job leading his injury-ravaged team to a 100-win season. His bullpen management has been questioned in the past, with his most glaring mistake coming on the biggest of stages when he chose to go to Michael Wacha, who hadn’t pitched in over 20 days, in a critical situation against the Giants last year. (Wacha allowed a game- and series-ending home run to Travis Ishikawa.) However, whether it’s been luck or not, what Matheny has done this year with his banged-up team deserves some recognition.
But the fact is he’ll be facing off against one of the best managers in the game in this series. Maddon will change his lineups on a daily basis and he will be quick to pinch-hit or upgrade defensively if the game situations dictate such moves. He’ll ride Arrieta and Lester, especially now that we’re in October, and he’s also likely to shorten up his pen and try to rely on pitchers like Rondon and Wood, who have gotten the job done for him consistently. Whether it’s X’s and O’s or keeping a loose, confident clubhouse, there are few managers who rival him.
In the first half the Cardinals seemed to have the Cubs’ number. As Maddon even said at one point, his team needed to learn to beat them. It wasn’t about a talent deficit, but the team’s youth seemed to be an issue against St Louis.
In early May, Maddon had this to say about his team compared to the Cardinals:
The gap is repetition or reps, experience. I'm very satisfied with the athletic ability. I'm very satisfied that we compete very well. They out-compete us, in a sense, experience-wise and that's it. We will make that up.
Maddon doubled down on those comments in late June, after a three-game sweep by the Cardinals put the Cubs in a five-game losing stretch:
Our inexperience showed up this week. They're being schooled a little bit.
That’s no longer the case. These young Cubs have matured at an exponential rate over the summer months. Bryant, Schwarber, and Russell each bring different strengths to the field, and each will play a key role as the North Siders attempt to knock off St. Louis.
In their last six meetings, the Cubs seemed to get over a hump. Maddon even used the Cardinals; intentional hitting of Rizzo in their most recent series to send a message to the opposing dugout. He let them know that his pitcher didn’t hit any of their guys on purpose and went on take a little dig at the Cardinals Way.
"I never read this book the Cardinals have written on how to play baseball," Maddon said. "That particular book that you guys got was written right around the turn of the last century. Like 1900, when it took several singles to score runs as opposed to one big guy coming up to hit a home run. So that all has changed. You can take that book and you can read it yourself. I don't give a crap about that book. I want everybody there to understand that. We don't start stuff, but we stop stuff.”
The magic that seems omnipresent for the Redbirds wasn’t nearly as effective or intimidating as it once was. Make no mistake, October is a different beast; St. Louis is perennially playing late into the month, while the Cubs just snapped a nine-game postseason losing streak that spanned 12 years. But the Cubs are the more talented group. They have the edge with Arrieta and Lester at the top and clearly possess the stronger offense. It’s only in the bullpen where the Cardinals hold the advantage. Maddon said the Cubs will “finish stuff.” Look for them to finish the Cardinals’ season.