Al Galdi’s analysis of the Nats-Cubs NLDS matchup
Playoff series in MLB have basically become crapshoots. We can crunch all of the numbers and break down all of the matchups we want, but the small sample size that is the best-of-five or best-of-seven series so often does not reward the “better” team. That said, here is what we’re looking at as the Nats try to win a playoff series for just the second time in Nats/Expos history (1981 National League East Division Championship Series, 3-2 over Philadelphia).
Assuming full health, this is a no-contest. The Nats incredibly had the top three pitchers in the National League bWAR this season in Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg.
But Scherzer, who is basically never hurt, dealt with multiple minor ailments down the stretch, including a right-hamstring injury that cut short his final start of the regular season and is almost certainly not making his first start in this series until Game 3. And Gio was bad in four of his final six starts, including basically saying that he shouldn’t have been pitching after giving up six runs in 4 1/3 innings in the Nats’ regular-season-ending 11-8 loss to Pittsburgh.
Only Strasburg comes into the postseason in a good place. And he’s in a great place. Strasburg over eight starts since coming back from his right-elbow nerve impingement: 0.84 ERA (five earned runs in 53 2/3 innings), 63 strikeouts versus 10 walks.
The biggest difference between the 2016 Cubs and 2017 Cubs is their starting pitching. Jon Lester and John Lackey this season have been nowhere near what they were last season. Jake Arrieta has continued to come back down to earth from his all-world 2015 season and won’t start until Game 4 of this series due to his own right-hamstring injury. Kyle Hendricks has been the Cubs’ best starter for a second straight season but still not as good as he was last season. And their big in-season trade acquisition, Jose Quintana, had an ERA of 4.50 over his first nine starts with the Cubs before doing well over his first four starts in September.
The Nats’ starting-pitching advantage is mitigated by the Scherzer injury and Gio’s carriage perhaps turning back into a pumpkin, but this still is an advantage.
Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg pumps his fist after the final out of a baseball game against the Miami Marlins at Nationals Park, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017, in Washington. The Nationals won 4-0. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
The Nats’ bullpen went from being horrendous (#CantTrussIt) to quite good thanks to the trades for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson from Oakland and Brandon Kintzler from Minnesota. The Nats have four guys in the Law Firm and Matt Albers who get outs but also aren’t great strikeout pitchers. That’s dangerous. Pitchers who pitch to contact are more susceptible to falling victim to the variance of the batted ball (i.e., getting BABIP’d).
The Cubs’ bullpen is far from perfect, but it features two terrific strikeout pitchers in Wade Davis and Carl Edwards Jr. Four of the top 26 relievers in the NL this season in terms of fWAR were Cubs (Davis, Pedro Strop, Edwards and Brian Duensing). Advantage: Cubs Batting:
Both teams had excellent offensive seasons. The Nats were third in the National League in runs (819); the Cubs were second (822). The Nats led the NL with a .782 OPS; the Cubs were third at .775. Both teams did well versus both right-handed and left-handed pitching.
The Nats have a slight edge with four guys who each had an OPS+ of 135 or better (Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman) versus just two such guys for the Cubs (Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo).
Additionally, the Nats will have multiple enticing bats on the bench (Adam Lind, Howie Kendrick, Brian Goodwin).
But each team can mash. Advantage: Nats Baserunning:
The Nats were a much better baserunning team than the Cubs were during the regular season, finishing third in the majors with 12.2 BsR (Baserunning Runs, which is Fangraphs’ all-encompassing baserunning stat) as compared to the Cubs finishing just 24th out of 30 teams in the majors with -6.6 BsR.
Trea Turner is easily the Nats’ best baserunner (7.9 BsR), but Wilmer Difo and Michael A. Taylor each had at least 3.0 BsR and even Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth each had at least 1.0 BsR. Matt Wieters, Daniel Murphy and, believe it or not, Bryce Harper were among the Nats whose BsRs were bad.
But the Cubs don’t have any truly good baserunners beyond Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Jon Jay and Addison Russell. Wilson Contreras (-6.0 BsR) and Anthony Rizzo (-4.2 BsR) were particularly unproductive on the basepaths. Advantage: Nats Defense:
The Cubs finished fifth out of 30 major-league teams with 30 Defensive Runs Saved; the Nats were just 24th with -37 DRS.
The only Nats who had really good defensive seasons were Wilmer Difo, Michael A. Taylor, Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper.
The Cubs had a bunch of defensive studs this season: right fielder Jason Heyward, shortstop Addison Russell, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, catcher Wilson Contreras, second baseman/shortstop Javier Baez and second baseman/left fielder Ben Zobrist. The positional versatility of Baez and Zobrist is particularly valuable. Advantage: Cubs Manager:
Joe Maddon is one of the top managers in the majors. He is right up there with Terry Francona, Joe Girardi, Bruce Bochy and Buck Showalter. Maddon’s ability to relate to his players and his tactical mastery, including an aggressive embracing of defensive shifts, is part of how he led tiny-payroll Tampa Bay to six straight winning seasons, including five seasons each with at least 90 wins, from 2008-2013, winning the American League pennant in ’08. And, of course, Maddon had led the Cubs to three straight 90-plus-win seasons and a World Series title.
Regarding Dusty, let me first make this clear: he is a good manager who deserves a contract extension from the Nats barring some terrible display of strategy this postseason. Dusty has more than lived up to his reputation as a master communicator, as you have heard next to nothing in the way of clubhouse issues or disharmony over his two seasons as Nats manager.
But Dusty’s strategy, at times, leaves a lot to be desired. His less-than-optimal lineups the last two seasons have been bothersome. He did not do a good job in the Dodgers’ four-run seventh in the Nats’ 4-3 NLDS Game 5 loss last October. And he committed tactical postseason blunders with Cincinnati, the Cubs and San Francisco. Dusty has lost a major-league-record nine consecutive postseason-series-clinching games. There’s a reason for that. Advantage: Cubs Prediction: Nats in four. Other Thoughts:
1. I think it’s now pretty clear that Max Scherzer did not suffer a right-hamstring “cramp” in his final start of the regular season. “Cramps” don’t cause $210 million pitchers to not pitch in best-of-five playoff series until Game 3. It seems to me that this was at least a moderate pull or strain.
2. I do not rule out Scherzer pitching in more than one game in this series. Starting Game 3 may disqualify him from starting a potential Game 5, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t see him in relief in a do-or-die spot in Game 5 a la the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw in the Nats’ NLDS Game 5 loss last October.
3. Don’t forget what happened during a four-game split between the Nats and Cubs in late June. Trea Turner was a beast in that series before a terrible development in Game 4: a non-displaced fracture in his right wrist suffered on a hit-by-pitch by Pedro Strop in the bottom of the seventh. Turner actually stayed in the game until the top of the ninth but ultimately missed 51 games with the injury. Was the hit-by-pitch on purpose? Who knows. But Turner in that series went 6-for-14 with four walks and 7-for-8 on stolen bases. He went 4-for-4 on stolen bases on Tuesday night, tying a Nats/Expos record he matched in a 5-1 loss at the Mets on June 18 with four stolen bases.