We Are Regal Radio co-founder and former Los Angeles Dodger scouting personnel Sean Terry continues his in-depth analysis of the Chicago Cubs and their playoff chances
So much for a chance to right the wrongs of last season’s playoff caput to the Cubs’ National League Championship Series nemesis, the New York Mets.
After a failure by Queens’ favorite team in a nail-biter to the San Francisco Giants during the Wild Card play-in game, the Cubs are now forced to turn their attention to the West Coast for their first post-season hurdle in the National League Division Series.
While most Cubs players kept it politically correct over the past few days, avoiding the bulletin board material, the New York Mets would have been the more favorable match up given the fate of a recently depleted pitching staff. Perhaps Chicago will have to wait until next season to see Yeonis Cespedes don the slime green sleeve again – by then, it may actually be clashing ever so flamboyantly with the uniform colors on the South Side (White Sox).
But we’ll save that subject for another day and time. Today’s reality is all about Redemption ’89 for the Cubs.
It was 1989 when the Cubs last saw the Giants in the post-season. That season the young, upstart Cubs had a similar mojo as the 2016 version but fell short on lineup depth in comparison to a ridiculously loaded Giants team that featured Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell, Matt Williams, and Jose Uribe.
Despite the heroics of Cubs first baseman Mark Grace, who literally went hit for hit with Will Clark, the Cubs got wiped off the map 4-1 in the best of seven NLCS series.
By now, we’ve all heard about the Giants and their recent success in even year post-seasons, having won World Series championships in 2010, 2012 and 2014. It actually seems pretty funny hearing the much to do about nothing Giants championship references given the Cubs’ earnest to remove such fluff from their own narrative, but I guess superstition takes on a different tone when you’re on the winning side of things.
To date the current regime has done a fantastic job not setting the tone by refusing to subscribe to superstition and other nonsensical Cubbie occurrence talk but with history on the Giants side, perhaps a little Cubbie magic may prove to be a bit more than exorcise. Get it, exorcise?
No One Said It’ll Be Easy…
But the easy truth is that nothing will be handed to the Cubs. They will have to earn every last one of their post-season victories and visionary riches. That’s just the way it works.
Between having a tested October mettle, a stout starting pitching rotation to match the Cubs, and a fellow tactician manager in Bruce Bochy, the Giants will provide the Cubs with as legit a fortitude check as you can find in October.
Home field advantage belongs to the Cubs throughout the NLCS, but they will have to work overtime to maintain that advantage and get a jump on the Giants at home this weekend, before heading to the West Coast on Monday.
In our last September post, we laid out a daunting Cubs pitching rotation that will feature Game 1 starter Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey in the NLDS. Had we known the impending opponent, that piece would have taken on a slightly different tone as the Giants flaunt a starting rotation that is just as formidable and equally imposing.
While the Cubs rotation has been the definition consistency and at times bordering a dominant force, each member of the four horsemen in blue will have to bring their A-game to the bump to best a Giants rotation that features: lefty ace Madison Bumgarner, Cubs killer Johnny Cueto, former Cubs ace Jeff Samardzjia, and the former Tampa Bay Rays hand, Matt Moore.
On paper, the Giants rotation is lined up in order with Cueto (Game 1), Samardzjia (Game 2), Madison Bumgarner (Game 3) and Moore (Game 4). However, the Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy is never one to show all his cards, don’t be surprised if Bochy shuffles the deck slightly in effort to give his squad the best chances at knocking the Cubs down a peg.
Bumgarner flat out dealt during his Wild Card play in start earlier this week but his velocity was noticeably down. His normal 92-93 mph 4-seam fastball topped out around 89 mph, and he relied more on control and his secondary pitches to minimize the rate of contact by the Mets hitters.
In saving a little juice in the tank, Bumgarner gives Bochy the choice of using him in a Game 3 or game 4 start, depending on the circumstances.
The tandem of Cueto and Samardzjia in Games 1 and 2 are a frightening pairing for the Cubs based on their history in Wrigley Field, while going back-to-back with lefties, Bumgarner and Moore, will neutralize a lefty heavy batting order, forcing Maddon’s hand in San Francisco.
Cueto, who prior to last season spent the bulk of career racking up nearly 100 wins as a NL Central foe for the Reds, has been a Cubs nemesis throughout his career and has managed to get better with time as a starter.
Coming fresh off last season’s World Series championship with the Kansas City Royals, Cueto has further refined his stuff this season as a Giants, entrenching himself as another rock in their rotation to the tune of 220 IP – including 5 complete games and 3 shut outs to match).
Cueto has proven to rise to the occasion in the biggest moments of his career. I fully envision this scenario to be no different, as Cueto will dig deep into his bag of tricks to throw off Cub hitters who will undoubtedly continue to grind at bats this post-season. Expect to see a juiced up Cueto show the velocity early in Game 1, before varying his delivery with pauses and quick pitches to throw off the timing of Cubs hitters.
Samardzija is no stranger to pitching at Wrigley Field and he’ll most certainly tap into that comfort zone in Saturday evening’s Game 2.
Weather and wind direction at Wrigley this weekend will play a huge factor in Samardzija’s fate as the power pitcher relies on his 95 mph 4-seam fastball to set up his out pitches: sinker, slider and a traditional 12-6 curveball.
Given the downward plane of his pitches, Samardzija will have to steer clear of the curveball and sinker if there is any ounce of moisture in the air to match an outwardly wind pattern, as these are the pitches that will likely hang high and catch the hitting zone.
Last month (September 1st), Samardzija only lasted 4 innings at Wrigley when a 24-mph prevailing wind robbed Samardzija use of his secondary pitches early in the game. Samardzija was forced to over relay on an inaccurate 4-seamer that Cubs hitters and fans alike know is as straight as an arrow.
The result for Shark that day was nearly 90 pitches thrown as Cubs hitters sat back and waited for the implosion. And while they didn’t exactly bomb away on Samardzija, Cubs hitters did set the table and cash in on a few hard hit balls, leading to an early exit for Jeff.
To his credit, Bochy did a good job pulling Samardzija before the Cubs offense really opened up a can on him – perhaps Bochy had a feeling he’d need to keep Samardzija’s confidence from shattering completely on the bump at Wrigley.
Weather and Ballpark Dynamics: The West Coast Dilemma
San Francisco’s AT&T Park is the definition of a pitchers park thanks to a combination of the Bay’s weather conditions and a set of extremely deep power alleys that keep balls in the park. According to Park Factor, a statistic that measure that calculates run allowance based on weather and ballpark dimensions, AT&T Park scores a Park Factor of 76.
This score factors both runs allowed and home runs yielded. In AT&T’s Park’s case, the average of 84 runs allowed per 100 runs in the average MLB park, combined with the 67 HRs for every 100 homers yielded creates one of the most difficult parks to hit in and generate runs.
With the probability high for back to back appearances by Giants lefty starters, Bumgarner and Moore in San Francisco, Maddon will be forced to look at shuffling the Cubs offense to get his right-handed hitters in the lineup to counter the Giants pitching.
The natural fix here would be to bench Jason Heyward and instead start Soler and Zobrist in the outfield respectively (Baez at 2nd) but that lineup doesn’t provide the strongest defensive lineup, particularly in cavernous outfield where the wind conditions make even the slickest fielders look silly at times.
Games 3 and 4 will be where both Maddon and Heyward prove the worth of baseball intangibles. This decision could very well be the defining decision of the season for the Cubs season.
Back to back starts for Soler in San Francisco compromises Maddon’s run prevention approach and puts his best outfield glove (Heyward) on the bench. Given this likely consequence, I expect to see Maddon take a two-fold approach in rolling the dice with Heyward versus Bumgarner and Soler versus Moore.
The X-factor to this decision points directly to Maddon’s decision to keep Albert Almora on the playoff roster. Almora’s range factor is among the best on the club and I fully expect it to come into play with late game defensive substitutions in San Francisco.
The October Approach
Despite his pedestrian hitting most of the season, Heyward’s glove will keep him in the lineup this October.
Heyward’s offense has been discussed ad-naseam this year and this off-season will likely see him reconstruct his approach at the plate. That said, Heyward could get the jump on that reconstructed swing by shifting to an October approach that surprisingly plays to his advantage.
Getting pull side lift to balls hit has been a struggle for Heyward all season but according to 2016 spray charts, Heyward had his most productive when he driving the ball to left-center field. The ideal hit scenario for Heyward this season has been on balls that have 3.0 – 4.5 second hang time that go for doubles off the wall.
Due to his struggles at the plate this season, Heyward has seen more fastballs than any other everyday position player in the majors. This trend is likely to stay the course in October, but Heyward can get the drop on pitchers by jumping the count on early fastballs and looking & thinking away. If he fails to do so early, expect Maddon to start tinkering.
The Critical Element
In baseball, the divisional round features a shortened, 5 game series. In this format, Game 3 usually proves to be the critical swing game with the odds on favor to win the series typically being the team that wins Game 3.
As it stands, the ball will be in the hands of Jake Arrieta in Game 3.
During his last regular season start (September 28th vs. Pittsburgh), Arrieta was visibly uncomfortable with Maddon’s in-game maneuvering at the catcher position. In effort to gain battery mate familiarity, Maddon employed a mid-game switch from Miguel Montero to Wilson Contreras.
Despite the change, Arrieta yielded equally unfavorable results, giving up 10 hits and a pair of walks, reinforcing the narrative around his command issues at the worst possible moment.
For Jake, the lack of command that has led to untimely walks have been his greatest nemesis.
While pitchers have the opportunity to mitigate walks during the regular season, in October, walks have a way of compounding leverage quicker than a Rasheed Wallace technical foul and often spell “floodgates open” for opposing offenses.
Maddon typically gives a longer leash to his leading staff horses, but the playoffs are a much different animal. Given the magnitude of game 3 and the need to spot every inch, I expect the Ross factor to come to fruition.
The gruff Arrieta prefers to pitch to Montero but with the swing game very likely being a make or break one in the series for the Cubs, fans should expect to see a slightly different battery mate for Arrieta come Monday as David Ross’ superior game calling and pitching framing proves its full worth.
While belief in superstitions isn’t the way to go – perhaps a little revisionist history in the form of one of the 1.5 million old school “Cubs win” license plate T-shirts that sold in 1989 is a way to bring some solidarity to the mass of happy humanity at Addison & Clark.
Redemption ’89 starts now for the Cubs…don’t stop the clap.
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