Archive for Cubs

The World Series Strike Zone’s Been Almost Perfectly Even

Yesterday I slapped together an InstaGraphs post about a Jon Lester strikeout of Brandon Guyer. It was a called strikeout on a pitch off the plate, but it was also a strikeout Lester has recorded several dozen times before. That part, I found interesting. But the call was also important in the moment. It changed the Indians’ odds of winning Game 5 by 10 percentage points, and during the game I tweeted that out with a screenshot. I didn’t expect the tweet to blow up like it did.

This isn’t supposed to be boastful. Wow, retweets, all right. Nobody cares. What happened as a consequence of that tweet going around was that countless different people started showing up in my mentions. And wouldn’t you know it, but those people had opinions about the strike zone! Some people were convinced the umpires were in the tank for the Cubs. Other people were convinced the Indians didn’t have any right to complain after calls they’d gotten earlier. More people still accused me of whining for some reason, as if a screenshot and a fact are opinions. The overall response was emotionally charged. Maybe not a surprise, in a World Series elimination game, but people were stirred the hell up.

Guess what! The zone’s been even. The Indians have gotten calls in their favor. The Cubs have also gotten calls in their favor. The World Series isn’t over yet, of course, but through the five games we’ve watched, neither team has really gotten a more favorable zone to pitch around.

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2016 World Series Netting Historic TV Ratings

This past Sunday night, one of the most important baseball games of the year went head-to-head with a primetime regular-season NFL broadcast on NBC. Millions more opted to watch the Chicago Cubs host their final home game of the year and stave off elimination in a close game. That Major League Baseball went head-to-head with the NFL and won isn’t that big of a deal. That MLB has garnered ratings not seen in a decade, however — and bested the top-rated program in all of television over the past few years — represents a big win for a sport receiving near-constant criticism for sagging ratings.

The broadcast of Game Five on Sunday night was one of the highest-rated broadcasts for the World Series in years. Since Boston ended their 86-year championship drought back in 2004, only one game has drawn more than the 23.6 million viewers Cleveland and Chicago netted on Sunday night: Game Seven of the 2011 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers. If you remove clinching games, it was one of the most viewed games of the century. The table below shows the most-viewed non-clinching games since 2000, the year FOX exclusively began broadcasting the World Series.

Most-Viewed Non-Clinching World Series Games Since 2000
Series Year Game Viewers
BOS-STL 2004 2 25.46 M
BOS-STL 2004 3 24.42 M
ARI-NYY 2001 4 23.69 M
CHC-CLE 2016 5 23.60 M
ARI-NYY 2001 2 23.55 M
ARI-NYY 2001 3 23.41 M
BOS-STL 2004 1 23.17 M
NYY-PHI 2009 4 22.76 M
ARI-NYY 2001 6 22.67 M
ARI-NYY 2001 5 21.32 M
STL-TEX 2011 6 21.07 M
FLA-NYY 2003 4 20.88 M
FLA-NYY 2003 2 20.55 M
SOURCE: Sports Media Watch

More people tuned into to see Sunday night’s World Series game than watched Game One in 2004 when the Red Sox began their attempt to end the curse. The game drew more viewers than the epic extra-inning Game Six between the Cardinals and Rangers in 2011. Indeed, only one non-2004 World Series game exceeded Sunday night’s in terms of viewership: the Diamondbacks-Yankees contest from 2001, best remembered for Derek Jeter‘s 10th-inning walk-off homer against Byung-Hyun Kim.

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The Cubs Will Be Made or Broken by Their Bullpen

Oh, how quickly the tables were turned.

The Cubs, they of the 103 regular-season wins, entered the World Series as the presumptive favorites in the minds of nearly all who chose to be foolish enough to actually forecast the madness that is postseason baseball. The Cubs have the star power and the narrative and the Kris Bryant. That didn’t matter, because the Indians have the pitching. They have Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller, Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw. Chicago now teeters at the precipice of elimination, a hair’s breadth from breaking the hearts of Cubs fans everywhere. Joe Maddon will need to play his hand tonight perfectly, because if they don’t succeed tonight, there will be no Game Seven over which to agonize. He’ll need to save the season, and he’ll need his bullpen to do it.

Given that the Cubs have almost no margin for error at this point, they will need to maximize run prevention above all else. Cleveland will be deploying Josh Tomlin and Kluber in games Six and Seven, respectively, along with a likely heavy dosage of Miller. Runs will be at a premium. Kyle Schwarber will be back in the Chicago lineup, which will help, but there’s only so much he can do when Willson Contreras and Javy Baez are swinging at pitches thrown into the next state and Jason Heyward‘s bat is on the side of a milk carton. These games will be about preventing runs, not scoring them.

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The Cubs’ Season Depends on Jake Arrieta’s Slider

It says something when a pitcher wins 18 games, records a 3.10 ERA, and people are still left wondering what went wrong. Nevertheless, that’s the case for Jake Arrieta and his 2016 season. Because he’s almost cut his slider usage in half this year — and because that alteration coincided with less dominant results than his 2015 campaign — much of the discourse settles on that pitch. His manager even admitted to wondering about it: “The break on the slider/cutter/whatever you want to call it has been more inconsistent,” Joe Maddon said after a poor outing by Arrieta in July.

The Cubs need Arrieta to find his slider tonight in Game Six in order to force this World Series to continue. By one metric — usage — the righty has returned to normal with the pitch. But has he really found it again? To answer the question, we first we need to figure out what he lacked this season relative to last; then we can see if things have returned to normal in the meantime. We’ll break the pitch down by three components: velocity, movement, and command.

Velocity
It’s tempting to point to velocity as the problem. Arrieta has lost a mile per hour on his slider from last year, and velocity is the most important aspect of a slider when it comes to whiffs. Case closed.

Except! Arrieta was up a tick on the fastball and the slider in 2015. Arrieta lost that tick, but he returned to the same velocity that he possessed in 2014, when he posted a 2.53 ERA and broke out with the Cubs. He struck out a batter more per nine innings in 2014, too, so it’s not just ERA that indicates Arrieta has been effective with an 89 mph slider.

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Javier Baez Has Muted His Own Hype

It’s never enjoyable to be the one who rains on a parade. To spoil someone’s hype, to kill someone’s vibe. Hype is an extension of excitement, of enjoyment, and enjoyment is a shared interest among us all. At the same time, it can be important not to let the hype get out of control. When the hype gets out of control, it begins to exceed reality, and disappointment is born out of unmet expectations. Just as the desire for enjoyment is a shared interest among us all, so, too, is the avoidance of disappointment.

Luckily, I’m not about to break any news here when I tell you that Javier Baez has looked a mess at the plate during the World Series, so I can’t take all the credit for raining on the parade and spoiling the hype. The hype is being spoiled right there, on the field, for all to see. I’ve had nothing to do with that. I’m just here to take note, because the 180 from Baez’s fantastic NLDS and NLCS is nearly as remarkable as what happened in those series themselves, and it serves as a necessary reminder not to let the hype get out of control and exceed reality.

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The Mismatch That Game Six Improbably Isn’t

Remember that Josh Tomlin isn’t even really supposed to be here. Not that there’s anything wrong with him, but the Indians like Corey Kluber, and they like Trevor Bauer. They liked Danny Salazar, and they liked Carlos Carrasco. If the Indians had their druthers, Tomlin, perhaps, would be a bullpen long guy right about now. Maybe he would’ve been left off the roster entirely. Not only will Tomlin now start a game that could deliver the Indians a World Series championship — he’s going on short rest. Don’t lose sight of how the Indians are a miracle.

Of course, by name value, the Game 6 starter matchup is frightfully uneven. The Cubs are happy to be going with Jake Arrieta, because a year ago, he was maybe the best pitcher on the planet. Tomlin, meanwhile, recovered from shoulder surgery before making 10 starts. This year, Arrieta took a step back, but Tomlin basically lost his rotation spot. Go off perception, and it feels like the Cubs have a great chance of extending this all to seven. Anyone who knows anything would rather have Arrieta on the mound.

Arrieta, see, is the more talented pitcher. He’s the tougher pitcher to hit. He has higher-quality stuff. The edge Arrieta doesn’t have is in recent results. In what amounts to the most recent history, Tomlin has done a better job of pitching.

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Terry Francona’s Fourth-Inning Dilemma

Much has been made of Terry Francona‘s bullpen use this postseason. His aggressive use of relievers, Andrew Miller in particular, has garnered him a considerable amount of praise from all corners. Phrases like “leverage index” have been evoked beyond just the confines of websites like this one. Francona has managed the postseason very differently from the regular season, and that approach has worked very well given the personnel with which he’s working. Francona has felt comfortable using Miller early in games to preserve leads and once even used him to maintain a tie. In the fourth inning of last night’s Game Five loss, however, Cleveland was presented with a high-leverage situation. Instead of turning to the bullpen, Francona chose to stick with his starter, Trevor Bauer. Bauer gave up three runs in what would ultimately be a 3-2 loss. Did Francona wait too long to make a move?

First, a bit of context. As noted, Bauer started the game for Cleveland — and, over the first three innings last night, was significantly better than he appeared in Game Two. In Bauer’s first World Series start, he recorded 71 pitches through three innings, labored to get outs, and struggled with the strike zone. After a walk, a double play, and a single, Bauer was out of the game, having thrown 87 pitches before completing four innings. Last night, Bauer completed his first three innings efficiently, requiring only 45 pitches against 10 batters, striking out five of them. When he headed out to pitch the fourth inning, Bauer had three very good innings under his belt.

The fourth inning didn’t go as well for Bauer, however. On the third pitch of the inning, he sent a sinker down the middle of the plate to Kris Bryant, and Bryant crushed it to tie the game. Nor was Bryant’s shot a wind-aided gift. Consider: of all batted balls this year which left the bat at 105 mph and with a 23-degree launch angle, 70% of them were home runs.

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Jon Lester’s Favorite Strikeout

This post is centered around a controversial call. Maybe I’m being mealy-mouthed. This post is centered around a bad call. As such, I want to make something clear right now. I don’t root for the Indians, and I don’t root for the Cubs. My team of choice is not very good, and it’s not alive in the playoffs. Hasn’t been in forever! This post is not about me complaining, and it’s not about excusing the Indians’ loss, or asserting that the Cubs got lucky. A game result comes out of hundreds of events, and had this particular event gone Cleveland’s way, chances are they still would’ve come up short. We all good here? I just want to point something out, and introduce some context. Sorry if it makes your emotions flare up.

Game 5, fifth inning, 3-1 Cubs. Runner on third, one out, full count on the hitter. The hitter was Brandon Guyer, and the pitcher was Jon Lester. Lester executed the pitch he wanted. The second out went up on the scoreboard.

The funny thing about that being the pitch Lester wanted — the pitch was more of a ball than a strike.

Lester nailed David Ross‘ target. That much can’t be argued. What also can’t be argued is that Ross’ target was off the plate in the first place. Tough calls are nothing unusual, but they mean the most in full counts in close games. When Guyer was hitting, the Indians’ win expectancy was right around 29%. Had that pitch been called a ball, as it should’ve been, the Indians’ odds of winning would’ve increased to 32%. The strikeout dropped their odds of winning instead, all the way to 22%. That’s a swing of 10 percentage points. That swing is huge. Jose Ramirez‘s solo homer was worth 11 percentage points.

Yes, I know, having stuff like this pointed out isn’t fun. Cubs fans feel like something is being taken away from them. Indians fans feel like something was taken away from them. Sorry! Even zanier, Lester got a worse call against Guyer earlier in the same series. From the sixth inning in Game 1:

The replay tells you what you need to know:

The pitch was literally on the chalk, so Guyer got screwed. But the win-expectancy swing there was under two percentage points, so in the end no one minded too much. The Game 5 call was a bigger deal.

But we’re not just dealing with freak called strikeouts here. Those aren’t necessarily good strikeouts, but Lester and Ross love those strikeouts. Here are all of Lester’s called strikeouts since 2014, with Game 5’s against Guyer in red:

lester-guyer

Here’s the same plot, but with Game 1’s against Guyer in blue:

lester-guyer-2

You see how they kind of blend in? Lester records a ton of arm-side called strikeouts off the plate. Over the last three years, Lester ranks 13th in rate of two-strike pitches taken for strikes. But he moves all the way up into second in rate of two-strike pitches taken for strikes off the plate in that neighborhood. Over the whole PITCHf/x era, Lester is the easy league leader in total number of these called strikeouts. And here’s a year-to-year breakdown:

Jon Lester Arm-Side Called Strikeouts
Season No. of Such Strikeouts MLB Rank MLB Rank, Total Pitches
2008 10 25 22
2009 14 6 15
2010 23 1 23
2011 17 2 45
2012 16 2 9
2013 17 2 4
2014 26 1 7
2015 19 4 27
2016 17 4 21
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Called strikeouts only qualify if they were off the plate. Regular-season numbers shown.

An established, long-standing pattern doesn’t make the calls more correct, but it does make them less surprising. Lester loves that strikeout, and while he couldn’t get it without the umpires, it’s a credit to his own command, and it’s a credit to his catchers, which have often just been Ross. Lester can repeatedly hit that spot, and throughout the whole of baseball history, pitchers have been rewarded for being so accurate. I know that, from a certain perspective, it seems unfair. Strikes should be strikes, and balls should be balls. But it’s at least Lester’s own ability that leads him to a lot of these strikeouts, and while Brandon Guyer had every right to be annoyed, he couldn’t have been too astonished. Not in Game 1, and then, certainly, not Sunday night.


Jon Lester Controlled the Running Game

It was a few years ago when we all learned about Jon Lester‘s pick-off problem. There was speculation that the Royals might take advantage in their one-game playoff against the A’s. The Royals could run, after all. And, against Lester that evening, Royals base-stealers went 3-for-4. In the one failure, Billy Butler just wandered off first base for some reason.

Lester’s same problem was supposed to be a major factor in the current World Series. The Indians were supposed to be able to take better advantage than the Giants and Dodgers. I suppose it’s possible that Lester could show up in relief in Game 7, but assuming that doesn’t happen, the Series is in the books as far as Lester on the field is concerned. Twice, the Indians were successful stealing against him. Twice, the Indians got thrown out. Jon Lester wasn’t exploited.

In the first game, Francisco Lindor went 1-for-2, as a runner. Sunday night, Rajai Davis was 1-for-1, and Lindor went 0-for-1. Davis stole in the sixth, and he scored to narrow the deficit to one. Lindor tried to steal in the sixth, but it didn’t work. It would’ve been a pretty big advance, but Lindor was done in in part by skill and in part by psychology.

Here’s Davis. David Ross couldn’t handle the baseball on the transfer, which is also how Lindor stole in Game 1.

And now here’s Lindor:

It’s time to dig into this! Quickly, you might notice something. Here’s Davis as Lester began to throw:

davissb

Here’s Lindor at almost exactly the same time:

lindorcs

Okay, that’s one factor — Davis had a better lead by about two and a half feet. In other words, Davis was about 4% closer to second base, based on the distance there from the secondary lead. Clearly, a huge factor is that, with Davis, Ross couldn’t even get off a throw. Ross got off a perfect throw with Lindor running. Javier Baez applied a perfect tag. Lester was even about 5% faster getting the ball to Ross in the first place. Compared to Davis, Lindor arrived at second base about 0.2 – 0.3 seconds slower. That’s huge, as steals are concerned, and so Lindor was out without so much as a replay review.

Lindor getting thrown out reduced the Indians’ odds of winning by about 3.7 percentage points. Had Lindor gotten in there safely, it would’ve increased the Indians’ odds of winning by about 1.9 percentage points, so, the break-even rate there is 66%. It made sense for Lindor to go if he believed he’d be safe at least two-thirds of the time. That feels like a safe assumption, when you’re Francisco Lindor, running against Jon Lester. It’s supposed to be nearly automatic, right? Even Joe Maddon conceded as much before the series began.

But not only did the Cubs execute with perfection — Lindor just couldn’t bring himself to go crazy. This is the same thing I wrote about a week and a half ago. Based on his lead and jump, sure, you can see how the Cubs threw Lindor out. But why didn’t he take an even bigger lead, to get an even better jump? Lindor simply would’ve felt too vulnerable. He would’ve felt naked out there, doing something you’re never supposed to do against a lefty. Jon Lester looks the part, and you have to really, really, truly believe he’s not throwing over. Lindor couldn’t accept that, even though Lester had just bluffed.

Go back to Game 1. This is nuts.

Lindor saw this for himself. In Game 1, he would’ve been an easy out, but Lester couldn’t do anything, so Lindor could scamper back. Lindor observed firsthand that Lester couldn’t and wouldn’t throw over. It’s so easy to sit here now and say “Just go! Just go! Who cares!” But that sells the psychology short. Lester is protected by the uniqueness of his pick-off problem. Francisco Lindor probably could’ve had a way bigger lead, and, given that lead, he probably could’ve stolen second base. It would’ve been a pretty important steal, with Mike Napoli batting. But Lindor fell into the same trap most runners fall into. Jon Lester’s problem doesn’t make sense. Therefore, it’s mighty difficult to believe.


The Cubs’ Continuing Curveball Crisis

The story of this World Series, to this point, has been Cleveland’s dominance over Chicago’s hitters. During the regular season, the Cubs had the best offense in baseball, once you adjust for the fact that they didn’t have the advantage of the DH, and they regularly pounded their opponents with great hitters and a deep line-up. In this match-up, though, their bats have gone quiet, as they have hit just .210/.281/.311, scoring all of 10 runs in the first five games.

The easy way to explain Cleveland’s success has been to point to greatness of Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller, and Cody Allen, and note that those guys have thrown nearly half of the team’s innings in the series. And it’s certainly true that the Tribe have leveraged their best arms to maximum efficiency, making it quite difficult for the Cubs to rally against inferior pitchers. But there’s more to this story than simply Terry Francona‘s bullpen usage; the team is taking apart with the Cubs offense with a systematic plan to pound them with breaking balls.

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Cubs-Indians: Game Five Notes

Aroldis Chapman had never recorded more than seven outs in a game. Last night, he recorded eight. Thanks to the Cuban flamethrower’s efforts — and Joe Maddon taking a page out of the Terry Francona playbook — the Cubs stayed alive with a nail-biting 3-2 win over the the Indians. The World Series now moves to Cleveland for Game Six, on Tuesday.

August Fagerstrom wrote about the difference between Cleveland and Chicago’s bullpen yesterday. Who knows, maybe Maddon read the piece and took it to heart? Regardless of the reason, his imitative stratagem cemented a win he described earlier in the day as being “as important as oxygen.”

“We got a little taste of our own medicine,” said Cleveland’s Jason Kipnis, after the game. “Late in the year, you don’t really hold anything back. They took a page out of our own book tonight.”

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The Cubs Got Back to Being the Cubs

When a team makes it to the World Series, it’s probably best that they– hold on. Let me re-start that. When a team has one of the best regular seasons in major league history and then goes on to make it to the World Series, it’s probably best that that team continues playing in a similar fashion to the way they played up until that point. That is, if they’re interested in capitalizing on that regular season by winning the World Series. The Cubs are very interested in that proposition.

All along, of course, these Cubs have been interested, but through the first four games of this World Series, we didn’t see as much of the regular season Cubs as we expected. The world-beating Cubs. We certainly didn’t see those Cubs in Games Three and Four at Wrigley, when Cleveland pushed Chicago’s backs to the wall by outscoring them 8-3 in two games on their home turf to take a 3-1 series lead. But in Game Five’s potential Cleveland clincher, Chicago’s last home game of the year, they gave their fans one last taste of what their historical season looked like, whether that history is rewarded with a World Series victory or not.

These Cubs all year played defense. That defense, along with their pitching staff, turned balls in play into outs as well as most any team in baseball history. Saturday’s Game Four loss featured two errors, and they led to early runs. The night before, the game’s only run came on a ball that dropped feet in front of Jorge Soler and was preceded by a wild pitch that put the go-ahead run 90 feet away from home. The Cubs looked sloppy in their losses, and the Cubs haven’t looked sloppy all year.

The Cubs went back to not being sloppy in Sunday’s 3-2 win. Let’s take a trip around the diamond.

For as much that gets made about Jon Lester and holding baserunners, it’s actually pretty tough to steal off him and battery-mate David Ross. Ask Francisco Lindor, who’s learned that the hard way not once, but twice this series.

This is all just so Cubsy. You see Lester staring down a runner who’s practically standing over second base already, and he doesn’t do a dang thing about it. Except for deliver the ball home in about 1.2 seconds to David Ross, who gets it to second in a remarkable 1.7 seconds. And then there’s Javier Baez, who’s probably responsible for shaving two-tenths of a second off Ross’ already elite pop time by doing Baez things: positioning himself in front of the bag — whereas most second baseman would wait on top of it — to get the ball into his glove faster, and then letting the ball travel into his glove, as his glove travels into Lindor.

All three parties here deserve credit for their remarkable parts in this caught stealing, which was huge, by the way. Lindor represented the tying run in Jon Lester’s final inning with Cleveland’s best hitter against left-handed pitching at the plate, with formidable bats in Carlos Santana and Jose Ramirez waiting after him. Two-tenths of a second more by anyone involved — Lester in his delivery, Ross in his exchange, Baez with his positioning and application — and the tying run is scoring on a single. Instead, Napoli led off the next inning with the bases empty against a hard-throwing righty.

That’s three Cubs players who contributed defensively. Let’s keep moving around the infield.

That’s Jose Ramirez busting ass down the line on a ball that’s an infield hit more often than it’s not, runners on the corners with no outs down two more often than not, that instead turned into runner-on-third-one-out-and-this-inning-ended-up-being-scoreless because Addison Russell improvised with his arm slot and showed David Ross that he’s not the only one with an elite pop time. And with all that Russell did, we’re back to runners on the corners with no outs down two, and probably worse, if not for Rizzo’s pick, one of the little things he does consistently that make him an elite defensive first baseman even without the flashy diving plays and catches made while climbing over the tarp.

Speaking of which, let’s move on over to third.

That ball came off Brandon Guyer‘s bat at 95 mph, right down the line. That ball went right into Kris Bryant‘s glove, as he dove into foul territory. That ball went right into Rizzo’s glove, as he stretched and scooped. The scoops, man. The scoops.

Hey, Jason Heyward played.

Yeah, turns out he didn’t have to climb the wall. Under normal circumstances, this could’ve been a routine catch. Not normal circumstances, though. It was another windy night in Chicago. If any right fielder knows how to read a ball off a bat, it’s Jason Heyward, and the read off this bat was one row foul, within reach. The wind brought it back three row’s lengths toward the field, and Heyward adjusted in a way that few other right fielders would.

Even Ben Zobrist was making sneaky good plays in left:

That’s the kind of play that usually doesn’t get appreciated in real time by viewers, but goes a long way within a dugout and within a clubhouse.

“Don’t understatement how important that play was that Zobrist made keeping that a single,” manager Joe Maddon said. “A lot of times that would have turned into a double. That was a great play by Zo. Eventually we kept them from scoring.”

That’s every player but the center fielder contributing something “plus” in a one-run World Series win. I’m a big fan of the term “run prevention unit,” because as much as a Gold Glove Award insinuates the pinnacle of defensive achievement as being an individual task, defense is often played on the team-level, which isn’t always apparent in the game of baseball. On Sunday night, the Cubs played team defense. Three men played crucial roles in a crucial caught stealing. A first baseman helped ensure two fantastic plays actually turn into outs. How often do you see the diving play that should’ve been out, if only? For the Cubs, the should’ve been outs become outs. The Cubs played team defense.

Hell, they even used two guys to catch a pop fly:

The return to status quo didn’t just occur in the field. It occurred at the plate. The Cubs chased, uncharacteristically, throughout the first four games of this series. During the regular season, they ran one of baseball’s lowest team chase rates. According to BaseballSavant, they offered at 31% of pitches outside the strike zone. In the first four games, that rate spiked by 30%, helping lead to their lowest four-game stretch of run production all season.

And, while Javier Baez has reminded us all that he’s still very much an incomplete package with his plate discipline in this series, Kris Bryant got back to laying off the low-and-away breaking pitch and had himself a game:

chart4

Ben Zobrist was flawless:

chart5

The Cubs chased just 28% of Cleveland’s offerings outside of the zone, getting back under their elite season total.

And then they pitched, too. Lester Lester’d, and the back-end of the bullpen shut the door with three dominant innings the way they did for much of the regular season, except this time, it was just all Aroldis Chapman. That’s the one way the Cubs didn’t look like themselves on Sunday night, but for Cubs fans, that was a deviation from the norm that was finally welcome.

The Cubs now head back to Cleveland, fresh off a reminder of why they were the best team in baseball. Are the best team in baseball. The deficit is still very real, and the Indians are still very much favorites in the series. The Cubs remain the team most likely to play the closest thing to a perfect game of baseball. And perfect isn’t even required to win two more games.


Joe Maddon Terry Francona’d Aroldis Chapman

It’s not the relievers themselves that have seemed to give the Indians a bullpen edge. I know that so many baseball fans have reduced the Indians’ playoff success to the words “Andrew” and “Miller,” but Andrew Miller might not even be the best reliever in the World Series. If you look only at this year, Aroldis Chapman was no less dominant. If you look over the last three years, Aroldis Chapman was no less dominant. Miller maybe feels somewhat fresher; Miller maybe has to try a little harder. But Chapman’s arm is amazing. It’s incredible that he’s ever blown a save.

So it’s not about how well the pitchers can pitch. It’s been about when the pitchers can pitch. The whole advantage with Miller has to do with his versatility, how he can pitch in any situation in any inning. Miller has given Terry Francona almost limitless bullpen freedom, and we’ve seen how that’s worked. With Chapman, things were a little more rigid. You might say traditional. Chapman, they said, was accustomed to his routine, and you wouldn’t want to risk a disruption.

Sunday night, the Cubs risked a disruption. Joe Maddon asked Chapman to be prepared to enter in the seventh. Chapman got warm in the seventh. Chapman came in in the seventh. No one had to relieve Aroldis Chapman. Maybe it wasn’t so much that Chapman got Francona’d — maybe it would be better to say he got Dave Roberts‘d. But for the first time in the playoffs, Chapman was pushed to the extreme, and now the Cubs know there’s something new he can do. That information could prove to be useful as the series shifts right back to Cleveland.

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The Most Fascinating Stolen Base That Didn’t Matter

The Cubs just won Game 5 of the World Series, forcing the series back to Cleveland. There were some really obvious high-drama moments from the game, and we’ll talk about them very soon. But right now, I want to talk about a stolen base that had no impact on the outcome of the game whatsoever.

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The Difference Between Cleveland and Chicago’s Bullpen

When it became very clear that the 2016 Chicago Cubs, the 103-win Chicago Cubs, were potentially one game away from their historical season coming to a disappointing finish, the pitcher standing on the mound was Travis Wood. Wood had just been brought in to face the left-handed Jason Kipnis, and Wood had just thrown three balls in four pitches to Jason Kipnis, and then an 87-mph cutter breaking right toward the heart of the plate. Kipnis hit the very hittable cutter 10 rows deep into the right field bleachers at Wrigley Field, on a windy night in Chicago when would-be home runs were becoming warning track fly outs all evening long. Not this one.

Nothing was stopping this ball, off the bat at 105 mph, from landing in the bleachers (and then immediately being thrown back onto the field), from giving the Indians a 7-1 lead in the game, and from getting the Indians one step closer to the 3-1 lead in the World Series which they now possess. And when that ball was on its way out of the playing field, Aroldis Chapman, Hector Rondon, and Pedro Strop, the three most important Cubs relievers during the regular season, looked on from the third-base bullpen, none of them having thrown a single pitch in the game.

Rondon eventually mopped up Wood’s mess — and Justin Grimm‘s and Mike Montgomery‘s mess, too — throwing two scoreless innings, striking out two of the eight batters he faced while pumping fastballs that touched 99 mph. And the fact that it was Rondon who mopped up the mess caused by lesser relievers, while Chapman and Strop contributed nothing, highlights the key difference between the bullpens of the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians in this World Series.
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The Indians Stole the Game They Needed

Like a lot of people, I don’t gamble, but, like a lot of people, I have done it before. I was a sophomore in college, and I thought I knew an awful lot about baseball, so I thought, you know what, I bet I can monetize this. I decided to lean on my baseball expertise to bet on individual baseball games. I bet for two days, I lost about four hundred dollars, and I haven’t tried it again since. I’ve learned more about baseball over the decade, but, have I, really?

If there’s one thing we know about baseball, it’s that we can’t predict it. The smaller the sample, the wilder it gets. But we can be so, so easily tricked, and never is that more clear than it is in the playoffs. In the playoffs, see, individual games are under greater scrutiny. And when you get to the World Series, people are searching for possible keys everywhere. *Everything* is important. This pitcher’s vulnerability could be exploited. That player on the bench will have a good matchup. The guy over there’s a bad defender. We examine these games in so much detail that we start to convince ourselves the games can be actually predicted. We convince ourselves the games will make sense. Earlier Friday, in my chat, I fielded countless questions about the degree to which the Indians would be screwed in Game 3. Road park, Josh Tomlin pitching, wind blowing strongly out, DH in left field. It was all lining up for the Cubs. It was so easy to believe, yeah, this is the Cubs’ game. How couldn’t it be?

You can stare at a coin all you like, but heads or tails will still come up half the time. An exhaustively-examined game in the World Series is not meaningfully more predictable than an unexamined regular-season game in July. Give it one game at a time, and baseball’s likely to baseball. Give it one game at a time, and Tomlin and the Indians can knock off the Cubs 1-0 in a pretty extreme hitters’ environment.

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2016 World Series Game 3 Live Blog

4:52
Eno Sarris: oh it’s just a
7:31
Ryan Pollack: Properly this time:

7:32
Ryan Pollack: That’s my musical contribution for the evening. Let’s get this party started!
8:01
Harambe: Eno, this music is terrible.
8:01
Eno Sarris: Oh I know. I’m sorry. It was a funny.
8:02
Chris: hey eno, i’m in bells and founders land but stone from San Diego or whatever just recently started being carried by several places here. what should i look for?

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John Lackey, Umpires, and the Strike Zone

John Lackey might be slightly overlooked on a Chicago Cubs team that’s almost ideally constructed. He isn’t young and he isn’t really a star — which tend to be the two traits that earn a player attention during the postseason. He is an above-average pitcher, though, and as the Cubs’ starter for Game Four of the World Series, he’s in a position to exert some influence over the club’s chances of winning the championship. With all of his antics on the mound, it’s hard to say Lackey does anything gracefully. What he has done, though is age quite well, putting up one of the best two-year runs among pitchers his age over the last three decades. And here’s something about him that’s relevant for Saturday’s game against Cleveland: while he doesn’t need a generous strike zone to succeed — his pitching ability and the great Cubs defense are enough — Lackey, more than most, is in a position to benefit from one.

Over the past two seasons, John Lackey has pitched more than 400 innings with a better-than-league-average FIP. Over the last 30 years, he’s one of just a dozen pitchers to pull off that feat between the age-36 to -37 seasons. While his 6.7 WAR total over that interval might not seem incredibly high, the only pitchers over the last three decades to pitch more innings with a higher WAR are (listed in order of wins) Randy Johnson, David Wells, Chuck Finley, Dennis Martinez, Jack Morris,  R.A. Dickey, Greg Maddux, and Woody Williams .

The relatively even success over the 2015 and -16 seasons doesn’t mean that Lackey hasn’t made adjustments. As Eno Sarris wrote, Lackey improved his change and took a different approach against left-handed batters this season that could have lessened his platoon splits. He both struck out and also walked a few more hitters this year while giving up homers at a higher rate (something to watch for if the wind is blowing out on Saturday), but because of the overall increase in scoring this season, Lackey’s fielding-independent numbers remained nearly identical when taken in context. While he isn’t mowing hitters down, he has continued to record an above-average strikeout rate and walk rate, and the Cubs appear to have gotten a pretty good deal on the two-year, $32 million contract Lackey signed, even if the team did also have to concede a draft pick.

Lackey is a pitcher who relies on swings to get batters out. His strike-zone percentage at 48% is a little below average, but he’s one of just five starting pitchers (Kevin Gausman, Cole Hamels, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander) in 2016 to finish among the top-20 starters in out-of-zone swing rate (O-Swing%), in-zone swing rate (Z-Swing%), and overall swing percentage. Among the right-handers in that group, all of them throw several miles per hour harder than Lackey — and even the lefty Hamels throws a bit harder on average. Lackey relies on being close enough to the zone to (a) elicit swings on pitches that will either be missed or yield weak contact or (b) get called strikes on borderline pitches. Read the rest of this entry »


The 2016 Chicago Cubs: A Ball-in-Play Snapshot

The Fall Classic is underway, with the underdog Cleveland Indians landing the first haymaker blow for their third series in a row. The NL Champion Chicago Cubs were clearly the best team in baseball throughout the regular season; will they be able to do what the Tribe’s previous postseason opponents couldn’t, and fight their way off of the ropes and onto ultimate victory?

This week, we’re taking a macro, ball-in-play-oriented look at each team and its key players. Earlier this week, we looked at the AL champs; today, it’s the Cubs’ turn under the microscope, as we examine granular data such as BIP frequencies, exit speeds and launch angles to get a feel for what made them tick in 2016.

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The Evolving Curveball of Kyle Hendricks

As you’ve likely heard, the first World Series game at Wrigley Field in seven decades will be played this evening. The starting assignment belongs to Kyle Hendricks, the soft-tossing right-hander lovingly known as “The Professor.” At this point, Hendricks has done enough to convince the attentive fan that he’s an above-average major-league pitcher. While many of us were on board with Hendricks in 2014 and 2015, there might have still been cause to doubt a pitcher whose fastball sits at 88 mph. After a 2016 season during which he both maintained his strong fielding-independent numbers and allowed very few runs, there isn’t much room left for doubt.

Hendricks has further cemented that impression on the biggest stage, allowing just three runs in 16.1 innings this postseason to go along with his consistently strong fielding-independent resume. Even if you give plenty of credit to the Cubs’ superb defense for Hendricks’ top-line numbers, it’s hard to ignore his performance this season and over the last few weeks.

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