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Can The Cubs Really Win This?

In preparation for the World Series, which starts Tuesday night, we invited ESPN MLB writer/editor Christina Kahrl and our own baseball columnist, Rob Arthur, into Slack to chat about the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. As usual, the transcript below has been lightly edited.

neil (Neil Paine, baseball editor and sportswriter): Well, we’re finally down to two teams, the Cubs and the Indians, both of whom have long championship droughts on the line. So my first question for the room is just a big-picture one: How did these teams stack up in the overall sabermetric numbers during the regular season?

rob (Rob Arthur, baseball columnist): Both teams were good, but the Cubs were also great, fantastic, amazing and 10 other superlatives on top of that. In the first half of the season, they had as good a run differential as any team ever — right up there with the 1927 Yankees. They were merely dominant in the second half, but in either half Chicago was better than Cleveland: the Cubs had a +91 run differential in the second half alone, which is only 10 less than the Indians racked up all season. And, remarkably, some measures (such as cluster luck) suggest this Cubs team got unlucky.

Which is not to say that the Indians were a bad regular-season team — they had the fourth-best run differential in baseball. But they also probably got a little fortunate from a cluster luck perspective, and their pitching, while solid, was also weakened due to injuries by October. So this matchup is probably a bit lopsided in favor of the Cubs, at least if we go by regular-season numbers.

christina (Christina Kahrl, baseball writer and editor): I would think whatever metric you used, you’re going to get happy answers about the Cubs and Indians that don’t involve a stack of head-scratchy one-run outcomes or players having extraordinary seasons outside their expected range of performance. (Well, except maybe Tyler Naquin’s strikeout rate.) But across 162, these were two very good teams. Outside of the Cubs’ sporadic offensive disappearances, we’ve seen two of the best regular-season teams also play well in October. If not for injuries to the Indians’ rotation, you could have seen that these two teams belonged here months ago.

There are interesting distinctions, of course. The Cubs and Indians both walk plenty, but the Indians aren’t in quite the same class when it comes to power production. But they’re both very balanced offenses, with good amounts of contact (call it BABIP or just execution on balls in play), power, patience and speed. The fun gets into the differences between how Cleveland manager Terry Francona used his bullpen to compensate when the rotation melted down, and how the Cubs churned through relief combinations before trading for Aroldis Chapman at the deadline. To some extent, both teams are where they are because of how well their answers worked out.

neil: So we’re not seeing fluky teams! These two teams might legitimately be some of the very best in baseball! Seems like a departure from recent World Series history.

christina: And yet — maybe it’s because I’m in Chicago — because of those injuries in the Indians’ rotation, folks are already anticipating a walkover. The last 15 years or so should perhaps suggest a little less overconfidence on this score. I can’t help but think of the 2006 or 2011 Cardinals as notable examples of underdog winners.

rob: Right, and given that it’s only seven games, anything can happen.

neil: Yeah, I was gonna ask because Rob mentioned that it was “a bit lopsided” — in baseball, that still doesn’t really mean either team is very likely to win over the other. At most maybe it’s 60-40, or 65-35, for the favorite?

christina: Well, the Cubs should be favored, for all sorts of reasons about how awesome they are (not just because the Indians’ rotation is a shambles). And I think you’re right in terms of how far that lean should be. But I also remember “October unbeatable” Jon Lester losing a must-win game in 2014, so I tend not to believe in absolutes.

rob: Yeah, and interestingly, everything from betting markets to our Elo ratings to FanGraphs’ simulations puts the probability between 60 to 70 percent for the Cubs. So that speaks again to the randomness of baseball — I think it would be hard to argue that the Cubs aren’t better than the Indians, but despite that edge they only have about a 2-in-3 chance.

christina: To put it another way, this series doesn’t feel like the 1998 World Series, where there was almost no reason to watch unless you were a Yankees fan.

neil: Hey! Those Padres had a pretty good seas… — ah, I can’t finish that thought. It was a rout. But this one, less so, it sounds like.

Now, have we seen anything during the playoffs to make us think either team is better or worse than the yearlong numbers would indicate?

rob: Yes, I think it’s fair to say that the Cleveland bullpen — and Francona’s clever use of it — gives the Indians a strong advantage that isn’t reflected in their regular-season numbers. The Cubs don’t really have anything comparable to that; although their bullpen is strong, Chapman doesn’t seem comfortable outside of the eighth or ninth innings. (Even then, he’s looked shaky at times.) I don’t think we can say with much confidence how much exactly fireman Andrew Miller is worth, in terms of series win probability. But I think he probably keeps things to closer to 60-40 than 70-30, as some outlier predictions would put it.

christina: I do wonder how well the Cubs will do if the Indians get to their ’pen in the fifth, sixth or seventh innings. The Indians’ lineup has many strengths — it’s front-loaded with Carlos Santana leading off, it’s deep, and Francona isn’t afraid to use his bench. So in those middle-inning matchups, especially during games with the DH, I wouldn’t bet on Joe Maddon securing advantages as easily as he does against some NL opponents. A lot depends on whether the Indians get to the Cubs’ starters early — running up pitch counts, making them work from the stretch — and then forcing the game into the hands of relievers like Justin Grimm or Carl Edwards.

neil: Speaking of the managers, this seems like it’s going to be a battle of two extremely smart, saber-savvy tacticians — perhaps the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

christina: Well, let’s be fair, Howser vs. Herzog in 1985 was pretty awesome.

neil: If you wanted Whiteyball, you got it with last year’s Royals. This year — well, it’s not exactly Moneyball that these two teams play, but maybe something in the same tradition at least.

christina: But to your point, yes, it’s going to be a very interesting series in that regard, watching a couple of brilliant skippers with histories of putting players in a position to succeed. For those folks who say “managers don’t matter,” here are two great tacticians who are also extremely smart about how to manage people across six months, and who get the difference between managing the regular season and managing in October.

rob: Yes, although Maddon’s strength seems to lie in the parts of baseball that still aren’t visible to us: chemistry, the clubhouse and getting the best performances out of players. Francona is probably good at that, too, but bullpen management is a visible manifestation of his skill, whereas the best we can do to quantify Maddon’s ability is look at how his teams consistently have positive run differentials.

christina: Yeah, I wouldn’t put either over the other as far as people management. “Tito” and Maddon both deserve their reputations.

neil: So, aside from the battle of managerial wits and the two bullpens, what else will you be keeping an eye on as key matchups in the series?

rob: Christina mentioned above that Lester’s been incredible in the playoffs. That’s true — he’s Bumgarner-esque — but he has a critical weakness: the yips that prevent him from throwing over to first. In theory, that should make it easy to steal bases on him, but opponents have been curiously reluctant to exploit Lester’s flaw. The Dodgers tried — and failed — to do so, largely by dancing around between first and second, and Lester turned in another awesome start. But I do wonder if Francona’s tactical savvy can translate into more stolen bases and potentially weaken the Cubs’ best starter.

neil: Do the Indians have base runners who might especially be able to take advantage of something like that?

rob: The Indians had the third-best baserunning team in the majors, according to FanGraphs’ metrics. The Dodgers were 11th, although they had some good base stealers who just failed to convert. Jeff Sullivan posited that it’s a mental block for potential base stealers, as they are so unused to getting leads of 25 feet (or more!) that they don’t know what to do with them. That’s why I think it will mostly be a matter of Francona getting the base runners to actually take off, and not the skill of the base runners themselves. Almost any major leaguer should be able to get to second base before the throw when they have a 35-foot lead, as some of the Dodgers’ baserunners did:

christina: We should also remember that base stealers were 23 for 26 against Jake Arrieta, as well, so this isn’t just a Lester problem. I can see arguments that Willson Contreras might help control the damage in games that don’t feature the Lester-David Ross battery, but we’ll see.

neil: Sounds like we shouldn’t be surprised if Cleveland’s baserunning makes life difficult all series for what is otherwise a scary good Chicago rotation.

christina: They’ll need to try, because they only thing that’s going to take that Cubs’ defense down a notch is the friction multiple baserunners and men in motion can create. Play a static, big-inning offense where you wait around for hits, and the Cubs will find ways to kill your scoring opps. Russell-to-Baez-to-Rizzo is going to merit its own poetry.

rob: The defensive skill of the Cubs infield is a major factor that stops potential base runners. It’s all too easy to get caught in a TOOTBLAN* with Javy Baez’s creativity on one side of second base and Addison Russell’s sure hands on the other. In that way, it will be strength against strength.

(* Ed. note: That’s “Thrown Out On The Basepaths Like A Nincompoop,” for the uninitiated.)

christina: I’m also wondering which Arrieta or Kyle Hendricks we get. That could shape the series. Take Hendricks: The Indians are the best team in baseball at killing pitches 90 mph or slower. They’re third in baseball in OPS against off-speed pitches. If anyone is going to get to Hendricks in his magical year, it might be the Indians.

rob: I agree that Hendricks and Arrieta are less sure bets. Generally, a major strength of all of the Cubs pitchers is that they suppress batted ball velocity. I believe that’s a genuine skill that the Chicago rotation possesses, but it also seems like a skill that’s more variable than say, throwing 98 mph fastballs that your opponents can’t catch up to. So I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if the Cubs have a couple of disastrous starting pitching outings and get BABIP’d to death.

neil: All right, let’s close this out with some official predictions. Who ya got, and in how many games?

rob: I’ll take the Cubs in 6. They are the better team, and one thing we only briefly alluded to is how tired and tattered Cleveland’s rotation is. I think the Cubs will dampen Cleveland’s bullpen advantage by overworking them, and that will be enough to close the Indians out. But not easily.

christina: It’s really tough, because while Cubs in 5 is probably the safest choice, there are so many things that could go wrong with that (or even just extend the series) that I’m sticking with my prediction over on that the Indians find a way to win in 7. Because, how safe are the safe bets? But I’ll admit, there’s also an element of my wanting this to be an epic series, to give us something to remember beyond one of these two teams’ “curses” ending.

neil: Indians in 7? Christina, I knew you were a Chicagoan, but now I see you either are not a Cubs fan, or the most quintessential Cubs fan possible.

christina: Hah. Funnily enough, people mistake me for a White Sox fan, but I’m agnostic. (I’ve stuck with the team of my childhood, the A’s — hence my bitterness about Mr. Lester in 2014.) When I polled Chicagoans last week on Twitter, the second-largest group beyond the 39 percent of Chicagoans who call themselves Cubs fans who think they’ll win it all was the 31 percent who said they’re Sox fans who hope they blow it.

Besides, if the Cubs win, I can claim I didn’t jinx it, right?

neil: Very true, you are zigging where those not-so-covert Cubs fans we saw everywhere on Saturday night are zagging.

christina: I did the double-reverse, anti-curse, non-jinx prediction. Shazam!

neil: Well, I’ll split the difference and say Cubs in 7. That feels like the way this season is, and always has been, destined to end — though as we know, sometimes real baseball gets in the way of destiny, narratives and whatnot.

Either way, though, it looks like one of the more entertaining on-paper World Series in recent memory. I can’t wait!

FiveThirtyEight: Cleveland vs. Chicago will be a battle of managers

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Rob Arthur is a former baseball columnist for FiveThirtyEight. He also wrote about crime.

Christina Kahrl is an MLB staff writer for ESPN.