The Chicago Cubs went into Game 1 of the World Series favored to win it all — in fact, slightly more so than a typical pre-Series favorite. But just like the Indians’ two previous playoff opponents, each of whom was also favored to win, the Cubs were in for a rude awakening when they actually started playing against Cleveland on a field instead of on paper. The Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays both fancied themselves good hitting teams, but against the Indians, they combined to average a paltry 1.9 runs per game. That trend continued Tuesday night as Cleveland’s pitching combination of Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen dominated Chicago’s lineup en route to a 6-0 win.
The cumulative effect of all that great pitching had me thinking: Is this the best performance by a pennant winner’s staff through Game 1 of the World Series? The answer (since the wild-card era began in 1995) is “not quite” — but these Indians aren’t too far off the lead, either.
To examine the question, we could simply track the teams that allowed the fewest runs, or even the lowest on-base plus slugging (OPS), during the playoffs. But that wouldn’t take into account which offenses a staff had to navigate through, which is one of the selling points for a Cleveland team that has mowed down two of the game’s most fearsome lineups (and counting).
So, to account for the strength of opposing hitters, I took the regular-season batting OPS for each World Series team’s playoff opponents and used it (along with modifications for home-field advantage and the typical decline in offense seen during the playoffs1) to calculate the OPS we’d expect a team’s pitchers to allow in each postseason game they played. That provides us with a baseline expectation; the ranking that follows measures which teams suppressed the OPS of opposing hitters the most relative to their expected rate through Game 1 of the World Series.
|YEAR||TEAM||WON WS?||BABIP||OPS ALLOWED||OPS ALLOWED VS. AVG|
A Cleveland team is No. 1 — but it’s the great 1995 version of the Indians, who shut down the hard-hitting Red Sox and Seattle Mariners en route to a World Series date with the Atlanta Braves. This year’s Indians are slightly lower in the rankings, trailing the 1996 and ’99 Braves and the ’98 Yankees as well. But they rank ahead of the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks and 2012 Detroit Tigers, teams that were carried by dominating aces including Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson and Justin Verlander. So the 2016 Indians are in good company.
But will they be able to ride their dominant pitching forever? The record for these great staffs is mixed at best. Among the top 10 teams other than this year’s Cleveland squad, only four ended up winning the World Series; among the top 20, 10 won. When these types of teams are lights-out, it can seem like they’ll never allow the opponent to score again, but a decent number of them eventually let in enough runs to lose. It’s also worth noting that all the teams ahead of the 2016 Indians on our list also enjoyed very good fortune on balls in play. The luck of this Cleveland staff, by contrast, hasn’t really been outside the realm of normal variation — they’ve allowed a .285 BABIP in the playoffs thus far, after allowing a .289 mark during the regular season.
Either way, Cleveland’s win in Game 1 shifted the odds of the World Series: Our prediction model (based on Elo ratings) now gives the Indians a 55 percent chance of beating the Cubs. This series is just getting started, but in terms of series win probability, Chicago is already close to where it was during its NLCS crisis against the Dodgers. Now we’ll have to see if the Cubs’ bats can respond and do damage against this seemingly bottomless Indians pitching staff.