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The Indians Won, The Cubs Are Alive, And History Is In The Air

After all that teeth-gnashing over the Chicago Cubs’ 2-1 NLCS deficit against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the city of Chicago slept easier Wednesday night, thanks to the the Cubs series-tying 10-2 victory in Game 4. Going into the game, the Cubs were pennant underdogs for only the second time all season; now, FiveThirtyEight’s Elo prediction model has them back as NL favorites, with a 61 percent chance of going to the World Series.

But at the moment, the Cubs are still not the most likely club to win the World Series. That’s because another team — the Cleveland Indians — has already won its league championship series. And they did it in relatively convincing fashion, needing only five games to dispatch the favored Toronto Blue Jays.1 Now they await the result of the NLCS — and with it, the potential to make history.

We’ve already seen one Cleveland team go through a historically difficult championship path when the Cavaliers knocked off the record-setting Golden State Warriors last June. The Indians might do them one better if the Cubs end up advancing (and Cleveland can pull another upset). The Indians’ path has already wound its way through two of baseball’s best teams: the Red Sox and Blue Jays, who still rank second and fourth, respectively, in Elo. If the top-rated Cubs are indeed next, the Indians will have faced the fifth-toughest group of playoff-series opponents2 of any World Series team since the wildcard era began in 1995, according to their average pre-series Elo rating:3

1 1998 SDP HOU ATL NYY 1591
2 2001 NYY OAK SEA ARI 1585
3 2002 SFG ATL STL ANA 1573
4 1999 ATL HOU NYM NYY 1568
5 2016 CLE BOS TOR CHC* 1566
6 2011 STL PHI MIL TEX 1565
7 1999 NYY TEX BOS ATL 1560
8 2005 CHW BOS ANA HOU 1560
9 2012 DET OAK NYY SFG 1559
10 2004 STL LAD HOU BOS 1558
11 2009 PHI COL LAD NYY 1558
12 2002 ANA NYY MIN SFG 1558
13 2010 TEX TBR NYY SFG 1558
14 2004 BOS ANA NYY STL 1558
15 2009 NYY MIN ANA PHI 1558
16 2007 BOS ANA CLE COL 1556
17 2016 LAD WSN CHC CLE 1556
18 2013 BOS TBR DET STL 1556
19 2010 SFG ATL PHI TEX 1555
20 1997 CLE NYY BAL FLA 1555
21 2005 HOU ATL STL CHW 1555
22 2013 STL PIT LAD BOS 1554
23 2003 FLA SFG CHC NYY 1553
24 2014 KCR ANA BAL SFG 1553
25 1995 ATL COL CIN CLE 1552
26 2008 TBD CHW BOS PHI 1552
27 2016 CLE BOS TOR LAD* 1550
28 2001 ARI STL ATL NYY 1550
29 2011 TEX TBR DET STL 1550
30 2000 NYY OAK SEA NYM 1549
The most difficult World Series paths, 1995–2016

* Hypothetical match-ups contingent upon 2016 NLCS winner.
Based on average pre-series Elo ratings of each opponent. Excludes Wild Card Game for teams who participated since it began in 2012


All four of the teams that rank ahead of the Indians on that list lost the World Series, so a Cleveland victory would be far from assured. (Conditional on Chicago making the World Series, Elo thinks the Cubs would be about 60 percent favorites to beat Cleveland.) But the flip-side is that the 2016 Indians could potentially rank as the greatest underdog champions of the wild-card era.

And that’s on top of the history an Indians-Cubs World Series would produce anyway. Neither team has captured a title since Cleveland last won in 1948, and the Cubs have famously been waiting 108 years for their turn. So this is just one of many historical angles to watch for — rampantly speculating that the Cubs beat the Dodgers, of course. (Which is never a great idea when talking about a team with the Cubs’ history.)

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


  1. I say “relatively” because they did outscore Toronto just 12-8 in the series. But by the same token, the series felt more lopsided than that because the Blue Jays never led a single moment of any game outside of Game 4.

  2. Excluding the Wild Card Game.

  3. For sticklers, this probably underrates the difficulty of Cleveland’s path, because it uses Chicago’s current Elo rating through four games of the NLCS. In the universe where Chicago wins the NLCS (which we’re assuming for the sake of the ranking), the Cubs’ Elo would be even higher, and therefore Cleveland’s average opponent would be tougher.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.