The Los Angeles Dodgers survived a five-game epic against the Washington Nationals to advance to the National League Championship Series. Will they have enough in their tank to slay the Chicago Cubs, who have already racked up 106 wins? Cliff Corcoran breaks down the NLCS for USA TODAY Sports:
Los Angeles Dodgers (91-71, NL West champions) at Chicago Cubs (103-58, NL Central champions)
History: The Dodgers haven’t been to the World Series since 1988. The Cubs haven’t been there since 1945. These two teams have met in the postseason once before. In 2008, the Cubs led the NL with 97 wins and entered the postseason as favorites to go the distance. Instead, the Dodgers swept them in the Division Series and Chicago finished in last place in five of the next six years.
Below is each team’s typical lineup against right-handed starters with each batters’ weighted runs created plus in parentheses (weighted runs created plus, or wRC+, is a total-hitting stat which gives appropriate extra weight to on-base percentage over slugging and is park adjusted and set on a scale with 100 as league average). Against lefties, the Dodgers will start right-handed hitters Howie Kendrick and Yasiel Puig in the outfield corners and Charlie Culberson at second base. The only guarantee among Cubs catchers is that David Ross will catch Jon Lester’s starts.
L – Chase Utley, 2B (97)
L – Corey Seager, SS (137)
R – Justin Turner, 3B (124)
L – Adrian Gonzalez, 1B (112)
L – Josh Reddick, RF (106)
L – Joc Pederson, CF (129)
S – Yasmani Grandal, C (122)
L – Andrew Toles, LF (132)
S – Dexter Fowler, CF (129)
R – Kris Bryant, 3B (149)
L – Anthony Rizzo, 1B (145)
S – Ben Zobrist, LF (124)
R – Addison Russell, SS (95)
L – Jason Heyward, RF (72)
R – Javier Baez, 2B (94)
R – Willson Contreras, C (126)
The wRC+ figures listed above are a bit misleading for two of the Dodgers hitters. Including the Division Series, Josh Reddick has hit just .259/.308/.329 since being acquired from the A’s with Rich Hill on Aug 1.Meanwhile, rookie Andrew Toles posted that 132 wRC+ in just 115 plate appearances. Since the calendar flipped to September, Toles has hit just .218/.259/.273 in 58 plate appearances, postseason included.
The Cubs outscored the Dodgers by 83 runs, or roughly a half-run per game, their 4.99 runs second only to the park-assisted Rockies in the NL. Looking at the park-adjusted wRC+, the Cubs had the best offense in the NL, posting an NL-best team wRC+ of 106, based on a .256/.343/.429 line, and also led the league in walks (656) and on-base percentage. The Dodgers were closer to league average on all fronts.
According to park-adjusted defensive efficiency, which measures a team’s rate of turning balls in play into outs, the Dodgers had the third-best defense in the majors. Despite that, they were nowhere close to the Cubs, who lapped the field several times in that statistic. Chicago is above average at all four infield positions, and the double-play combo of 22-year-old Addison Russell and 23-year-old Javier Baez is outstanding. Baez, in particular, put on a show in the Division Series and has such quick hands that he has made being a good tagger a thing. In the outfield, despite an awful season at the plate, Jason Heyward remains an elite defender, so much so that it’s tempting to credit him in part for center fielder Dexter Fowler’s improved defensive ratings. The only hole in their defense is the 35-year-old Zobrist, who has been pushed to left by Baez’s emergence at second. By way of comparison, the Dodgers lack an elite fielder behind the pitcher, though catcher Yasmani Grandal is consistently one of the best pitch-framers. Rather, they are consistently above average around the diamond except at first base, where 34-year-old Adrian Gonzalez had a bad year in the field.
RHP Kenta Maeda (16-11, 3.48 ERA)
LHP Clayton Kershaw (12-4, 1.69)
LHP Rich Hill (12-5, 2.12)
LHP Julio Urias (5-2, 3.39)
LHP Jon Lester (19-5, 2.44 ERA)
RHP Kyle Hendricks (16-8, 2.13)
RHP Jake Arrieta (18-8, 3.10)
RHP John Lackey (11-8, 3.35)
Fully healthy and rested, Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill are the best starters on either team. However, both battled injuries late in the season, Hill threw a total of seven innings in his two NLDS starts, and Game 5 of the Division Series has thrown the Dodgers’ rotation into chaos. The above is a best guess as to how the Dodgers will line up their rotation, but it requires Kershaw pitching on two days’ rest after getting the final two outs of Game 5 on Thursday night. If Kershaw can absorb that performance as his throw day, as he claimed, all will be well, but he made his previous start on three days’ rest and missed all of July and August with a back injury.
Hill, a curveball artist who has chronic blister problems, threw 55 pitches in Game 5 and was hit on the wrist of his pitching hand by a comebacker. Urias, an elite 20-year-old prospect the Dodgers likely wish they could have shut down in September, threw 30 pitches in Game 5 and is unlikely to give L.A. more than four or five innings in a potential Game 4 start. All of that forces Maeda into Game 1, but he hasn’t made a quality start in more than a month, gave up four runs in three innings of his NLDS Game 3 start and has now allowed 12 runs in 9 2/3 innings over his last three starts.
The Cubs enter this series fully rested and lined up exactly according to manager Joe Maddon’s wishes. Included among that quartet are last year’s NL Cy Young award winner (Arrieta), a pitcher likely to finish in the top three in this year’s Cy Young voting (Lester), the NL ERA leader (Hendricks), and a veteran fourth starter with a career 3.22 ERA in 131 1/3 postseason innings (Lackey).
RHP Kenley Jansen (1.83 ERA, 47 saves)
RHP Joe Blanton (2.48 ERA)
RHP Pedro Baez (3.04 ERA)
LHP Grant Dayton (2.05 ERA)
LHP Aroldis Chapman (1.55 ERA, 36 SV)
RHP Hector Rondon (3.53, 18 SV)
RHP Pedro Strop (2.85, 54 G)
LHP Mike Montgomery (2.52, 49 G)
Jansen was great this year, but Chapman is one of the most dominant strikeout pitchers in major league history. Again, Game 5 has an impact here, as Jansen threw a career-high 51 pitches to save the Dodgers’ season. Rondon was the Cubs’ closer, and a capable one, until the deadline acquisition of Chapman. The lefty Montgomery, another mid-season acquisition, is a converted starter who can give the Cubs length as well as favorable matchups. Dig beyond the top four, who are likely to pitch the bulk of each team’s relief innings, and the comparisons continue to favor the Cubs.
Dave Roberts, Dodgers
Career postseason record: 3-2 (.600)
Roberts’ rookie season was impressive, guiding the Dodgers to an easy division win despite a record number of players hitting the disabled list and Kershaw’s two-month absence. Under Roberts, the Dodgers were last in the majors in sacrifice bunts by non-pitchers with just five. However, Roberts isn’t a hands-off manager. He was generous with intentional walks, ranking fourth in the majors with 51. He led the majors in pinch-hitters used and, in part as a result, only the Mets’ hitters had the platoon advantage more often in the NL. Roberts also led the majors in pitching changes, stemming from a quick hook with his non-Kershaw starters. Only the Pirates and A’s let their starters throw fewer pitches than the Dodgers, whose starters averaged 87.6 pitches. Twice this season, Roberts removed a starting pitcher who had a no-hitter in progress, evidence of his willing to break with convention. Further evidence of that was his aggressive use of Jansen in Game 5.
Joe Maddon, Cubs
Career postseason record: 20-23 (.465), lost 2008 World Series
Maddon won his third Manager of the Year award last year and is regarded as possibly the best manager in the game. That’s not just for his progressive in-game management, unbound by convention. It’s also for his ability to keep his team both loose and focused throughout the long season and into the high-pressure postseason. The Cubs have won 200 regular season games under him in his first two seasons. One of Maddon’s signatures is positional flexibility, and the Cubs have that in spades with Zobrist, Bryant, Baez, Contreras and Chris Coghlan all having played regularly at multiple positions. Maddon also isn’t afraid of the squeeze bunt, with the Cubs executing a major league-best eight. As impressive as Roberts’ first season has been, Maddon’s long track record and additional decades of experience give him the edge here.
Prediction: Cubs in 5
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