Tuesday, October 02, 2007
This is what October baseball is all about: close games, stunning finishes, teams of destiny. The Rockies – Phillies series in the NLDS matches the two teams of destiny against each other. The Rockies are now the trendy choice amongst pundits since they won 14 of their last 15 games, including the playoff. Yeah, they are coming in with momentum, but sometimes momentum is over-rated. The Detroit Tigers blew a massive lead in the A.L. Central last season and saw the Minnesota Twins lap them for the division crown. That didn’t bother Jim Leyland & Co., who proceeded to dispatch the opposition and go to the World Series. The St. Louis Cardinals were worse, nearly blowing the N.L. Central with an epic September swoon that would have ranked as the worst collapse in baseball history, but then rightened ship and won the World Series over the Tigers.
I’ll preview the Rockies and Phillies (NLDS #1) tomorrow. Today, we’ll talk about the rest of the playoff picture.
NLDS #2: Chicago Cubs vs. Arizona Diamondbacks. Another playoff and the Cubs meet another expansion team. The ’03 Florida Marlins stunned the Cubs on their way to their second World Series title, so can the ‘07 D-Backs do the same? If they do, it will be a major kick in the teeth of Cubs fans: you wait 99 years since a World Series crown and two expansion teams come along and win twice in the last decade.
The 2007 Cubs are a good but not great team. Despite having heavy hitters like Derek Lee (22 Home Runs, 82 RBI), Alfonso Soriano (33 Home Runs, 70 RBI) and Aramis Ramirez (26 Home Runs, 101 RBI) in the lineup, the Cubs were a surprisingly average team offensively. In the past the Cubs were a lineup littered with sluggers lacking any table-setters. The 2007 Cubs had neither. This is a team that is neither powerful, fast or good at getting on base. They ranked eighth in slugging percentage and ninth in On-Base-Percentage. They had just 86 stolen bases this season, which ranks them eighth in the N.L. and was 114 fewer than the Mets. Very boring, very middle of the pack.
The fact that Soriano had just 70 RBI is stunning to me. Sure, he's a lead-off hitter, but anyone who has 30+ home runs ought to have 80-90 RBI. The Cubs problem is that after Soriano, Lee and Ramirez, the production in the Cubs lineup drops way off. Shortstop Ryan Theriot, for example, had a .326 OBP and hit just three home runs. Second baseman Mark DeRosa had a .371 OBP, but hit just ten home runs. This is too potent a group to average below the N.L. average for runs per game: 4.64 to 4.70.
The Cubs strength lays in their pitching and defense, which makes for a tough combination in this post-season. Their starting rotation is formidable: Carlos Zambrano (18-13, 3.95 ERA), and Ted Lilly (15-8, 3.83 ERA), the starters for games one and two, are both tough hurlers. After Zambrano and Lilly comes Rich Hill (11-8, 3.92 ERA) and Jason Marquis (12-9, 4.60 ERA). The strength of their rotation helps make the Cubs one of the best teams in the N.L. on the mound. The Cubs led the N.L. in strikeouts per nine innings: 7.6, about a strikeout better than the league average of 6.7 … Interestingly, the Cubs also had one of the worst walk rates, allowing 3.6 per nine innings, one of the worst in the N.L.
Generally, speaking I think the Cubs are pretty tough on the mound: these are power pitchers who work deep into counts to get strikeouts or walks. Despite playing a park that is friendly to power-hitters like Wrigley, and despite playing the same division as the Reds, as Albert Pujols, as Prince Fielder, still had the second-lowest slugging percentage allowed. Bottom-line, this is a good pitching staff.
Defensively the Cubs are pretty good too: they were +52 in the field in Plus / Minus in 2007, fourth-best in the National League after the Rockies (+59), the Braves (+58) and the Padres (+53). Their team Zone Rating was .838, the best in the National League. This is a strong fielding team: they allowed just 40 unearned runs in 2007, the lowest in the N.L. Soriano continues to be one of the best left fielders in baseball: he threw out 19 base-runners this season, a year after throwing out 22 with the Rangers. Run on him at your peril.
Bottom-line, the 2007 Chicago Cubs are a good, solid pitching and defensive-oriented team. They are up against, coincidentally, another pitching and defense team in the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Diamondbacks are an offensively challenged team. This is a pretty punch-less lineup that scores fewer runs per game than the Cubs: 4.40. As a point of comparison, here is how the D-Backs and Cubs stack up:
Cubs / D-Backs / NL Avg
OBP: .333 / .321 / .334
SLG: .422 / .413 / .423
BA/RISP: .279 / .249 / .269
This has been commented upon ad naseum, but it is worth noting again that the D-Backs, despite posting 90 wins, a game better than the Phillies and Rockies, finished the regular season having been out-scored 712 to 732. If you go by Pythagorean Win-Loss records, the D-Backs ought to have finished 79-83, not 90-72.
This team doesn’t have much power (ninth in slugging percentage) and it doesn’t set the table at all (16th of 16 teams in OBP). Initially I wondered if small ball tactics might explain the D-Backs low numbers, but they actually were tied for fourteenth in sacrifice hits, which tells me that the D-Backs are just weak at the plate. The Cubs, by the way, rank dead-last in sac hits in 2007, so small ball didn’t suppress their meager output.
The sole strength is team speed and here we are just talking about two players: Eric Byrnes (50 steals in 57 tries) and Chris Young (27 steals in 33 tries). Byrnes fifty steals ranked him fourth overall in the N.L. It is interesting how Byrnes talent for base-stealing has come out in the Arizona desert: in 2004 and 2005 he stole 24 bases in 27 tries. In 2006 and 2007 he stole 75 in 85 tries. Byrnes also has power at the plate: 26 home runs last season and 21 this season. Not too shabby. Byrnes speed is the reason why the D-Backs rank fifth in steals, really the only part of the offensive game they are any good at.
Defense and pitching? That’s a different story. Brandon Webb was probably the best pitcher in the N.L. this season after Jake Peavy, who is a near-lock to win the NL Cy Young despite his struggles late in the season. Webb was very good last season when he won the Cy Young with a 16-8, 3.10 ERA. He was even better in 2007, going 18-10 with a 3.01 ERA. He improved in terms of strikeouts: 7.7 K/9 in 2007 vs. 7.3 in 2006 and allowed just twelve home runs in 236 innings (0.48 HR/9). He’s one of the best pitchers in the N.L. If the Diamondbacks are going to have any chance, they need Webb to take down Zambrano in Game One.
After Webb the quality of the D-Backs pitching staff drops off dramatically. It is worth noting that despite having Webb in the rotation gobbling up 236 innings, the D-Backs pitching staff had an Fielding Independent ERA of 4.47, 0.04 worse than the league average.
I looked at the D-Backs fielding stats and was particularly unimpressed. The D-Backs had a good +39 in the field, but they allowed 70 unearned runs and their Zone Rating was .814, worse than the league average. While the Cubs .707 Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER) was the best in the N.L., the D-Backs .694 was just .003 better than the league average.
Bottom-line: if Brandon Webb can dominate the Cubs in game one and game four or five, the D-Backs have a chance if they can sneak a win in one of the other games. I don't see it. I like the D-Backs in game one, but the rest of the series belongs to the Cubs.
Prediction: Cubs in four.
Tune in later today for a preview of the ALDS games. Tomorrow, Phillies - Rockies preview.
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