Cubs on cusp of World Series as Kershaw tries to save Dodgers in Game 6

With Thursday night’s 8–4 NLCS Game 5 victory, the Cubs are one win away from their first trip to the World Series since 1945. As with Games 1 and 4, they took advantage of Dodgers mistakes in Game 5, breaking open a close game with a five-run inning.

But even with the series returning to Wrigley Field, a trip to the World Series is hardly a guarantee, as Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw will take the ball opposite Kyle Hendricks, with a Rich Hill-Jake Arrieta matchup likely for Game 7 if the Dodgers win. What follows here are a few quick thoughts about the game, which will start at 8:08 PM.

You can watch Game 6 on FS1 or Fox Sports GO—the place for streaming video

The Burden of History

For any team down three games to two in a best-of-seven series, winning the final two games on the road is a tall task. Just 10 teams have pulled it off, and we’re certain to hear plenty about one of those who wound up on the short end so long as this series continues. The list:

1926 World Series: Cardinals over Yankees
1934 World Series: Cardinals over Tigers
1952 World Series: Yankees over Dodgers
1958 World Series: Yankees over Braves
1968 World Series: Tigers over Cardinals
1979 World Series: Pirates over Orioles
1985 AL Championship Series: Royals over Blue Jays
1991 NL Championship Series: Braves over Pirates
2003 NL Championship Series: Marlins over Cubs
2004 AL Championship Series: Red Sox over Yankees

The one you’ll hear about, of course, is the 2003 Cubs, who were five outs away from winning Game 6 when all hell broke loose in the form of fan Steve Bartman’s interference with a Luis Castillo foul ball. This is only the second time the team has been back to the NLCS since, and after last year’s sweep, it’s as close as they’ve gotten to chasing the ghosts away. You can read more about that and the franchise’s other NLCS horror shows here, but remember that the Cubs are the ones with the upper hand. Via WhoWins, teams in their position are 37–10 in those series, for a .787 series winning percentage.

The meager .223 series winning percentage of teams on the Dodgers’ side is slightly better than we’d expect given the typical home-field advantage of what we’ll call the seven-game LCS era (starting in 1985). Since then (but not including the incomplete 2016 postseason slate), home teams have won games at a .547 clip, which means that the expected series winning percentage of the visiting team, which needs to win both games under such conditions, are .453 squared, or .205. Granted, not all of those teams had a Kershaw going for them …

You Again?

Kershaw pitched to a 1.69 ERA and 1.80 FIP with 10.4 strikeouts per nine in 149 innings this year, a workload abbreviated by his two absences due to a herniated disc in his back. In Game 2, with just two days of rest since his Division Series-sealing relief cameo, the three-time Cy Young winner made the best start of his postseason career, holding the Cubs hitless for 4 2/3 innings and delivering seven scoreless frames while allowing only a pair of singles. It was the first time in any of his 13 postseason starts that he’d held an opponent scoreless; the turn, which featured six strikeouts against just one walk over the course of 84 pitches, yielded a 78 game score, also a postseason best, topping his 2013 NLDS Game 1 turn against the Braves (76) and last year’s NLDS Game 4 outing against the Mets (74), which was made on three days of rest.

Hendricks is no slouch, however. The 26-year-old righty broke out to lead the NL with a 2.13 ERA in 190 innings this year, with a 3.20 FIP and 8.1 strikeouts per nine. He didn’t pitch badly opposite Kershaw in Game 2, allowing just one run in 5 1/3 innings with five strikeouts, while yielding three hits and four walks. The damage might have been worse had reliever Carl Edwards not induced an inning-ending double play when the Dodgers put two on with one out in the sixth.

Having seen each starter before once in this series, are the opposing offenses at an advantage? Kershaw seems to think that the repeated exposure doesn’t help the hurlers. Via the Orange County Register’s Bill Plunkett:

“Pitchers definitely don’t have an advantage,” Kershaw said of facing the same team in such close succession. “I don’t know if the hitters have an advantage. But pitchers—the more you see somebody, the more familiar you get with them. I mean, that’s true for sure.

“I don’t think there’s anything that you do to counteract it. I said this the other day … there’s no secrets in the game right now. There’s so much information. They know every pitch that I throw and every count and every situation. So it’s just a matter of not really focusing on that and just trying to compete every single pitch and execute every single pitch. You may have a little less margin for error facing them the second time.”

Kershaw’s stance seems reasonable, particularly when one considers the wealth of data on times through the order within a single game. In 2016, when major leaguers as a group hit for a .255 batting average and a .721 OPS overall (.260/.732 against starters, .246/.702 against relievers), they went for a .254/.725 split while facing a starter for the first time, .260/.753 the second and .271/.792 the third.

But what about within a series? On Friday, my former Baseball Prospectus colleague Ben Lindbergh published a study on that subject for The Ringer. With the help of Dan Hirsch of The Baseball Gauge, Lindbergh examined all starters with two starts in a postseason series dating back to 1903, the year of the first World Series, and separated those starting on three days’ rest (326 pairs of starts) from those on four or five days rest (336 pairs). The short-rest group’s ERAs rose from 3.02 in the first start to 3.48 in the second, with their OPS allowed rising from .654 to .680. The regular-rest group went from a 3.49 ERA to 3.52, with their OPS allowed actually dropping from .688 to .678. In other words, while the short-rest group experienced some amount of decline the second time around, the regular-rest group was basically unchanged.

That holds true even when isolating starters from the wild-card era, where regular-rest starts are about thee times as common (211 pairs to 70 in this study). The short-rest group saw their ERAs rise from 3.92 to 4.74, and their OPS allowed from .702 to .758, while the regular-rest group delivered identical 3.73 ERAs in both starts, with an OPS allowed that actually fell, from .712 to .691.

All of which suggest that there’s no particular disadvantage for a rested pitcher facing a team for the second time in a series. Here it’s worth noting that the Dodgers debated starting Kershaw on short rest again for Game 5. Given the modest pitch count of his previous start and the chance to throw again in Dodger Stadium, where he owns a 1.08 ERA this year and a 1.99 career mark (compared to 2.80 on the road), he was probably better set up for such a start than an any of the other four times he’s done so. But having squeezed 19 1/3 innings out of him in a 10-day span already, they decided to hold him back for Game 6, with Kenta Maeda starting in Game 5. Yes, there was something to be said for increasing their odds of going up 3–2 by calling upon their ace; I argued in favor of using Kershaw on short rest in the Division Series even if it meant Hill starting on short rest as well. They went that route, and it paid off.

But given how shaky Maeda has been in the postseason, his pitching Game 6 at Wrigley and needing extensive bullpen support might have put the Dodgers in a lesser position for a potential Game 7, where expecting Kershaw to come out of the bullpen again on two days’ rest may have been asking too much. That’s the implication of their decision to orient their rotation as they did. I’m not sure that was the right call, but we’ll see if it pays off.

See all of Sports Illustrated’s coverage from the Cubs’ quest for a World Series title

The Top Shelf

Admittedly, Lindbergh and Hirsch didn’t control for a number of factors in their study, including home/road, pre-series rest and opposing lineup quality, but suggested that over a large enough sample, such effects would wash out. It would be interesting to see what would happen if they had isolated a smaller subset of top-shelf pitchers—the Kershaws and Lesters of the world, so to speak—but then the samples would have been much, much smaller.

Speaking of which, it’s been repeated, on Twitter, television and elsewhere that one of the few weaknesses of this year’s Cubs team is their struggle against elite pitching. That shouldn’t be too surprising. Just about everybody struggles against elite pitching, which is why it’s elite. But is there any truth to the Cubs’ struggles in particular?

Taking a quick stab, I divided the starters who faced the Cubs this year into two groups: those who pitched at least 100 innings with an ERA+ of at least 120 and the rest. I could have used 162 innings, the ERA qualifier, but that would have left out several strong pitchers with partial seasons due to injuries or minor league callups; neither Kerhsaw nor Hill actually started against them during the regular season, but the impressive likes of the Rockies’ Tyler Anderson, the Pirates’ Jameson Taillon and the Brewers’ Junior Guerra did. Admittedly, this arbitrary cutoff that leaves out some big names such as Zack Greinke and Stephen Strasburg, but as a first-cut attempt, it’s worth seeing what comes up.

At first glance, there may be something to that notion.

Group IP/GS QS% ERA K/9 Team WPCT
≥120 ERA+ 6.1 58% 3.13 10.2 .545
<120 ERA+ 5.1 30% 5.64 7.7 .313
MLB SP Avg 5.8 47% 4.0 7.4 .500

Wow. Even while being spared facing their own quartet of 120 ERA+ hurlers, the Cubs were treated quite rudely by those top starters, who were somewhere along the lines of the 2016 editions of Jake Arrieta, Jacob deGrom and Carlos Martinez in terms of run prevention if not strikeout rates, but they beat up on the rest of the starters like they just got off the bus from Triple A. What we lack, of course, is a basis of comparison, and as I did this by hand (doing it for all 30 teams isn’t practical.) But here are the Dodgers:

Group IP/GS QS% ERA K/9 Team WPCT
≥120 ERA+ 6.4 67% 2.75 8.2 .545
120 ERA+ 5.3 34% 5.03 7.6 .313
MLB SP Avg 5.8 47% 4.0 7.4 .500

Those elite starters were even better at run prevention against the Dodgers, but their teams didn’t fare as well, and the gap between their performance and the rest of the pack isn’t as high.

Still, if we move away from ERA to runs per nine to compare each set to team scoring as a whole, the differences come out in the wash. Elite starters allowed 3.31 runs per nine against the Cubs, the rest 5.93, and the overall average for the team was 4.99, so the gap is 1.68 runs per nine better for the elites. Against the Dodgers, the elites allowed 2.84 runs per nine, the rest 5.56, and all pitchers as a whole 4.48, a gap of 1.64 runs per nine for the elites.

Granted, you could draw the line at a different place (perhaps using an equivalent of RA+ instead of ERA+ as a to define the elites) and get a slightly different result, but at least relative to their opponents, the Cubs’ struggles against top-shelf pitching aren’t unique.

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