2016 NLCS Preview: Cubs are tough, but the Dodgers have a chance

That was an emotionally charged series the Dodgers just completed against the Nationals. Now, they turn their sights to the Cubs, a team that broke the #EYBS (look it up) curse by beating the Giants in four games.

The Dodgers (91-71, 3-2 in NLDS) and Cubs (103-58, 3-1 in NLDS) begin the National League Championship Series on Saturday with the Dodgers in much worse shape than the Cubs, personnel-wise.

Here’s an in-depth look at the series.

By The Numbers

Offense Dodgers Cubs
Runs/Game 4.5 5.0
AVG .249 .256
OBP .319 .343
SLG .409 .429
wRC+ 98 106
HR 189 199
SB 45 66
BB% 8.5 10.4
K% 21.4 21.1
Exit Velo 89.9 88.7

The Cubs aren’t a dissimilar offensive team than the Nationals, with the biggest difference being that they get on base at a much better clip than Washington (.325). That’s thanks in large part to an MLB-best walk rate. Otherwise, they’re similar to the Nats … and Dodgers, for that matter. They don’t sting the ball as hard as LA, but they averaged the third-most runs per game in the majors this season.

The Cubs also boast the best offense against left-handed pitching, posting a 116 wRC+ against southpaws in 2016. They weren’t half-bad against righties, either (109 wRC+ RHP).

Pitching Dodgers Cubs
ERA 3.70 3.15
FIP 3.61 3.77
xFIP 3.75 3.74
K% 25.1 24.3
BB% 7.7 8.3
SwStr% 11.4 11.0
BAA .230 .209
HR/9 1.02 1.01
Exit Velo 87.9 89.0

The pitching is where the Cubbies strive. They led the majors in ERA by almost a half a run, and they also led baseball in batting average against and were not far off the Dodgers’ MLB-record strikeout rate. They give up harder contact than the Dodgers, but the numbers are, for the most part, in the same ballpark. Chicago’s bullpen is also pretty good — 3.56 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 3.72 xFIP, 26.2 K%, 10.1 BB%.

The defensive independent numbers would seem to suggest that the Cubs pitching staff isn’t actually that much better than the Dodgers, and they probably aren’t. However, the results are still relevant because the Cubs pitching staff is still actually pitching in front of by far the best defensive unit in the league (more later), and I can’t imagine defense not being a factor in this series.

Head-To-Head

The Cubs ended up taking the season series from the Dodgers 4-3. The Dodgers dropped three of four at Wrigley Field in late-May/early-June and took two of three at Dodger Stadium in August.

The first meeting was May 30 in Chicago, and it was Game 1 of a four-game series. Alex Wood made his final start of the season there and gave up two runs on seven hits in five innings, striking out seven. The game was lost, but if Wood’s included on the NLCS roster as a reliever, he could do some damage in that role. Game 2 of the series was scoreless through seven innings as Scott Kazmir dueled Jake Arrieta. Five runs in the final two innings, including a three-run home run by Seager, was the difference in the game. Game 3 saw Enrique Hernandez lead off the game with a home run. After that, Jon Lester got locked in and ended up throwing a complete game (four hits, one run, no walks, 10 strikeouts). In Game 4, the series finale, Julio Urias made his second start of his career and was good, then bad, then good again. But, future 2016 NL MVP did this to a baseball.

In Los Angeles for a three-game set, the Dodgers dropped Game 1 by a 6-4 score even though they were leading 4-2 after seven innings. Kris Bryant launched a home run off Joe Blanton in the eighth, and a wild pitch by Kenley Jansen in the ninth allowed the tying run to score. The Cubs got the game-winning runs, again, off the bat of Bryant in the form of a two-run home run. Game 2 was Urias’ revenge. Going up against Jason Hammel, Urias fired one of his best games of the season: 6 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 8 K. The offense did just enough to secure a 3-2 win. In Game 3, the series finale, Lester again got the ball against the Dodgers and, again, was really good (6 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 6 K). He was opposed by Brock Stewart, who had, easily, his best outing of the season: 5 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 8 K. It was, ironically (if you watched any of the Cubs-Giants series), a bad play by Javier Baez that gave the Dodgers the only run of the game.

Rosters

Just announced this morning.

Dodgers

Starting Pitchers (4): Rich Hill, Clayton Kershaw, Kenta MaedaJulio Urias

Relief Pitchers (8): Luis Avilan, Pedro Baez, Joe Blanton, Grant Dayton, Josh Fields, Kenley JansenRoss Stripling, Alex Wood

Catchers (2): Yasmani Grandal, Carlos Ruiz

Infielders (5): Adrian Gonzalez, Enrique HernandezCorey Seager, Justin Turner, Chase Utley

Outfielders (6): Andre Ethier, Howie Kendrick, Joc Pederson, Yasiel Puig, Josh Reddick, Andrew Toles

Charlie Culberson and Austin Barnes were removed in favor of Enrique Hernandez and Alex Wood. It’s fine Hernandez is replacing Culberson, but he shouldn’t take away any plate appearances from Pederson. Unfortunately, this also means Ruiz may not be used as liberally in pinch-hitting situations. That wouldn’t be good.

And here’s something to keep in mind;

The Dodgers rotation figures to go something like this:

  • Game 1: Maeda (Official)
  • Game 2: Kershaw
  • Game 3: Hill
  • Game 4: Urias/Stripling
  • Game 5: Kershaw
  • Game 6: Maeda
  • Game 7: Hill

At least, that’s how I’d do it. Kershaw is going to throw on Sunday, and if he were to come back in Game 5, that’d be on three days’ rest. Whether it happens or not might be dependent on how the series is at that point, if it isn’t already over. Either way, this time the Dodgers are going to need at least one start from a non-Kershaw, Hill or Maeda pitcher, and Urias might be the best bet.

Defensively, nothing has changed for the Dodgers since the NLDS, and we all know about these guys by now. We know what they can do at the plate and on the mound and, of course, in the field. Again though, what typically goes overlooked is the Dodgers ended up with a defense that’s in the top 10 of all of baseball according to both of the main metrics: 31.4 UZR/150 (6th), 29 DRS (6th). They’re also third in Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency at 1.67.

Cubs

Starting Pitchers (4): Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, John LackeyJon Lester

Relief Pitchers (8): Aroldis Chapman, Carl Edwards, Justin Grimm, Mike Montgomery, Hector Rondon, Pedro StropTravis Wood, Rob Zastryzny

Catchers (3): Wilson ContrerasMiguel Montero, David Ross

Infielders (5): Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Ben Zobrist

Outfielders (5): Albert Almora, Chris CoghlanDexter Fowler, Jason Heyward, Jorge Soler

Offensively, the Cubs’ prowess is known. Bryant is going to win the NL MVP, Rizzo is one of the best offensive first basemen in the game, Russell was opportunistic and Fowler (.393) and Zobrist (.386) had on-base percentages near .400. They had four qualified players post a 124 wRC+ or better and got plenty of contribution from Contreras (126 wRC+), Coghlan (113), Tommy La Stella — who didn’t even make the roster — (106), Soler (106), Almora (101) and Ross (101).

I know you’re wondering about left-handed pitchers. Well, the Cubs have a few. Lester and “swell” fella Chapman are known commodities, but Montgomery, Wood and Zastryzny (who didn’t make the NLDS roster but makes sense in this series) could be keys out of the ‘pen for the Cubs. All three of them had success against the Dodgers this season.

From the right side, Edwards is the big guy. He had a 37.7 strikeout percentage, and he was followed by Strop at 32.1 percent, Rondon at 29 percent and Grimm at 28.9 percent. Strop and Rondon have solid and good walk rates (8.0 and 4.0, respectively), but the other righty relievers are 10.1 and 10.2, respectively. Patience might be the way to go when facing the Cub relievers.

The Cubs have already announced their first four starters in this series:

  • Game 1: Lester
  • Game 2: Hendricks
  • Game 3: Arrieta
  • Game 4: Lackey
  • Game 5: Lester
  • Game 6: Hendricks
  • Game 7: Arrieta

That sets up real nicely for the Cubs if the series ends up going six or seven games.

As if the Cubs weren’t great enough on offense and on the mound, they were also baseball’s best defensive team. They had 82 defensive runs saved (next-highest was 51) and a 9.1 UZR/150 (next-highest was 6.7). That’s thanks in large part to plus-defense from nearly everyone on the diamond.

  • Rizzo, 1B: 11 DRS, 5.0 UZR/150
  • Baez, 2B: 11 DRS, 16.3 UZR/150 (383 Innings)
  • Bryant, 3B: 4 DRS, 7.7 UZR/150
  • Russell, SS: 19 DRS, 14.3 UZR/150
  • Fowler, CF: 1 DRS, 1.0 UZR/150
  • Heyward, RF: 14 DRS, 21.6 UZR/150

The Cubs might have the most versatile roster in baseball, as guys like Baez played all over the infield, Bryant played left field (and well) and Zobrist played all over the diamond (not at a plus-level, but he wasn’t unplayable at second and the outfield, either).

So yeah … yikes.

Likely Lineups

Dodgers vs. RHP
Utley 2B
Seager SS
Turner 3B
Gonzalez 1B
Reddick RF
Pederson CF
Grandal C
Toles LF

Dodgers vs. LHP
Kendrick LF
Turner 3B
Seager SS
Puig RF
Gonzalez 1B
Grandal C
Pederson CF
Utley 2B

Cubs vs. RHP
Fowler CF
Bryant 3B
Rizzo 1B
Zobrist LF
Russell SS
Heyward RF
Baez 2B
Montero C

Cubs vs. LHP
Fowler CF
Bryant 3B
Rizzo 1B
Zobrist LF
Russell SS
Heyward RF
Baez 2B
Contreras C

Note: Ross will catch any start made by Lester.

X-Factor

Julio Urias

By now, everyone knows about the 20-year-old. He made a strong two-inning relief appearance in Game 5 of the NLDS, and showed off his impressive pickoff move (no, it isn’t a balk). The Dodgers will need a fourth starter in this series and Urias had two five-inning outings against the Cubs this season. If he can replicate the second one in this series, that would be nothing short of amazing. Even if he doesn’t go five or six innings, he could be effective for four innings and pitch later in the series, if needed. This could be his proverbial coming out party.

Addison Russell

His defense is top-notch and he has some ability in his bat (especially power), so Russell is one of the better young shortstops in baseball and has a bright future. Where he might come in handy in this series is against all the Dodgers’ left-handed pitchers. He’s more productive against southpaws (113 wRC+ vs. LHP, 88 wRC+ vs. RHP), and while he does have some swing-and-miss in his game and doesn’t hit for the highest average, hitting in the middle of the Cubs’ lineup with that kind of power is something the Dodgers need to be keenly aware of in this series.

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The Cubs haven’t won a World Series in 108 years, which makes the Dodgers’ 28-year drought seem minuscule by comparison. These are the two best teams in the National League (despite the Dodgers “only” winning 91 games), and this figures to be a great matchup. Can the Dodgers’ big-name starters neutralize the Cubs’ big-name hitters? That’ll be a theme throughout the series. And can the Dodgers finally start hitting against lefties? We shall see.

This won’t be a sweep either way, and I’d even be surprised if it were even a 5-game series. I’m betting it goes at least six games and quite possibly seven.

Here we go.

About Dustin Nosler

Dustin Nosler
Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosts a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He is a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif.