Friday, October 16, 2015

Your On the Field of Play Postseason Guide - Championship Series Edition

I batted .500 in the wild cards round, getting the Cubs over the Pirates but not the Astros over the Cubs. I did better in the Divisional Series round, correctly picking Toronto over Texas, Kansas City over Houston, and Chicago over St. Louis, missing New York over Los Angeles. (For those of you who listened to my Banished to the Pen podcast appearance, my pick of Toronto over Los Angeles in the World Series is already kaput.) 


The American League Division Series offered the possibility of interesting Championship Series matchups: Power vs. power Toronto/Houston. All-Lone Star State Texas/Houston. Instead, we've got what was probably the most likely outcome: The two teams with the best record in the American League. Both American League Division Series went the full five games, so the teams have equally depleted pitching staffs. Toronto will start Marco Estrada tonight, David Price tomorrow afternoon, and Marcus Stroman Monday night against the Royals' Edinson Volquez, Yordano Ventura, and Johnny Cueto, respectively.

This series, like Kansas City's against Houston, features some contrasts in hitting, though fewer than in the Division Series. The Blue Jays led the league in home runs; the Royals were second to last. Toronto drew the most walks, Kansas City the fewest. But the Blue Jays don't pair strikeouts with power: They had the fourth lowest strikeout rate, though Kansas City had the lowest by far. As a result, while the Royals get kudos for making contact when they swing, their contact rate, second in the league, isn't dramatically higher than that of the Jays (seventh), and the Jays are less free-swinging, chasing the second lowest percentage of pitches outside the strike zone as the Royals chased the second highest

Both teams made big pitching acquisitions at the trade deadline, with the Royals adding Cueto and the Blue Jays getting Price. Since the All-Star break, Blue Jays pitchers allowed the lowest rate of hard contact on batted balls, the third highest rate of soft contact, and the lowest rate of home runs on fly balls. The Royals were seventh on all three measures. Over the full season, the Royals had the better bullpen, but the two teams' relievers were very close in the season's second half, with a 3.33 ERA for Kansas City and a 3.35 ERA for Toronto. Toronto's relievers struck out fewer batters but walked a lot fewer. 

Toronto got here by playing one of the most memorable playoff games ever in the deciding Game Five. Kansas City's Game Five win was much less exciting. But it's not a carryover of momentum or emotion or heart that's going to decide the series. It's talent, and from what I can see, the Blue Jays have more at the plate and in their starting rotation, with the Royals having better fielders and a better bullpen. I'll take the Blue Jays' plusses over the Royals'. Toronto in six.


There could be as many four dates on which there will be both ALCS and NLCS games: Saturday the 17th and Tuesday the 20th for sure, Wednesday the 21st and Saturday the 24th depending on how far the series go. Gee, which of the two games on those dates do you think will get the prime time slot: Kansas City (No. 31 media market in US) vs. Toronto (No. 1 in Canada, a nation with a population less than that of California), or Chicago (No. 3 in US) vs. New York (No. 1)? [UPDATE: I wrote that before MLB announced the official start times. I was 75% right. The Cubs-Mets game is prime time on October 17, October 20, and, if the ALCS goes to five games, October 21. It'll be the afternoon game on October 24, but only if the ALCS goes to seven games.]

These two teams are surprisingly similar. You think of the Cubs, and you think of young hitters, and you'd be right: per Baseball Reference, Cubs hitters are the second youngest in the league. You think of the Mets, and you think of young pitchers, and you'd be kind of right: Baseball Reference lists the Mets as the seventh youngest, but that's thrown off by the presence of 42-year-old Bartolo Colon; remove him and they're second or third youngest. But here are the similarities:

  • On offense, both teams are extreme fly ball hitters. The Cubs and Mets were 1-2 in the 15-team National League in percentage of batted balls that were fly balls, and 14-15 in the percentage of batted balls that were grounders.
  • When they hit the ball in the air, they left the park more than average: the Cubs were fourth in homers/fly balls, the Mets fifth.
  • They both refused to chase pitches outside the strike zone. The Mets swung at the lowest percentage of pitches outside the zone, the Cubs the second lowest.
  • Batters had a hard time making contact against both pitching staffs: The Mets were 11th in contact rate, the Cubs 12th. And they kept fly balls in the yard, as Mets pitchers were tenth in homers/fly balls, the Cubs eleventh.
  • Both pitching staffs struck out a lot of batters, though, contrary to perception, the Cubs hurlers struck out more, with the highest strikeout rate in the league. The Mets were fifth. Both avoided bases on balls, as the Mets had the second lowest walk rate and the Cubs the fourth lowest.
  • Both teams' pitchers induced a lot of grounders, with the Cubs and Mets ranking sixth and seventh in percentage of batted balls hit on the ground.
There were some differences. The Cub hitters struck out more (first in the league) than the Mets (eighth), but they also walked more (second highest walk rate, the Mets were sixth). Mets pitchers were more fly ball prone, and Cubs pitchers more line drive prone.

I'm picking the Cubs in seven for three reasons. First, once you adjust for their respective home fields, the Cubs had a better pitching staff. Park-adjusted offense is a bit of a tossup (the Mets overall appear to be a bit better), but park-adjusted pitching isn't. Second, the Cubs's last game was on Tuesday, so their pitching staff will enter the NLCS pretty well rested, while the Mets won't have Jacob deGrom available until the third game of the series, and it's not clear when Noah Syndergaard, who pitched only one inning yesterday but warmed up multiple times, will be ready to go. Third, while both teams came on strong during the second half of the season, the Mets had a considerably easier schedule. Beginning July 28, the Mets played 63 games, going 39-24: Six against the Yankees and Pirates, against whom they went 1-5; nine against the Nationals, who were in meltdown mode; and 48 against teams that finished .500 or worse. The Cubs, over the same stretch, played better--45-19--against a much tougher schedule that included 19 games against teams that qualified for the postseason. As a result, Baseball Prospectus calculates the Cubs with 96 third order wins (based on run differential and quality of opponents) compared to 88 for the Mets. I expect a close series between two similar and evenly matched teams, but I think the Cubs are the better club.

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