So, About The Cubs: Is It Panic Time?
By Stephen Gossett in News on Oct 19, 2016 8:35PM
After capping off the NLDS with a storybook ninth-inning comeback, then taking Game One of the NLCS thanks to a pinch-hit grand slam that equally looked like an instant classic moment, the Cubs suddenly find themselves down 2-1 in the series. They were blanked by Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw in Game Two then again by curveball specialist Rich Hill on Tuesday night. Given the stakes and the Cubs’ history of postseason letdowns, its fair to say there are some gritted teeth and clenched butts among the Wrigley faithful.
But should we be worried? The team itself certainly isn’t telegraphing much anxiety—and it isn’t just the one-game-at-a-time sports cliché-o-matic.
First of all, the Cubs have seen some good pitches and will likely continue to do so. Manager Joe Maddon after the most recent loss wasn't alarmed by his team's performance at the plate. “It’s just about hard contact,” Maddon said. “Overall, the at-bats haven’t been bad. We’re just not hitting the balls. We’re not striking it well. So we’re making it easier on their defense. But it’s more of a mental exercise than it is a physical one right now.”
Nothing illustrates Maddon’s point better than Hill’s fifth and sixth innings. In the first four innings, when the Dodgers had no more than a 1-0 lead, Hill threw strikes just 60.8 percent of the time. By the time his team had extended the game to a 3-0 lead, Hill’s pitch count hadn’t gotten higher so he essentially decided to just pound the zone and see if the Cubs could get themselves out. They obliged, as he tossed 75 percent strikes and the Cubs managed just one Bryant single in seven at-bats.
And, while my advanced sabermetrics analysis indicates that scoring runs is indeed better than not scoring runs, even if the Cubs don’t turn into the world-beating offensive juggernaut they were during the regular season, their prospects should remain good. Sharma again, investigating outfielder Chris Coghlan's claim that you might not really need to pile up the hits to advance:
The Cubs are hitting just .161/.235/.312 in this series, but they hit just .200/.247/.350 in the previous series and managed to beat the San Francisco Giants. Of course, their pitchers did a lot of heavy lifting at the plate. Patient at-bats and timely hits can swing the series back in the Cubs’ favor. And coming out of offensive slumps to do exactly that is something they’d managed to do for much of the season, so it’s hardly too large of a request.
Plus, as FiveThirtyEight illustrates, it's statistically improbable that the Cubs will continue their twin offensive and pitching woes:
If so inclined, Cubs fans could spin all (their cold streak) in a positive direction: A rare combination of sloppy pitching and punchless hitting was required to put Chicago in its current 2-1 NLCS hole, and neither of those trends is likely to persist going forward. In fact, our Elo model considers the Cubs slim favorites in each of the series’ next two games (despite both being staged at Dodger Stadium), and they need to win only one of those to guarantee at least one more matchup at Wrigley Field, where Elo has them as more sizable 60 percent favorites. That’s why their current 40 percent Elo odds are slightly better than the historical average (37 percent) for teams with home-field advantage who found themselves in a 2-1 hole. This series probably hasn’t reached its denouement just yet.
So un-grit those teeth and de-clench those butts, Chicago. It's clearly too early for all that. Now if the Cubs lose tonight...