Here we are again: the Cubs down 1-0 in the NLDS and looking extremely tight and nervous.  The situation is arguably worse this year, as the Cubs are sending to the mound in Game 2 a man who has had nothing his last couple times out.  Let’s pretend that Carlos hasn’t been crappy lately; what do the numbers say?

Game 2: Zambrano vs. Billingsley

Martin, Ethier, and Kemp have eaten Zambrano for lunch in their short careers, but the sample sizes are small.  Still, this is troubling.  Zambrano’s two starts against the Dodgers this year:

May 28th in Chicago: 8 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 4 BB, 3 K, W

June 7th @ L.A.: 6.2 IP, 13 H (!!), 7 R, 1 BB, 6 K, L

All together: 14.2 IP, 19 H, 8 R, 5 BB, 9 K, 1-1

So one pretty good start and one bad start, both pre-Manny.

What about Billingsley versus the Cubs?  Let’s forget career stats and just look at this year:

May 26th @ Chicago: 6 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 7 K, L

June 5th in L.A.: 5 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 3 BB, 8 K, ND

All together: 11 IP, 11 H, 6 R, 5 BB, 15 K, 0-1

Neither pitcher really excelled in his starts against the opposing team this year, though Billingsley’s strikeout total is impressive.  This is probably a better matchup for the Cubs than Lowe, but that’s not really saying much.

Were Zambrano pitching at the top of his game, I’d be optimistic about tonight; however, given his recent performance, I have a bad feeling that this one will get out of hand early.  The Cubs will probably put more than 2 on the board against Billingsley, but it won’t matter if Z craps the bed.  As Cubs fans, all we can hope for is that our mercurial faux ace pitches like he did earlier in the season.

One last thing: if the Cubs do lose tonight, they will have a better chance of reeling off three straight to win the series than they did last year after falling behind 0-2.  The Dodgers will likely have a tough time with Harden even if he’s not completely on his game, and Lilly matches up very favorably with either short-rest Lowe or whatever guy the Dodgers select to pitch Game 4.  However, the most probable road to a series victory obviously begins with a win tonight.

Some other previews of the Dodgers/Cubs series, with my thoughts:

Baseball Reference: Just the facts—draw your own conclusions from the data.

Baseball Prospectus: While I agree with Christina Kahrl’s general thesis—these teams are closer in quality than they look at first glance—I think she overstates the importance of Rafael Furcal.  Before he got hurt, he was hitting at a clip far better than his career numbers, and he’s only played in four games since returning from injury.  In other words: his early season heroics were flukey, and he’s probably not yet capable of even being in a position to produce those flukey numbers given his health and the rust that he has surely gathered.  She claims the Dodgers with Furcal and Manny are almost the offensive equals of the Cubs (Sal Baxamusa says the same at The Hardball Times using Marcels projections), which seems rather far-fetched even with a fully healthy Furcal; with a rusty, possibly still-hurting Furcal, it’s total bullshit.  Also, like so many things at BP, the article is almost well-written.  Almost.

The Hardball Times:  Tim Dierkes’ preview at THT is…pretty mediocre.  He says Cubs in five, just like Kahrl.

ESPN:  I have to admit that I feel much better about the Cubs’ chances given Keith Law’s and Rob Neyer’s predictions of a Cubs victory.  Granted, they both picked the Cubs to win last year, too, but…OK, I have no rational justification for feeling better due to their picks.

Here’s the thing: if you go back and look at last year’s “expert picks,” you will find near-universal agreement that the Cubs would win.  Nate Silver, inventor of PECOTA and excellent political blogger, predicted a Cubs sweep.  Law and Neyer, as previously mentioned, picked the Cubs, as did most other ESPN analysts (with the notable exception of Jonah Keri).  The Cubs got swept, and looked horrible doing so.  This year’s Cubs are clearly better than last year’s, but the Dodgers are probably a better team at this point than the Diamondbacks were a year ago.  The point is that, as so many others have said, THIS IS A CRAPSHOOT. Even if Zambrano and Harden were pitching like they were in the middle of the summer, I wouldn’t put the Cubs’ chances to win the series above 65%; as it is, they’re probably significantly lower (though still, I believe, higher than 50%).

This is why, as easy as it is to get wrapped up in the drama of the postseason, one needs to take a deep breath beforehand and acknowledge that one’s team probably won’t win the World Series.  Even for those of us able to acknowledge that fact, there will be many—myself included—who will be deeply disappointed if they don’t win it all.  But disappointment is different from surprise; don’t kid yourself that the Cubs are “likely” to do anything.

Also: one of my favorite aspects of the postseason in any sport is trying to get myself to hate teams that I normally would have nothing against.  I tend to be quite good at quickly figuring something out that slightly bothers me about an opponent and working it up into a huge irritant.  Prior to the January 2007 Bears/Seahawks playoff game, for instance, I had never had a mean thought in my life about Matt Hasselbeck, but in the week leading up to the game I let all the talk of his efficiency and high quarterback IQ start to annoy me (this is, I realize, a very weird thing to be annoyed by; I had to really work hard to hate the Seahawks), and when he threw a pick in the 4th quarter I found myself yelling at the TV the following: “oh, not such a high quarterback IQ now, huh Hasselbeck?  Hey, that wasn’t very efficient!”

This year, however, I have no idea what’s going to tick me off about the Dodgers.  I’ve always found Manny charming, the eminently hateable Jeff Kent and Juan Pierre are on the bench, and I just can’t imagine finding something irritating about Russell Martin or Andre Ethier.  Last year, it was easy: Eric Byrnes is one annoying motherfucker, and I managed to direct so much hatred at him that some spilled into the rest of the outfield; by Game 2, I inexplicably hated Chris Young.  But where to start this year?  Where’s the seed of hatred?  I suppose I could turn my hatred towards the Dodgers’ fans, who apparently can’t be bothered to buy up playoff tickets and who only rank 12th in the majors in average percentage of seats bought per game (that is, attendance per game divided by seating capacity).  But there’s a problem with that: I’m moving to L.A. in January, and I just feel that it’s somehow psychically bad to insult a group of people (including my new boss) among whom I will soon be living.  But I’m confident that something will come up—it always does.  If I can get worked up about Matt Hasselbeck’s passer rating, I’m sure I can find a Dodger or two to hate.

The 2008 Cubs exceeded almost everyone’s expectations and won a whopping 97 games.  Despite Fukudome’s second half vanishing act, the beginning of the end of Derrek Lee (or maybe just an off year?), and an injury-plagued season for Soriano, the Cubs offense led the NL in runs scored, OBP, SLG, walks, and doubles.  Despite losing last year’s # 3 starter Rich Hill early in the season, the pitching staff managed to finish second in the NL in runs allowed and first in strikeouts.  If you’ve been watching the Cubs all season, you know how this happened: on offense, the Cubs got tremendous contributions from mid-May pickup Jim Edmonds, 2B/RF Mark DeRosa, and rookie catcher Geovany Soto, which more than offset some decline in production from the “big boys” (Lee, Ramirez, Soriano); pitching-wise, Ryan Dempster exceeded all reasonable projections and had a great season, Rich Harden provided 71 innings of unhittable-ness, and Carlos Marmol struck out 114 in under 90 innings.

The Cubs offense, unlike the other NL playoff squads, is not built around a few core guys; instead, it is solid all the way through, featuring six players with 20+ homers this year.  Of the regulars, only Jim Edmonds finshed with an OPS over .900 (and only if you disregard his abysmal Padres numbers), but four other Cubs—Soto, Ramirez, DeRosa, and Soriano—finished with an OPS between .850 and .900.  This is, in short, a very balanced lineup.  The bench is decent: Reed Johnson can mash lefties, Mike Fontenot posted an OPS of .909 in over 280 PA, and Henry Blanco is as capable a backup catcher as one could hope for.

Besides Demspter and Harden (and playoff odd man out Jason Marquis), the Cubs rotation features the mercurial Carlos Zambrano and the homer-prone Ted Lilly.  Both had pretty good years overall, but they are currently headed in opposite directions: Lilly has posted a 3.65 ERA in his last nine starts, while Zambrano has a 7.48 ERA over his last nine starts, despite having thrown a no-hitter during that stretch.  Zambrano is perhaps the Cubs’ biggest question mark headed into the NLDS.

The Cubs are generally healthy right now, though there are a few concerns.  Geovany Soto injured his hand recently, and after resting for a few days, he had to be pulled from his return game in the middle of an at-bat.  Though the injury is not going to keep him from playing in the NLDS, it could make him less effective at the plate.  Mark DeRosa also injured himself recently, but claims that he will be back in time for the start of the NLDS.  Zambrano is not injured, really, but he is almost certainly hurting, and, outside of the no-hitter, it has rendered him totally ineffective lately.  As mentioned previously, this is probably the Cubs’ biggest concern right now.  Harden has mysteriously suffered from a lack of both control and velocity in his last few starts, but has somehow remained effective.  He is truly impressive: a pitcher with A+ stuff who also happens to have an A+ mind for pitching.

All in all, the Cubs can’t be too displeased with the state of their team as they enter the NLDS against the Dodgers.  It’s tempting to wish that Zambrano and Harden were pitching as well as they were in late July—it’s hard to imagine any team beating the July 28-31 Cubs—but it’s also easy to imagine the Cubs coming into this series with one or more of their regulars out for the season.  Now what’s in store for Game 1?

Game 1: Dempster vs. Lowe

Let’s not kid ourselves: Derek Lowe owns the Cubs.  His two starts against the Cubbies this year:

May 28 @ Chicago: 7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 5 K, ND

June 2 in L.A.: 8 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 3 K, W

Of the current Cubs with a significant number of plate appearances against Lowe, only Derrek Lee has hit him well, and that success all came before this year.  The Cubs will have a tough time scoring off of Lowe.

As for Dempster, it’s tough to accurately gauge his effectiveness against the Dodgers’ hitters due to his changed style and repertoire on the mound this year.  Looking at career stats probably isn’t too helpful given his transformation; how has he done this year?  Well, his two starts against the Dodgers went like this:

May 26 in Chicago: 7 IP, 7 H, 1R, 3 BB, 3 K

June 5 @ L.A.: 5.1 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 2 BB, 1 K (NOTE: I actually saw this game in person—good game, but my $7 margarita was a tad weak.)

Good run prevention, but the peripherals—5 BB and 4 K in 12.1 IP—are not good, and both these starts were pre-Manny.

Look: just like last year against Brandon Webb, the Cubs are the underdogs in Game 1.  In addition, the Cubs are starting a pitcher in Game 2 who has posted a 7.48 ERA over the last two months against a guy (Chad Billingsley) who has more strikeouts than innings pitched on the year.  In short, we are set up for, if I may coin a phrase, certain impending disaster.  There is no doubt that the Cubs are the better team; there is also no doubt that they could easily get beaten each of the next two games.  It wouldn’t even be a surprise.

So what’s my pick?  Well, I think that the Cubs will somehow find a way to win against Lowe, but I think Zambrano will be bad, sending the series to L.A. tied.  I don’t think the Dodgers have a chance against Harden given that most of them haven’t seen him, and I think Lilly, pitching in a ballpark that hides his only glaring weakness, his proclivity to give up oodles of homers, will be magnificent.  So: Cubs in 4.  And if the Cubs should happen to lose both games at home, I still like their chances to bring it back to Chicago given the Harden/Lilly combo that would be going in L.A.  And if the Cubs win both games in Wrigley?  Forget it—Dodgers are DONE.

I’m a little drunk, but that won’t stop me from using WordPress.

I don’t know what’s going to happen over the last two months of the season—Kerry Wood’s blister might turn out to be a space alien (a smaller version of the thing in the guy’s chest in Total Recall), rendering him done for the season; the Ryan Dempster Fluke Train might (will?) derail; Rich Harden might (will?) get hurt—but right now, at this moment, the Cubs could beat anybody, and the Brewers look like a bunch of petulant children.

and the Cubs don’t score!  For all their offensive prowess this year, the Cubs have had a lot of trouble turning bases-loaded, no out situations into big innings.  I documented this problem earlier this year; how have things gone since then?  Well, the Cubs have had 14 bases-loaded, no out plate appearances since that post; here are the number of times they’ve scored each number of runs following those plate appearances:

0 runs: 1

1 run: 8

2 runs: 3

3 runs: 2

4 runs: 0

5+ runs: 0

On the bright side, the Cubs have managed to at least score 13 out of 14 times; however, they’re only averaging about 1.42 runs in these situations, which is actually less than their 2007-May 2008 average.  As I noted back in May, this is about a full run lower than the league-wide average for the years 1999-2002.  Though we are definitely in a different run environment nowadays, I would wager that the Cubs are still doing worse than the last couple years’ league averages for runs scored after loading the bases with none out.  For the year, the Cubs are 3/16 in these situations with one double, no walks, six strikeouts, 1 HBP, six sacrifice flies, and 18 RBI; they are posting a .188/.174/.250 line.  It’s easy to shrug this off given how well the Cubs have played overall, but let’s hope that the Cubs can start producing a little more in these situations.

I wrote earlier in the season about an article I read in which the author suggested thinking of the baseball season as consisting of nine 18-game chunks.  Believe it or not (I can’t), we are now through five such chunks; how have things gone?

Chunk 1: 12-6.  The Cubs obviously started off strong.  It’s probably worth noting that the Cubs went 6-0 against the Pirates in this chunk.

Chunk 2: 9-9.  This stretch included the 2-4 road trip to Cincinnati and St. Louis and the series loss at home to the Brewers, but it also included the first two games of the Arizona sweep and the two-game Mets trouncing.

Chunk 3: 12-6.  The sweep of the Dodgers at home, 3 out of 4 from the Padres, and more; a good chunk.

Chunk 4: 12-6.  This chunk included the West Coast road trip and the home sweep of the Braves.

Chunk 5: 9-9.  The just-completed chunk included both series with the White Sox and the Cardinals series.

In a way, none of this means anything: you can find an 18-game stretch in which the Cubs played like crap and an 18-game chunk in which they were nearly unbeatable; the divisions between the chunks quoted here are somewhat arbitrary.  Still, I think it says something that none of these chunks are 6-12—this is a team that won’t stay down for too long.

When I first heard rumors that the Cubs were thinking about getting Harden a few days ago, I thought “please don’t lose Pie or Vitters or Gallagher for a guy who can’t stay healthy.”  Well, the Cubs only had to give up Gallagher of those three, and they also managed to get back Chad Gaudin, a useful back-of-the-rotation starter/reliever.  Still, I’m a bit worried: when you deal with Billy Beane, you usually lose the trade, especially if you’re getting a pitcher back.  I think that there are two ways to look at this trade:

1) Beane “knows something” or simply has a strong feeling that Harden is going to go down again soon, making the trade essentially a four-for-one which will almost certainly favor the A’s.

2) Beane doesn’t know anything (much) more than we do: Harden is a huge injury liability.  There are then roughly three outcomes: Harden stays mostly healthy this year and next, in which case the Cubs win the trade by a lot; Harden suffers nagging injuries but still pitches well when healthy, in which case the trade is probably a wash; or Harden goes down soon and contributes nothing.

I’m willing to give Beane the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s not pulling a Kenny Williams with Mike Sirotka, in which case it seems to me a pretty fair trade, on average, though one that has a small potential to greatly favor the Cubs and a larger potential to slightly favor the A’s.

Hey, I’ve got some work I don’t want to do: how’s ARam doing with the whole patience thing?

P/PA career: 3.71

P/PA 2008 to date: 4.12

SwgA% (percentage of pitches swung at) career: 50%

SwgA% 2008 to date: 46%

Strk% (percentage of pitches that are strikes) career: 64%

Strk% 2008 to date: 60%

Cntc% (percentage of pitches swung at that are hit) career: 80 %

Cntc% (percentage of pitches swung at that are hit) career: 77 %

BB/PA career: .0704 (7.04 %)

BB/PA 2008: .1265 (12.65 %)

K/PA career: .1381 (13.81 %)

K/PA 2008: .1566 (15.66 %)

ARam v2.0 IS ALIVE!

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