October 2008


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.

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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.