As we near the pair of highly-anticipated Major League Baseball Wild Card Games, it’s imperative to examine which advantages and disadvantages the participating teams hold against their WC opponents.
In the National League, we will see a battle of two Game 163 losers, the Chicago Cubs and Colorado Rockies, as the north-siders host their second-straight extracurricular game at Wrigley Field. Each team fell short of the division title in Monday’s exciting tiebreaker matchups.
In the American League, the heavy-hitting New York Yankees play hosts to the suprising Oakland Athletics in the second consecutive AL Wild Card Game to take place at Yankee Stadium. The AL playoff picture had effectively been set for weeks, and the two teams — who placed well short of their division champs, the Boston Red Sox (East) and Houston Astros (West) — have had ample time to prepare for this one.
The NL foes are slated to play on Tuesday night, while the AL clubs face off on Wednesday.
Now, it’s time to look deep into which teams hold critical advantages in major aspects of the one-off, do-or-die game. We’ll start with the National League and take a look at six tactical aisles: starting pitching, relief pitching, offensive firepower, defensive prowess, managing, and historical trends.The NL Wild Card Game is tonight as the @Cubs face off against the @Rockies. Who has the advantage in each critical aspect of the game? Let's examine.Click To Tweet
Note: Neither team had released their lineup before we began writing this on Tuesday afternoon.
History gives the nod to Jon Lester, especially in the postseason. Lester is a three-time World Series champion, a former NL Championship Series Most Valuable Player, and holds a career 2.55 ERA in 148 innings of October ball.
Lester has been the most solid starter for the Cubs since the outset of the 2018 season, compiling an 18-6 record and earning his fifth All-Star appearance earlier this year.
While Kyle Freeland has been exceptional and will contend for the NL Cy Young Award (17-7, 8.2 bWAR, over 200 innings), the Rockies are starting the left-hander on just three days’ rest. Freeland has also been a different pitcher at home than on the road, going 10-2 with a 2.40 ERA at Coors Field and 7-5 (3.23) elsewhere.
In a regular season bout, taking Freeland wouldn’t be a bad idea. But, he has never made a postseason appearance, is facing one of the best playoff pitchers of the generation, and is forced to throw in a hostile Wrigley Field environment.
Cubs: Pedro Strop, Jesse Chavez, Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson, Randy Rosario, Alec Mills, Jorge De La Rosa
Rockies: Wade Davis, Adam Ottavino, Scott Oberg, Seunghwan Oh, Chris Rusin, Chad Bettis, Jake McGee
The backbone of the Colorado Rockies this season has been their pitching, which is incredible to think about. But it’s actually been a case of their starters carrying their relievers far into games and lessening the workload for a shaky bullpen.
Colorado’s relievers have combined for a 4.62 ERA (25th in MLB) and .247 opponent’s batting average (17th) in 2018 despite a bounty of big name arms opening the bullpen doors, like Wade Davis, Adam Ottavino, and Jake McGee.
So, the advantage rests with Chicago, right? Well, maybe not. Chicago’s bullpen operated in a tied game yesterday after Jose Quintana departed in a 1-1 game, and the unit of Chavez, Wilson, Cishek, Rosario, and Brandon Kintzler allowed four hits and two runs in the eighth inning.
Maybe it was an off day for the bullpen, or unlucky circumstances against a red hot Milwaukee Brewers offense, but in a game with ever-increasing importance resting on high-powered bullpens, a performance like that of yesterday’s does not inspire a whole lot of confidence.
Lester and Freeland are both capable of going deep into games, and maybe the bullpens won’t have as much of an impact in the Wild Card Game as they could in the regular season. Each team is hoping that is the case, but if not, we could see another starter enter the game, such as Cole Hamels and Kyle Hendricks or Antonio Senzatela and Jon Gray.
Cubs: Daniel Murphy, Albert Almora, Ian Happ, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, David Bote, Kris Bryant, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo
Rockies: Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMahieu, Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, David Dahl, Matt Holliday, Ian Desmond, Chris Iannetta, Carlos Gonzalez, Gerardo Parra
The Coors Field effect is real with the Rockies’ offense, and in Chicago, they should be worried about the home-road splits from 2018. Colorado is batting .287 at home and just .225 on the road, with fewer home runs, more strikeouts, and an OPS that sits .187 points lower.
However, the Rockies are raking against left-handers, a fact that could hinder the performance of Lester and potentially Hamels.
The heavy-hitting Colorado lineup, one ripe with powerful right-handers, hit .272/.336/.462 against lefty pitching in the regular season; right-hander batters (think Arenado and Story) are hitting .282 with an .856 OPS.
Colorado’s offense also comes in red hot, being the driving force for their end-of-regular-season run during which they won eight out of their last ten games. In four of those eight wins, the Rockies tallied double-digit runs while averaging 7.3 runs in that span. Even in Monday’s loss to the Dodgers, Arenado and Story connected for quick home runs.
The Cubs’ offense stalled heavily in their Game 163 matchup, combining for just three hits and one run against the Brewers’ pitching. Their lineup against left-handed Freeland will be a little different than what it was against right-handed Jhoulys Chacin, but the core remains the same, and it’s a core that comes into this game pretty cold.
In addition, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rizzo — who have been hitting .385 and .370 over the last week of the season — won’t have the same effectiveness against the left-handed Freeland. Left-handers are hitting .185 against the Rockies’ ace this season.
These two lineups will lean heavily on their righties on Tuesday, but the Rockies seem to have the ultimate advantage.
Cubs: Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy, Jason Heyward, Anthony Rizzo, Albert Almora, Kyle Schwarber
Rockies: Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, DJ LeMahieu, Ian Desmond, Charlie Blackmon, David Dahl, Matt Holliday
Though the Cubs boast the flashy and exciting defensive wizards Baez and Hayward, Murphy and Schwarber kind of weigh the collective unit down. With Lester on the hill, we will likely see an excess of quick groundballs and sharply-hit flyballs, and a poor game on defense will be the deciding factor if the Cubs’ fielding doesn’t come to play.
Ten times out of ten, I’ll take Gold Glovers Arenado and LeMahieu to scoop up some tricky groundballs and the quick feet of Dahl and Story to command their spots. Blackmon and Holliday are concerns, but minor ones at that.
I’m not the biggest Joe Maddon fan; some of his in-game tactical decisions are puzzling, and he tends to criminally over-manage high-leverage games like this one. However, all the convincing he has to do is show everyone the ring he recieved after the 2016 World Series.
Maddon has been here before and knows just what it takes to get to the promised land, whereas Bud Black, his counterpart in the adjacent dugout, has managed just one playoff game, a Rockies loss in the 2017 WCG against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Managing is a game of situational awareness and, often times, just plain guessing. I don’t want anyone but Maddon guessing for my team.
Let’s look at five trends and come to a conclusion on those: Wild Card Game records, recent postseason success, and team momentum coming into the game.
Cubs: 1-0 in NL Wild Card Game history
Rockies: 0-1 in NL Wild Card Game history
In 2015, the Cubs pitched a collective shutout against NL Central rivals, the Pittsburgh Pirates, in a 5-0 win that cemented a spot in the NL Divisional Series (they were later swept by the New York Mets in the NLCS).
The Rockies fell in an offensive shootout, 11-8, last season at Chase Field against the D-Backs.
Cubs: 19-17 postseason record in Wild Card era
Rockies: 0-1 postseason record in Wild Card era
We mentioned that the Cubs and Maddon have been here before, right?
Cubs: 6-4, 4.5 runs scored per game, 3.2 runs allowed per game
Rockies: 8-2, 7.3 runs scored per game, 2.7 runs allowed per game
It’s getting colder all around the land, but things are still hot in Denver, apparently.
All things considered, recent history points toward the Cubs taking this one. In a one-game playoff, nothing matters but what happens on the diamond, but maturity and past experience will pay divendends for the Cubbies.
I see a pitcher’s duel between Lester and Freeland early, but some mid-game sparks of offense will force the managers to react and pull their starters, leading to an increase in hitting and scoring against struggling bullpens.
The Cubs’ top of the order looks more deadly than that of the Rockies, who choose to load up the middle of the order with their best righties, and the momentum generated from having Rizzo, Baez etc coming through again before Arenado and Story will be the final blow.
I do see a late-game scare from whoever closes for Chicago, though. Maybe the Rockies load the bases down two with one out or something, but ultimately, the Cubs look strong enough to advance.