Friday, August 7, 2009

Do the Cubs have what it takes?

Like all of us here I want nothing more than to see the Cubs win the World Series this year. While I had my doubts about us making the playoffs, I don't have them as much now as long as the team gets healthy. Many people say "just get in and then anything could happen" this logic started to really take off after the 2006 Cardinals limped into the playoffs with 83 wins and somehow won the World Series.

I think the "just get in" philosophy is a bit flawed and that one outlier (2006 STL) has made us people think that any flawed team could win it all if they just make it. So I wanted to see two things- does the team that wins it all each year follow a sort of formula or pattern, and just how many times does an underdog go on to win it all.
I started from the beginning of the Wild Card era (1995) and went all the way up to this past season.

1995 Atlanta Braves- The Braves won 90 games in the strike shortened 1995 season, second in all of baseball behind Cleveland who won 100 games. The Braves had most of their success with a lights out pitching staff that included Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz. Their closer that season was Mark Wohlers who was having a sensational year closing out games.
Tom Glavine was their WS MVP with a 1.29 WS ERA and 5 earned runs allowed in 4 postseason starts. Their star hitter for the season, Ryan Klesko, hit 3 homers in the WS and hit .316 in the playoffs despite not getting a hit in the LCS.

1996 New York Yankees- The Yankees won 92 games in 1996 and beat the defending champion Braves in the World Series. The Yankees were pretty average statistically during the season, getting a boost from the return of David Cone. The bullpen was the main strength of this team, closer John Wetteland was pretty good, but he had help from some hot shot set up man named Mariano Rivera.
Wetteland won the WS MVP in a pitching dominated series.

1997 Florida Marlins- Another 92 win team, this time the Wild Card entrant, the Marlins were led by a dynamic pitching duo of Kevin Brown and young gun Livan Hernandez. Hitters like Mosies Alou and Gary Sheffield led an offense full of future big names.
Hernandez won the WS MVP (There's a pattern starting to develop here) with a 4-0 postseason record (though he didn't have a great World Series with a 5.27 ERA).

1998 New York Yankees- This is the outlier to match the 2006 St. Louis outlier. The Yankees won 114 games in 1998 and breezed through the playoffs. This team had great starting pitching, a great offense, and Mariano Rivera. Nothing can be gained from look at this postseason

1999 New York Yankees- Just another great hitting, great pitching, great bullpen Yankee team. This team faced little trouble in the postseason and did so despite having nine games played by a certain guess hitting hack. I would be more impressed by these Yankees teams if their roster didn't read like a copy of the Mitchell report.
Mariano won the MVP, again I don't know how much we can take from these Yankees teams other than to say they were just that good.

2000 New York Yankees- This version of the Yankees machine rode Roger Clemens and Andy Pettite to glory. Along with Rivera closing out games and Derek Jeter being Mr. Clutch. Jeter won the MVP.
I'll stop here for a moment because I think this is a turning point of sorts. From the end of the strike to 2000 the Braves, Indians, and Yankees sort of ruled baseball. Typical Marlins sneaking in and winning one. I would have started the analysis at 2001, but I thought it was important to show that a top to bottom solid pitching staff and mediocre offense was able to attain postseason success. Right now the "formula" seems like ride two or three great starting pitchers, have a lights out closer, and score just enough runs to win. After 2000 is when it gets interesting.

2001 Arizona Diamondbacks- This postseason run is all Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. This is also the only World Series team that this decade that didn't have a dominating closer (until Johnson took care of that in game 7). Luis Gonzalez got some big hits, and was the best hitter throughout the postseason, but the D-Backs offense (with the exception of a 15 run game 6) really didn't go very much the entire postseason.

2002 Anaheim Angels- The Angels may have been the wild card team this season, but they won 99 games so they were obviously a really good team. They had solid starting pitching, but their postseason boost came from having the best 1-2 end of game punch since the 1996 Yankees. Troy Percival and some guy named K-Rod who threw in 5 games during the regular season (Andrew Cashner anyone?). It also helped that they clubbed the living daylights out of teams thanks to Adam Kennedy and Troy Glaus.
This Angels team actually had pretty mediocre starting pitching over the course of the playoffs, but they scored so many runs that combined with those two guys at the end of the game it didn't matter.

2003 Florida Marlins- Also known as the Josh Beckett/Miguel Cabrera postseason. The Marlins also had a pretty damn good closer in Ugueth Urbina. We all know how they made it to the World Series, and in the series itself they didn't hit very much, but Beckett was so good, and Urbina was able to close out games that they didn't need many runs.
Now the Marlins were the Wild Card team, but their 91 wins were more than the Cubs, and the fact that Beckett was so freaking good made their run less random.

2004 Boston Red Sox- The Red Sox were the Wild Card team, but they won 98 games that season so, again, we aren't talking about a mediocre baseball team. This is another story that we all know. The Red Sox made it through this postseason because of a great offense and a lights out closer Keith Foulke.

2005 Chicago White Sox- The Sox won 99 games this season, and rode the greatest starting pitching staff performance of all time to a World title. They also had Bobby Jenks to finish out the postseason games. Their offense wasn't exactly on fire during the postseason, but as is the pattern of these good pitching teams, it did just enough. Remeber in that World Series they had a couple of walk off homers and a 14 inning game.

2006 St. Louis Cardinals- The team that will forever give mediocre teams hope that really isn't there. Simply put the only thing his team had going for it was Albert Pujols and he hit .200 in the World Series. A hot hand in Jeff Weaver and a young closer named Adam Wainwright were key to St. Louis shocking the world. Even in the extreme case of mediocrity coming through to win, they still had a dominating closer and Chris Carpenter's great starting pitching.

2007 Boston Red Sox- This version of the Red Sox reminded me of those old Yankee teams a bit. Great everything. They could hit, had the starting pitching, and Papelbon was dancing his way through the ninth inning. Of course having Josh Beckett in the postseason never hurts, and if you haven't noticed yet, a great ninth inning guy is at a premium here.

2008 Philadelphia Phillies- Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge were the stars here, along with a pretty good offense. Now obviously this wasn't the best regular season team in the NL, but they had 92 wins and arguably a more "post season built" roster (more on that in a moment).
Once again ending the game with a dominating guy, and having a lights out starter for 2-3 games in a series prove too much to stop.

So what did I gather from all of that? There are three ways teams have won a World Series since the Wild Card started. On fire starting pitching from one or two guys, a game over closer, and a mashing offense. Usually 2 of the 3 are needed to win. There have been teams with all 3 (Yankees 1998-2000; Boston 2007) but never a team with just one. Even the 2001 Diamondbacks needed Randy Johnson to play closer in order to win game 7. The question is now- Do the Cubs have right now, or have the capability to get in October, two of these things.
Our starting pitching is deep, but is there a guy capable of dominating a series? Rich Harden could be that guy, but he isn't capable of pitching long enough to fill that role. Dempster doesn't have good enough stuff and as sad as it might be to say, neither does Ted. That means its on the shoulders of Big Z to dominate, he has the stuff and the ability, but its all about him getting his head on straight.

Our bullpen is lacking that lights out guy. Teams have shown (1996 Yankees, 2002 Angels) that starting pitching doesn't have to be great if you can make the game 7 innings long. Basically Carlos Marmol becomes the wild card or all wild cards here. Him finding the strikezone is the key to the Cubs filling this part of a World Series puzzle, if he doesn't find a way to throw strikes, we might as well forget filling this part. Gregg is a guy, and not a guy that is going to set the postseason on fire. Guzman is good, but by October his arm will be fried. Perhaps Andrew Cashner can come up and be a K-Rod type guy. Still Carlos Marmol's command may in fact hold the Cubs World Series hopes.

The third possible key is a mashing offense. Really only the 2002 Angels used this instead of a dominating starting pitcher. Still offense is the Cubs issue this season and has been the past two postseasons. Without runs scored, there won't be any wins. Obviously the Cubs have good hitters, and these teams tended to lean on one or two guys to carry them. Soriano, Lee, and Rami are all capable of doing that. Its simply a matter of them getting the job done.
So hypothetically the Cubs could have all three things working for them, Carlos Marmol is the most important factor, because without him dominating out of the bullpen this whole discussion is kind of pointless. It comes down to if Big Z can step up, if Marmol can get it together, if Soriano or Rami can get hot. There may seem to be a randomness to the playoffs, but with the exception of the 2006 Cardinals, hindsight shows that the winners were all pretty predictable. Look for a team that has a lights out ace, a lights out closer, and just enough offense. Then you will find your World Champion.

1 comment:

  1. So obviously I'm a Reds guy but I found this post very interesting. It seems to me the Cubs are among several teams developing the 3 keys you discussed, but I couldn't help but think that several teams seem to already have them in place.

    This is by no means to say the Cubs aren't capable; you know I have called the Central for them all year. However, I think the Phillies and Yankees (off the top of my head) could enter the playoffs right now each with a lights out starter, dominant closer and explosive lineup.