The Cardinals’ biggest rivals are now their biggest test. What have the Dodgers told us about how to beat the mighty Cubs?
There’s no doubt that the biggest obstacle the Cardinals will have to face in search of getting back to the postseason in 2017, is their long time division rivals Chicago Cubs. The south-siders came into 2016 with a stacked line-up, and an even more potent pitching staff, bolstered mid-season by none other than Aroldis Chapman, the flame-throwing Cuban left-hander who now possesses the Cubs’ closer role. The Cubs seemed unbeatable, and their record showed it, going 103-58 on their way to their firs Central Division title since 2008, and a date with the Giants in the NLDS.
After making short work of the Giants in four, Chicago was faced up against the Dodgers in the NLCS, starting at Wrigley Field. The Cubs won the first game in dramatic fashion, but the next two were taken by LA, and it is those two which I want to focus on, as they may have provided precedents as for how to beat the mighty Cubs.
Games 2 and 3, and what they tell us
In these two games, the Dodgers outscored the Cubs a total of 7-0, out-hitting them 13-6. While Game 3 was a lopsided affair, Game 2 was decided by 1 run, and the clutch pitching of the leagues best starter, Clayton Kershaw. The common trend? Veteran, left-handed pitchers, with wipe-out breaking balls. Kershaw, need we discuss? The Cy-Young winner has been the games best pitcher for at least the last three or four years now, with that devastating curve-ball and, now, the newly added, sharp slider to boot. Rich Hill, on the other hand, is a 36 year old lefty, who rebuilt himself this season with what was a career year, spanning over stints in both Oakland and LA, on his way to a combined 2.12 ERA in 2016. Hill, as showcased Tuesday night, possesses that big, sweeping curveball that tails away from the big bats of the Cubs’ lefty hitters, while tying up the righty sticks of Bryant and Baez.
Further, by ratio, the Cubs scored most of their runs in innings 6-8, and, in the postseason, crossed the plate the most times, and in the most important fashion, against the bullpen. Just take Game 5 of the NLDS against the Giants for example. The Cubs had been virtually shut down by Matt Moore (veteran lefty-coincidence?), until the ninth inning against the Giants bullpen, when they scored four runs off of five different San Fransisco pitchers to take the lead 6-5. Now, we all know how much the Giants’ bullpen has struggled down the stretch of the season, but even against LA, in Game 1, the Cubs scored the five go ahead runs in the eighth off of Joe Blanton of the Dodger bullpen, and in Game 4, even given the short outing the 20 year old Julio Urias, the Cubs still scored six of their ten runs off of the Los Angeles bullpen.
Behind starter Rich Hill, the Dodgers shut out the Cubs for the 2nd straight game (6-0), grabbing a 2-1 NLCS lead in the process. pic.twitter.com/wCvfZyXhVR
— ESPN (@espn) October 19, 2016
So what does this mean? It means that, not only do the Cubs struggle against veteran, crafty left-handers, but against those that can go deep in the games, and keep the bullpens, in the bullpen. Rarely does Kershaw have a short outing, and nothing changed on Sunday, going seven strong, giving up no earned runs and just 2 base hits.Hill, in just 20 starts, pitched over 110 innings, posting an ERA of 2.12 in 2016. Hill, like Kershaw, went deep into his start, going 6 scoreless, and allowing, again, just two hits, and four baserunners.
On the offensive side of the ball, LA combatted the Cubs’ two big-time right-handers, Cy-Young candidate Kyle Hendricks, and 2015 award winner Jake Arrieta, with a left-handed heavy lineup that featured 7 lefties put of the 8 position players, the only right-handed batter, being third-hitter Justin Turner, who mashed 27 bombs and knocked in 90 runs in his 2016 campaign. These lefties, as of after Game 4, had amounted for 10 of the Dodgers 13 runs batted in in the series, effectively countering the right-handed trio of Hendricks-Arrieta-Lackey.
What does this mean for our Red Birds?
So what do the Cardinals need to do, to match this success against the Cubs? Well, let’s first look at their rotation. The only veteran lefty Cardinal’s starter who pitched any substantial innings in 2016 was Jamie Garcia, with a sub-par ERA of 4.67, but a good innings to start ratio of about 172 to 30. The Cards bullpen only featured a couple of formidable lefties, one of which, Zach Duke, will be missing the entirety of the 2017 season. In fact, the bullpen as a whole, after the downturn of Trevor Rosenthal in the middle of the Season, and minus the proficiency of Seung-hwan Oh out of the closer role, doesn’t really scare anyone, and thus this combination of a lack of potent left starters, and a young, learning bullpen, could be tough to win with against the Cubs.
As well, the Dodgers have proved that stacking the lineup with left-handed bats proves effective against the Cubs’ right-handed staff. As the season wound down, the Cardinals started only featuring two left-handed hitters in their lineup when going up against a right-handed starter. Despite the strength in the bats of Matt Carpenter and Brandon Moss, Los Angeles has thus far proved in this series that to beat the Cubs, more lefties are needed to counteract the strength of their right-handers.
So what should the Cardinals do? Now, keep in mind, the head to head record for the Cardinals against the south-siders wasn’t bad, just a game under .500 at 9-10. But, adjustments clearly do need to be made. At this point in the season, with the playoffs still fully in swing, I’m not in a position to make any specific transactional predictions or recommendations. We’ll wait for the Winter Meetings, or at least until a champion has been crowned, to start that process. But what I will say, is that the Cardinals need to even out their roster. They need to add a strong, veteran, left-handed starter, who has consistently been able to go deep in games over the course of his career, as well as a proven middle relief man. They also need a lefty bat to fill the middle of their lineup, and even possibly a second to stick somewhere near the bottom, filling a Yasmani Grandal type role. Now, these adjustments all seem well and simple, but part of the reason I’m holding off on giving specific names for the bargain is because of the relative weakness of the 2016 free-agent class, and thus the strong dependence this off-season on the Winter Meetings. But, in my opinion, these are the pieces the Cardinals need, in order to fight the obviously vulnerable Cubs, and reclaim the NL Central division title.
Photo Credits to Dennis Wierzbicki of USA Today