By Paul West
The 2016 World Series is between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians, two teams who believe their time is now. It could reasonably be argued that they’re the best teams in their respective leagues, and this looks like a well matched series–especially if Cleveland can get Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar back into action. Salazar, an All Star who struck out 161 batters in 137 innings, has been on the disabled list since September with a forearm strain; Bauer was forced out of Game 3 of the ALCS due to a severely lacerated finger on his pitching hand (he infamously injured it while repairing a drone, leading to a ten-stitch gash which began gushing blood soon after his first pitch of the game). Salazar would likely come back in a relief role, but his presence would bring closer to form a pitching staff that was one of baseball’s most talented for most of the season. The Cubs’ pitching is equally both at the top of the rotation and in the ninth inning: Jake Arrieta and John Lester will start the first two games, and lefty closer Aroldis Chapman throws over 100 miles per hour with mind-boggling ease and and frequency. But Cleveland has the superior bullpen, while the Cubs’ pen is something of a question mark aside from Chapman. Cleveland’s closer is the reliable Cody Allen, but the star of their pen is southpaw Andrew Miller, who struck out 14 of the 26 batters he faced while winning the ALCS MVP against Toronto. Perhaps more astoundingly, after Bauer’s finger forced him from Game 3 after recording only two outs, the Cleveland bullpen recorded 25 more outs for a 4-2 win. In other words, the Indians won a playoff game in which their starter failed to make it out of the first inning–against one of the most dangerous middle orders in recent memory.
The strikeout factor could be one variable that shifts the odds in Cleveland’s favor: the Cubs struck out 1339 times this season, ninth most in the major leagues, while Cleveland was 21st in strikeouts with 1246. As dangerous as Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Dexter Fowler and the Cubs’ lineup can be, they can also go cold for long stretches, especially against pitchers that know how to miss bats. That Kyle Schwarber might be returning to their lineup, after an extended absence due to knee surgery, is instructive: Schwarber, after some heroic moments during the Cubs’ 2015 playoff run, became known as much for a tendency to strike out as for his impressive natural power to all fields. The Indians were second in the American League in runs scored, and they do have home run power–particularly from lefty Carlos Santana and righty Mike Napoli, two clubhouse-boosting veterans who share both first base and DH; but they also manufacture runs effectively, leading to the year-long perception that they’re almost never out of a game. Team-wide baserunning savvy, and the athleticism and speed of Francisco Lindor, Rajai Davis, Tyler Naquin and Jose Ramirez, have allowed Cleveland to manufacture runs without hitting the ball out of the park. This brings us to the other primary variable in the 2016 World Series: Wrigley Field’s famous wind currents.
When the wind’s blowing out at Wrigley, fly balls leave in bunches–and this could play into the hands of the homer-happy Cubs. But if it’s blowing in, or swirling to interrupt the flight paths of well-struck balls, then the Cubs could suffer a power outage. This could allow Cleveland, who already has home field advantage, to steal an away game; given both teams’ remarkable home records (Cleveland went 53-28 at Progressive Field, while the Cubs went 57-24 at Wrigley), this would be significant.
Both teams are dangerous, talented, and on a mission; but unless the Cubs can cut down on the strikeouts and the Windy City’s gusts are on their side, Cleveland fans will be celebrating another long-awaited championship.
Prediction: Cleveland Indians in six