Less than 12 percent of teams trailing three-games-to-one in a best-of-seven World Series have come back to win, none since the Kansas City Royals accomplished the feat in 1985. The Chicago Cubs, however, seem better suited than most to pull it off.
This is a team that eclipsed 100 wins during the regular season, led the league in offensive WAR, ERA and defensive runs saved. Chicago has a 23 percent likelihood of winning this series, per ESPN, but they’ll need to focus on some critical areas to complete a curse-breaking comeback.
Here are three things the Cubs must do to end a 108-year title drought.
Get a lead as quickly as possible
“We’ve just got to grab a lead,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We’ve got to grab a lead [before] the latter part of the game and avoid those [bullpen] guys with either being tied or them having a lead.”
Seems intuitive enough.
Chicago’s bats have been noticeably quiet, with the team having manufactured just three runs in the first three innings this series. In Sunday’s win, Trevor Bauer mowed down the high-powered Cubs offense the first time through the order and had Clevelanders preparing confetti for another parade. The Cubs waited until the fourth inning before they plated a run.
Cubs vs. Bauer…
1st time through order: 1-for-9, 0 R, 5 K
2nd time through order: 5-for-8, 3 runs, 2 K
— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) October 31, 2016
This is problematic, considering how downright dominant Cleveland’s pitching has been. Entering Sunday, the Indians had a 1.68 postseason ERA, on pace to be the second-best since the mound was lowered in 1969, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney. Andrew Miller, who has already set an MLB record with 29 strikeouts this postseason, has suffocated most every batter he’s faced in October, and with Terry Francona giving him the night off in Game 5 there’s a good chance he’ll be called upon Tuesday (and again Wednesday, if needed). When he enters with a lead, the opponent may as well head home.
Indians are 44-2 (.957) when leading in 6th or later since they acquired Andrew Miller on July 31 (MLB's best record, including postseason)
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 30, 2016
Sunday marked the first loss of Cleveland’s playoff run in which the Indians held a lead, and Chicago would do well to not tempt fate again in Game 6 by getting on the scoreboard as quickly as possible.
Take advantage of runners in scoring position
Let’s reiterate: Chicago’s offense has largely underwhelmed this series, particularly with ducks on the pond.
ESPN’s Dan Szymborski noted that, prior to Game 5, the Cubs ranked 11th-worst among the 224 World Series teams in percentage of runs expected based on regular-season performance. Over the last four decades, only the 2012 Detroit Tigers had performed worse.
The Cubs offense ranked third during the regular season in scoring (4.99 runs per contest), but has produced a mere seven runs in five games (1.4 per contest). Twice the team has been shutout, something that happened six times total, or in 3.7 percent of games, during the regular season.
Much of this is a result of poor performance in high-leverage situations. Chicago went 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position in Games 3 and 4 and struck out 14 times with runners in scoring position in the first three games.
Coincidentally, Cleveland has already set a postseason record with five shutouts, trotting out a pitching staff that’s comfortable with little run support.
In Sunday’s win, Chicago went 3-for-10 with runners in scoring position, which proved successful enough. To start, the Cubs can pick better pitches to attack; in Game 4, Chicago chased 51 percent of pitches thrown outside the strike zone, the second-highest rate for any team in any game this season. When a single swing can decide the outcome of a game, the batter should at least give himself a chance to make contact.
Get long outings out of starting pitching
Aroldis Chapman, Chicago’s left-handed flamethrower of a closer, closed out Game 5 with a 42-pitch, eight-out save, the longest of his career. It’s just the second eight-out save in World Series history since the stat was introduced.
While it will certainly be an all-hands-on-deck situation in Games 6 and 7, it would certainly help if the Cubs could limit Chapman’s use. The problem is, their other bullpen options haven’t been too reliable in the World Series.
Mike Montgomery, Justin Grimm and Travis Wood allowed a combined four runs in two innings of work in Game 4. Carl Edwards gave up the game-winning run in Game 3. Grimm and Hector Rondon allowed a combined three runs in less than two innings of work in Game 1. When used together, the triumvirate of Chapman, Rondon and Pedro Strop is as potent as they come, but an underwhelming stretch of relief performances from the rest of the Chicago bullpen has placed an added weight on the backs of the starting rotation.
The Indians ranked seventh in relief WAR during the regular season, while Chicago ranked 19th. That disparity has been no more apparent than during the World Series, where the Cubs are 6-6 this postseason when they go to the bullpen prior to, or at the start of the seventh inning. Couple that with an 8-11 performance over the final month of the season, and it’s clear that strong outings from starting pitchers is critical to the team’s success. Compare that to Francona’s crew, which is 9-3 this postseason when it goes to the bullpen prior to, or at the start of the seventh inning. The last two World Series champions combined to go 13-7 in those same circumstances.
The Jon Lester-versus-Bauer matchup was certainly Chicago’s best starting-pitching matchup of the series. Now Jake Arrieta, who struck out six hitters and allowed one run in a Game 2 victory, will take the mound, before possibly setting the table for ERA king Kyle Hendricks in Game 7. Maddon needs them to go long.