Behind an Addison Russell-fueled offensive barrage, the Chicago Cubs set the table for a championship-deciding Game 7 on Wednesday night, the 38th in World Series history.
“All I’m going to be worried about is winning the World Series,” Cubs catcher David Ross said.
Thanks to Corey Kluber, the 30-year-old Indians ace who accounted for the win in July’s All-Star Game, Game 7 will be played in Cleveland. Fittingly, Kluber will get the start, his third of the World Series. Since 1995, only two pitchers have started three games in the World Series: Curt Schilling (2001) and Chris Carpenter (2011).
Taking the mound for Joe Maddon’s Cubs will be Kyle Hendricks, the out-of-nowhere sensation who led the league in ERA and evolved over the course of the season into an elite starting pitcher.
Let’s stop and appreciate how impressive this matchup is going to be — the third Game 7 of the live-ball era featuring two starters who produced a 5-plus WAR that season. And make no mistake, a dominant starting pitching performance will likely decide the outcome; as ESPN Stats and Information noted, teams are 5-0 in this World Series when leading entering the sixth inning.
There’s nothing more exciting in sports than a winner-take-all game to decide the title, and this matchup is sure to shine. But which team has the edge in Game 7? Let’s take a look.
Batting: Edge to Chicago
This is mostly an even battle, at least in how the respective offenses have fared thus far.
Here’s how the two teams compare in slash line:
- Cleveland: .229 batting average, .320 OBP and .365 slugging.
- Chicago: .233 batting average, .300OBP and .364 slugging.
After producing a whopping three runs total in the first three innings of this series, the Cubs exploded for seven in Game 6, six of which came off the bat of Russell. Likely National League MVP Kris Bryant awoke from his slumber, going 5 for 8 with two home runs in the past two games. He started the series an abysmal 1 for 14.
Chicago is accustomed to a potent offense: the Cubs led the league in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), and ranked third in Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) and Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), which takes into account league and park effects. That hasn’t been the case in the World Series. For a team that averaged five runs per contest, the three per game in this series is puzzling.
Similarly, Cleveland’s offense was well above average during the regular season, but is also down a tick from its 4.83 run average during the regular season to 3.33 in the World Series.
A slight edge goes to the Cubs, the most patient offense in baseball, for seemingly finding its groove in Games 5 and 6. Chicago has depth throughout the order that Cleveland simply can’t match.
Starting pitching: Edge to Cleveland
Optimism will be tough to come by for the Cubs: Kluber has just been that good. Actually, he’s made a big of history.
Only four pitchers in MLB history have had a lower ERA over their first four career postseason starts than Corey Kluber pic.twitter.com/jZwiDyOJzW
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 29, 2016
“Who else would you want?” said Cleveland second baseman Jason Kipnis. “That’s our guy. That’s our stud. That’s our bona fide ace. You ask everybody in here who we want on that mound, and you’re going to get Corey Kluber as the answer.”
He amassed a 4-1 October record with a sparkling 0.89 ERA. He threw a season-high 27 percent of his pitches for strikes in Game 1.
Five Cubs — Bryant, Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward, Miguel Montero and Kyle Schwarber — are a whopping 0 for 19 against him with 12 strikeouts. Ben Zobrist is hitting .070.
Over his previous two starts, Kluber’s two-seam fastball has flat-out painted the strike zone.
One of the most deft offenses in baseball has been rendered fruitless, like schoolchildren flailing at Wiffle balls.
Making his second consecutive start on three days’ rest won’t be easy, though.
Kluber is reliant on his pitches blowing away the hitter. He has the highest swing-strike percentage, or the number of swings and misses divided by total pitches, among Cleveland starters this season (12.6). He also ranked highly in his ability to get batters to chase pitches outside the strike zone (34.3).
Chicago would do well to stay patient in the batters box, as Kluber has walked at least two batters in three of his postseason starts. Worth noting, then, is the Cubs led the league in walk rate (10.4 percent).
Hendricks had the best home ERA in baseball, but won’t be afforded the luxury of throwing in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.
You know what you’re getting with Hendricks: A pitcher without breakneck speed or knee-buckling off-speed — his fastball will occasionally touch 90 mph. Among Chicago starting pitchers in the World Series, Hendricks has the lowest swing-strike percentage (10).
What Hendricks does have, however, is pinpoint command. Nearly 70 percent of his first pitches are strikes, and he has the lowest walk rate (5.8 percent) of anyone on the team. Additionally, batters rarely generate solid contact off him, as evidenced by his 25.9 hard-hit rate — which ranked fourth among MLB starters this season.
Despite not allowing a run, Hendricks struggled against Cleveland in Game 3 — walking a postseason-high two batters and allowing a postseason-high six hits. Like most, he’s at his worst when batters make him work the count. Since the postseason began, Hendricks lobbed an increasing number of fastballs over the heart of the plate, something he can’t afford Wednesday.
Bullpen: Edge to Cleveland
Aroldis Chapman, Chicago’s heat-seeking missile of a closer, pitched the longest outing of his baseball career in Game 5, then turned around and hurled 20 pitches in Game 6.
“I thought the game could have been lost right there if we did not take care of it properly,” Maddon said after Tuesday night’s win.
Outside Chapman, however, Chicago’s bullpen has been lukewarm, allowing a combined eight runs. Conversely, Cleveland’s bullpen has been downright dominant.
Terry Francona’s star trio — Andrew Miller-Cody Allen-Bryan Shaw — had the night off Tuesday, and will be rested for Wednesday night. They’ve allowed a single run in 13 innings this series. There’s no doubt that Chapman can be effective, but Cleveland has won the arms race, and should Kluber deliver another expected outing, Cleveland has more than enough juice to finish it out and win its first championship since 1948.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.