Why the Cubs will beat the Diamondbacks

Part of me doesn’t want to take a stab at this column in fear of jinxing the Cubs. Surely playoff broadcasts will focus on the team’s various silly curse-related storylines. But let’s not get caught up in myths and instead use facts to discuss why the Cubs will beat the Diamondbacks in the NLDS.

Starting Pitching

Starting pitching is huge in the playoffs, and the Cubs are superior in this department. The probable matchups:

Brandon Webb vs. Carlos Zambrano – No doubt Webb has been better than Big Z this year. But in past years the gap between the aces hasn’t been pronounced. Current DBacks have seen very little of Zambrano, which should be an advantage to the Cubs. They did not face him this year, though the Cubs saw Webb in July.

Doug Davis vs. Ted Lilly – The Cubs have a clear advantage here, especially if you look past ERAs. Davis has allowed tons of baserunners; Lilly has been stingy. Lilly bests Davis in nearly every statistical category. Plus, the DBacks are even worse than the Cubs at hitting southpaws.

Livan Hernandez vs. Rich Hill – Another stark contrast, as Hill has kept runners off the bases while Hernandez works out of jams constantly. Hill is one of the better No. 3s in the league.

Micah Owings vs. Jason Marquis – You could probably call this one a wash, with maybe a slight advantage to Owings. But this is a matchup we’d see once at most.

Game one of this series will be huge. The DBacks are the favorite, so if the Cubs can win that game they’ll be in the great shape. You’d have to pick the Cubs in games two and three based on the pitching matchups.

Bullpen

If we use a simple metric, bullpen ERA, the Cubs have the edge 3.76 to 3.95. That’s crude, though, because Dustin Nippert and Edgar Gonzalez won’t be worked heavily in this series.

The Cubs will lean on Carlos Marmol, Ryan Dempster, Bob Howry, and Kerry Wood most likely. The DBacks counter with Tony Pena, Jose Valverde, Brandon Lyon, and Juan Cruz. I think both teams have fine pens and don’t see much difference at the front end.

Relievers’ Expected Wins Added (WXRL) over at Baseball Prospectus gives an edge to the DBacks pen for sure. The stat considers the situations the relievers pitched in and adjusts for lineups. However I have to deduct some unofficial points from their bullpen for the low strikeout rates of Pena and Lyon. These pens still look pretty even.

Hitting

The Cubs have a middle-of-the-pack offense, while the DBacks are below average. OBP might be the most telling offensive stat. The Cubs were ninth in the NL at .330 while the DBacks were dead last at .321. The Cubs also outslugged Arizona, .422 to .413. Both teams look worse away from home, but the Cubs have a .726 to .692 OPS advantage there.

Those differences don’t seem huge to me, however. They mean a lot more borne out over a full season rather than a best-of-five series.

On the individual level, the Cubs have on-base threats in Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Mark DeRosa, Cliff Floyd, Matt Murton, and maybe Geovany Soto. The D’Backs have Eric Byrnes and Conor Jackson as the main OBP threats, with Mark Reynolds and Chris Snyder chipping in.

The Cubs’ three main power threats are Alfonso Soriano, Ramirez, and Lee. But don’t be fooled by the DBacks; they have a more balanced power attack in Chris Young, Eric Byrnes, Chris Snyder, Tony Clark, and Jackson.

Let’s stack ‘em up position by position:

C – Chris Snyder vs. Geovany Soto – I’m operating under the assumption that Lou will take inexperience and talent (Soto) over just experience (Kendall). Though Soto has been raking since his call-up, Snyder’s posted an .889 OPS in the second half and has more experience. Edge: DBacks.

1B – Conor Jackson vs. Derrek Lee – Lee hasn’t posted the home run total most expected, but a .913 OPS is still star-caliber. Edge: Cubs.

2B – Emilio Bonifacio/Augie Ojeda vs. Mark DeRosa – The injury to Orlando Hudson really hurts here. Edge: Cubs.

SS – Stephen Drew vs. Ryan Theriot – Neither has done much this year, though you’ll see a lot more Theriot jerseys at Wrigley than Drew jerseys at Chase. Edge: Wash.

3B – Mark Reynolds vs. Aramis Ramirez – At .279/.349/.495, Reynolds has been better than most realize. Still, Ramirez has been a steady .900 OPS guy for years. Edge: Cubs.

LF – Eric Byrnes vs. Alfonso Soriano – Soriano’s been better and makes more money, but the difference in salary and performance in 2007 is smaller than you think. Edge: Cubs.

CF – Chris Young vs. Jacque Jones – Even with Young’s abysmal OBP you have to give him the edge given the 32 home runs. Edge: D’Backs.

RF – Justin Upton/Carlos Quentin vs. Cliff Floyd/Matt Murton – The Cubs have definitely gotten more out of this lineup spot than the D’Backs. Upton is hurting, not that he’d shown much in the bigs yet. Edge: Cubs.

I’m giving six of the eight positions to the Cubs. I don’t think their offensive edge is massive, but it exists.

Defense

I’m far from a defensive expert. Looking at defensive efficiency, the Cubs win with a .712 mark compared to Arizona’s .700. However I’m a tad skeptical of that stat because I believe that Ted Lilly, Carlos Zambrano, and Rich Hill have some control over their low BABIPs.

The teams had very similar fielding percentages, for what that’s worth.

The Cubs come out ahead in the more advanced metrics, though I struggle to see exactly why. None of their fielders strike me as elite. Jacque Jones is playing out of position in center field. Floyd/Murton is usually ugly in right. Soriano seems fine in left, though he hops upon catching flyballs. Wouldn’t it be a perfect Cubs moment if this caused him to drop a ball in a crucial playoff situation? Up the middle the Cubs have Theriot and DeRosa, nothing special.

I know the numbers give the Cubs an edge on defense but I wonder how much of it is their pitchers inducing weak contact. The DBacks aren’t far behind in glovework.

Experience

The Cubs have an older roster, and of course have more playoff experience. It’s tough to definitively say this helps, but big-game experience can’t hurt. Lee, DeRosa, Ramirez, Soriano, Jones, Floyd, Zambrano, Lilly, Marquis, and Wood all have played in the postseason, though some fared poorly or didn’t play much. The DBacks will rely on the wisdom of Clark, Byrnes, and Hernandez.

Conclusion

I think the Cubs will win this series because their starting pitching runs deeper after the aces. The bullpens and defense seem equitable, and the Cubs’ lineup is stronger if not awe-inspiring. I see Chicago taking it in four.

References & Resources
Disagree? Here’s why Jim McLennan thinks the Diamondbacks will win.

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