The night before the 2016 World Series is set to begin in Cleveland, our playoff odds list the Chicago Cubs with a 66% chance to take home the trophy, which is a remarkably one-sided projection, given the nature of how baseball is played and how any series, let alone one played by two teams who emerged as champions of their respective leagues, often feels like nothing more than a coin flip. But our odds list the Cubs as 2:1 favorites over the Cleveland Indians, and FiveThirtyEight’s odds are almost identical.
These Cubs outscored their opponents by more than 250 combined runs this season, completing one of the most dominant regular seasons in baseball history, and they’re playing at nearly full strength, even improbably adding the slugging Kyle Schwarber, who’s been out since April 7 with torn ligaments in his left knee, to the their World Series roster. These Indians, admittedly, a great team in their own right, outscored their opponents by 101 runs — the fourth-best run differential in baseball this year, although a much more typical number — and are playing without a borderline ace pitcher in Carlos Carrasco, with a limited version of star pitcher Danny Salazar, with a drone-inflicted Trevor Bauer, and now apparently with a hobbled Jason Kipnis, too.
It’s impossible to fault the odds for saying what they do. The Cubs are clearly the better team, clearly in better shape. But a one-in-three shot is still a one-in-three shot, and this is a Cleveland sports town that just saw their Cleveland Cavaliers come back from a 3-1 NBA Finals deficit to dethrone the Golden State Warriors, at a time when the Warriors were being considered 40:1 favorites entering Game Five, so these fans probably don’t care too strongly for the odds.
What they would care for is an Indians championship. Here’s five keys to that happening:
No. 1: Run Like Hell on Jon Lester
This one can happen, starting tonight. Jon Lester is starting Game One for the Cubs, and we all know about Jon Lester’s little problem: he can’t throw to first. Like, really, he just can’t throw a baseball to first base. It might literally be the weirdest thing about an already weird sport, but for whatever reason, he can’t do it from a fielding position, and he just won’t do it from the rubber. The Kansas City Royals made this very clear when they stole seven bases on him and Derek Norris in the 2014 American League Wild Card game, and the Los Angeles Dodgers made this very clear when they toyed with him all throughout the Game Five of the NLCS last week.
But what’s funny about all that toying, as I wrote, is that they never actually ran. Thing is, Lester’s delivery is exceptionally quick to home, and catcher David Ross‘ pop times to second base are exceptionally quick, and as a pair, they can actually be rather difficult to successfully steal against, even given the lengthy leads Lester’s pickoff inability affords baserunners.
That being said, they’ll have a hard time throwing out Rajai Davis if he reaches first, and he’ll be starting against Lester. The Indians have already come right out and said they plan to test Lester, given the opportunity, and given their status as the AL’s best base-stealing team this year combined with Terry Francona’s hyper-aggressive postseason managing style, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Indians try and turn World Series Game One into a repeat of Lester’s 2014 Wild Card disaster, getting them Game One with a shot to put this thing away early if they can just…
No. 2: Win Two Games Started by Non-Kluber Starters
I understand that “win baseball games” isn’t a particularly insightful piece of advice, but in this case, it seems compelling, as this very circumstance is a big part of what’s led to Cleveland’s improbable postseason run in the first place. Without Carrasco or Salazar in the rotation for the first two rounds of the playoffs, nobody thought Josh Tomlin was going to be able to handle the imposing lineups of Boston and Toronto, until he did, and everyone counted out the Indians when they threw Ryan Merritt into the fire against the Blue Jays, until he pitched the Indians into the World Series. With Corey Kluber potentially starting Games One, Four, and Seven, the Indians could realistically hope for two wins in games started by their ace, needing just two more by the rest of the pack to seal the deal.
These underpowered Indians starters were able to navigate Toronto’s overpowering lineup by picking a game plan and sticking to it, a game plan that might be similar to the one they employed against Toronto, which aims to…
No. 3: Get the Cubs to Hit Ground Balls
The Cubs were arguably baseball’s best offense this year, and one defining characteristic of that offense is their love for fly balls. Only four teams hit the ball on the ground less often than Chicago, and guys like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Willson Contreras are looking to get the ball into the air almost every time they step to the plate, as that’s how they inflict the most damage. The Indians were able to keep the Blue Jays on the ground by throwing them a steady diet of breaking pitches, but the Cubs were one of the five best teams in baseball this year at producing against breaking pitches, according to our PITCHf/x run values (the Indians were No. 1 by a landslide).
Instead, the key to keeping the top of the Cubs’ lineup on the ground will have less to do with pitch selection and more to do with pitch execution, like pitching away from Bryant — the other half of Cleveland’s game plan against Toronto — and low and away from Rizzo.
That’s one key for Cleveland’s pitching, while one key for their hitting might be to…
No. 4: Pounce on Jake Arrieta’s Fastballs
In Lester, the Indians may find a subtle advantage in their ability to capitalize on his weakness in holding runners on first base. In Hendricks, the Indians may find a subtle advantage in their ability to excel against all pitches slow and/or bendy, but Jake Arrieta, to me, represents their most difficult challenge. What the Indians’ lineup really struggles against is premium velocity, and Arrieta is Chicago’s hardest-throwing starter, averaging more than 94 mph on his fastballs, which he throws roughly two-thirds of the time, a percentage that could even increase, given Cleveland’s struggles with the pitch. If guys like Jose Ramirez, Mike Napoli, and especially Tyler Naquin can catch up to Arrieta’s heat, it will go a long way toward neutralizing perhaps Chicago’s strongest starting pitching matchup against Cleveland.
So, run on Lester, get good outings out of Bauer and Tomlin, keep the Cubs’ balls in play on the ground, and jump on Arrieta’s fastballs. Those are all ways the Indians can get out to early leads, which, in actuality, is the single biggest key for the Indians to win the World Series, as early leads allow Francona to…
No. 5: Continue Getting the Most Out of Andrew Miller
I’ve somehow gone more than 1,000 words without mentioning the MVP of the ALCS, Andrew Miller, who’s turning in one of the most dominant postseason pitching performances on record. The first step in the “How to Beat Andrew Miller Handbook” is “Don’t Face Andrew Miller,” and the best way to make that happen is to not let the Indians get out to a lead. The Indians turned into one of the best teams in baseball the moment they got a lead this year, and that effect has only been amplified following the midseason acquisition of Miller and Francona’s rampant usage of him in the postseason. When the Indians have carried a lead through five or six innings, Francona has turned to his two-headed bullpen monster of Miller and Cody Allen to work the remaining three to four innings, and the Indians have appeared almost unbeatable.
The finish line is within arm’s reach, and Andrew Miller’s arms are long as hell. With no more series remaining after this one and an entire offseason to recover, all bets are off with regards to how far Francona pushes Miller, and it wouldn’t be a surprise for him to turn the dial up a notch, even from the unprecedented usage we’ve seen thus far. Steps one through four are how the Indians can get the ball into the hands of Miller with the lead. Step five is how they can win the whole [damn] thing.