The Chicago Cubs, the Tribe’s opponent in the 2016 World Series, are a very good team. In the regular season, they won 103 games, the most of any team since 2009, and they had a run differential of +252, more than double what the Tribe put up this season. Very good teams like the Cubs excel in all facets of the game: hitting, pitching, and, most importantly for the Cubs, defense. However, it’s the Cubs offense that we’re going to be taking a look at. Though Indians hitters struggled in the ALCS, it’s the Tribe’s depleted rotation and outstanding bullpen that will determine the outcome of the series.
During the regular season, the Cubs scored the second-most runs in the NL (808), amounting to 5.02 runs per game. In the playoffs, they’ve been just as good, but they have also been inconsistent. After getting shutout in two straight games, the Cubs put up ten runs in Game 4, eight runs in Game 5, and five runs against Clayton Kershaw in Game 6. So, the question is: have the Cubs solved their offensive woes or will their bats go cold again?
The healthy Tribe pitchers looking to freeze those bats will have to rely on film and not experience. And the data tells an interesting story. Each Cubs hitter has a weak spot. It’ll be up to the pitchers to take advantage of them. Here’s a look at the weaknesses of the top five hitters in the Cubs’ lineup.
Dexter Fowler, CF
The switch-hitting Fowler will be a challenge for any Tribe hurler, especially leading off games. In 42 post-season at bats, he’s put up a .262/.295/.429 slash line while adding a home run. In the regular season, Fowler was an on-base machine, reaching first almost 40% of the time he stepped up to the plate. This was mostly due to his great eye at the plate. Fowler swung at the lowest number of pitches outside of the strike zone, besting even Carlos Santana, the Indians walk expert.
Despite his low swing rate, or perhaps because of it, Fowler still struck out at the 14th highest rate in the NL (24.4%). There are definitely ways to best the Cubs center fielder.
One of those ways is to attack him on the inside part of the plate. Batting both left-handed and right-handed, the speedy Fowler has trouble with the ball the closer it comes to him. If a pin-point command artist like Josh Tomlin could hit his spots, Fowler would be toast. Though it would be unwise to try to get him out with a fastball, it would be best for the right-handed Tribe starters to leave it up in the zone. Up in the count 0-2, expect high cheese from the Tribe hurlers.
As a left-hander, Fowler doesn’t hit well against pitches up and away. It goes along with his general struggles with the ball in the upper third of the zone. Look for that to be another spot the mostly right-handed Tribe pitchers attack.
Kris Bryant, 3B
Bryant was simply amazing in his second big league season. He put up a .292/.385/.554 slash line and was worth 8.4 wins above replacement according to FanGraphs, easily the highest in the NL. In the postseason, he’s continued the greatness. Almost one-half of his hits were for extra bases and his OPS of .948 is simply remarkable.
On first glance, it appears the probable NL MVP winner doesn’t have a weakness to exploit. There are very few blue squares in his heat map, and the ones that do exist are not in a central location. There are a few cold spots low in the zone, but not enough to form a pattern. However, he didn’t strike out more than 20% of the time for no reason. A deeper dive reveals a few areas of attack.
Against off-speed pitches, the right-handed slugger struggles against pitches down and in. For a guy like Andrew Miller, who basically works down and in, this is perfect. Other pitchers on the staff will need to follow suit even early in the count. Fastballs need to be located on the outer edge of the zone to get Bryant out. Otherwise, he will crush them to the gap for extra bases.
Anthony Rizzo, 1B
Sitting in the three hole, the Cubs have their slugger Rizzo. After putting up his third straight season with at least 30 home runs, a .275 average, a .230 ISO, and a 145 wRC+, Rizzo cemented his case as the second most feared hitter in the Cubs lineup. In the postseason, he hasn’t exactly lived up to billing despite two home runs. He’s hit just .225 and gotten on base under 30% of the time.
Surprisingly, the only true weakness for the powerful Rizzo is on the inside part of the plate. The pitches must be very far inside, otherwise, Rizzo will mash them over the fence.
As for pitch selection, Tribe hurlers should go more with the hard stuff and curveballs. According to data from Brooks Baseball, Rizzo mashes changeups and sliders. He hit at least .320 and had a slugging percentage greater than .575 off of each pitch. It should be noted that 28% of his strikeouts were on sliders.
Ben Zobrist, LF
Zobrist is the unexpected cleanup hitter in Joe Maddon’s lineup. Despite solid numbers this year (.272/.386/.446 slash line with 18 homers), the switch-hitting Zobrist has quite a few holes to exploit. In the playoffs, pitchers have been taking advantage. The former super utility man was limited to just three hits in each series.
When batting from the left side, as he’ll do for the vast majority of the time in the World Series, Zobrist cannot hit anything on the lower part of the plate. He’s also much better against fastballs than off-speed pitches. So, expect Tribe pitchers to throw him lots of breaking balls down in the zone.
Against Miller and cult hero Ryan Merritt, the only Tribe left-handed pitchers, Zobrist should expect to see a lot of fastballs on the corners on the right side of the plate. Though he also struggles against low pitches, both of those pitchers have the command to pinpoint pitches exactly where he is most vulnerable. They better not miss up and in, however, as Zobrist will take those pitches for a ride.
Javier Baez, 2B
And finally, we come to Baez. The hot-hitting second baseman shared the NLCS MVP honors with Jon Lester and deservedly so. He hit .318 and slugged .500 in the series. Some of that success could be chalked up to luck. In the regular season, he was below average with a wRC+ of 94 and an OBP of just .314. So far in the postseason, he’s running a BABIP of .400, 64 points higher than his regular season rate.
The free-swinging Baez had a strikeout rate of 24% and a walk rate of just 3.3% in the regular season. Mostly, this is because he doesn’t know which pitches to take. He swings at 43% of pitches outside the zone. Almost half the time, if a pitch is a ball, Baez will make it a strike just by swinging. This should really help Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber, two pitchers whose off-speed pitches have a lot of break and often times end up out of the zone.
Other pitchers can attack Baez up and away, his main area of weakness. And if they are throwing the fastball, they can put it anywhere on the outside part of the plate. Baez struggles versus hard pitches thrown outside.
Just because Tribe pitchers have a game plan against these five hitters doesn’t mean they’ll be successful. They need to execute the plan to perfection. And even thenl the other hitters in the lineup could come through. It’s a less likely outcome, sure, but one that could happen nonetheless.
The Cubs are a difficult lineup to face, but the Tribe limited two stronger lineups (the Red Sox and the Blue Jays) to just 15 runs in seven games. They should be up to the challenge on the game’s highest stage.
Photo: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh