With an amazing comeback against the San Francisco Giants in Game 4 of the NLDS, the Chicago Cubs moved on to the NLCS for the second consecutive year. This is the first time they’ve ever advanced to the NLDS two years in a row. The ninth inning rally by the Cubs was a comeback for the ages, but they haven’t played perfect baseball by any stretch. Chicago sat just three outs away from being tied in the series with the Giants, who were 37-44 after July 1. Here are four mistakes the Cubs must stop doing if they want to win the 2016 World Series.
1. Swinging and missing
In their four games against San Francisco, the Cubs had two starters go eight innings and strike out 10 batters — Johnny Cueto in a 1-0 Game 1 loss and Matt Moore in a 6-5 Game 4 loss. Going back to the 2015 season, the Cubs experienced a lot of problems with strikeouts. They struck out 37 times in 36 innings against the New York Mets last year in the NLCS. Then, Theo Epstein and his front office went out and tried to find ways to improve the contract rates in the lineup.
They brought in Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, relegating Jorge Soler to a part-time role and moving on from Starlin Castro. The team improved on strikeouts during the regular season, but they struck out 38 times in 38 innings in their four games against San Francisco. The offense scored just 17 runs in four games (pitchers drove in six of those runs). A big part of this issue is the lack of contact at the plate, which they need to do like they had the last several months.
2. Allowing so much contact
On the other side of things, the Cubs’ pitching staff allowed a lot of contact. Despite losing three of the four games, the Giants outhit the Cubs in the series 36 to 28 and didn’t even hit a home run in the series. They pretty consistently put the ball in play, which put a lot of pressure on the Cubs pitching staff — especially in the last two games. Jake Arrieta only got through six innings in Game 3, and John Lackey dealt with trouble his entire time on the mound in Game 4.
During the regular season, the Cubs looked good at striking batters out. With 8.9 K/9 on the season, they finished third in the National League in the category. They’re also really good at inducing weak contact, but the strikeouts are necessary to supplement that. Jon Lester only struck out five batters in eight innings, and Kyle Hendricks didn’t get a single K in his 3 2/3 innings of work. In order for them to see success the rest of the postseason, they must return to the swing-and-miss on the pitching side.
3. Making fielding mistakes
The Cubs had the best fielding team in Major League Baseball this season, which plays a huge factor in why they could allow some weak contact and still turn it into outs. Despite having 3.77 FIP as a team, they had a 3.15 ERA — the largest disparity between the two numbers among all teams in baseball. Their elite defense is a big reason they won 103 games this season.
But in the small sample of these last four games, the Cubs committed five fielding errors — three of them in Game 2. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, and it’s fair to mention that they didn’t result in a single unearned run. But those errors end in pitchers having to throw more pitches than are necessary, so it’s important to get that under control. If they keep being careless with the outs, it will eventually bite them.
4. Bullpen meltdowns
In 17 1/3 innings pitched in the NLDS, the Cubs’ bullpen had a 3.12 ERA. The incredible performance of left-hander Mike Montgomery contributed to this. He tossed 5 1/3 innings in the series and allowed just one earned run. Aroldis Chapman, Hector Rondon, Justin Grimm, and Travis Wood all experienced less-than-reliable moments, leading to a bullpen meltdown in Game 3 and the Giants stretching their lead from 3-2 to 5-2 in Game 4.
For the Cubs to be successful, they need their bullpen to perform. Chicago formed an excellent trio at the end of the ballgame, with Pedro Strop, Rondon, and Chapman at the end of the game. Injuries to Strop and Rondon late in the season put all of that into question; Rondon specifically has yet to completely get back his slider. They’ve had great starting pitching, for the most part, and if the bullpen can perform at its best the Cubs will be tough to knock out in the playoffs.