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Giants - Cubs NLDS Preview

Never a good thing to be on the SI cover before the postseason, especially for a team that seems to have a 108 year curse on them!

The Cubs are clearly the overwhelming favorite to win the World Series this year and for good reason. They are an uber talented team with hardly any weaknesses. They also happen to have the best regular season record and the best run differential. In fact the Cubs run differential is quite dominant compared to the playoff field.

I have a problem, however, with conceding to the notion that the Cubs should beat the Giants quite easily given that the Giants are the lowest seed in the postseason. Of course the Giants have a daunting task ahead of them. They definitely need to win at least one game in Chicago and it will be a lot easier stealing Game 1 or 2 instead of trying to win three in a row and finishing off the series on a return trip to Chicago for Game 5. The Cubs also own an amazing home record of 57-24.

Here is why, however, I don't think the Cubs are as scary as most people make them out to be and why the Giants actually have a great chance of beating Chicago in this series.

  • Since 1995, when Major League Baseball adopted the wild card format of the postseason and ultimately expanded the playoff field from 4 to 8 teams (10 teams since 2012), teams with the best regular season record have won the World Series just 4 times out of the last 21 seasons.

  • Even getting to the World Series is not a given for the team with the best regular season record. Less than half the time has it happened since 1995 (9 out of 21).

  • In fact, teams with home field advantage in each league don't have great odds of getting to the World Series or winning it. Among the 42 World Series participants since 1995, only 14 of them had home field advantage in the American or National League playoffs. That is exactly 1/3. You are certain to see better numbers for NBA or NFL teams that finish with the best regular season record in its conference. Only 8 of the past 21 World Series champions had home field advantage in its league's postseason.

  • Wild Card teams or teams who are the 3rd ranked division winner in each league have fared better in the MLB postseason since 1995. In fact, 20 of the past 42 World Series participants were either a wild card team or had the lowest record among all three division winners in their league. Apparently being forced to play at least 2 of your first 3 postseason games on the road doesn't seem to faze those teams.

  • Going a bit deeper, 6 of the last 21 World Series champions were wild card teams. Remember that only 4 of the last 21World Series champions had the best regular season record. Hmmm... Aren't the Cubs the team with the best regular season record and the Giants a wild card team?!

  • 12 wild card teams have made it to the World Series since 1995. Remember that 14 teams that were the highest rated team in each league also made it to the World Series during that time frame. Seems awfully close to me.

  • Let's not ignore the teams with the 2nd best record in the American and National League. They have made it to the World Series 8 times since 1995 and won it 5 times. Very similar records to other playoff seeds.

  • The average percent difference in regular season wins between the top seed in each league's postseason and the lowest seed is quite small. It's 11.48% for the National League and I bet that number is similar for the American League. The NBA and NFL tend to see that number close to 50% (it was over 75% between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets last season).

  • The Cubs record against teams with losing records is 72-33, which is impressive, but they are more mediocre against teams with winning records (31-25). In fact, the Cubs are 17-14 against playoff teams this season. Huge disparity here.

  • The run differential for the Cubs among non-playoff and playoff teams also shows a huge disparity. The Cubs had an amazing run differential of +252 this season. Against playoff teams, it was just +6. That means that over 97% of their run differential were against teams they won't even see in the postseason.

  • Keep in mind that teams play their division rivals about 20 times each during the regular season. The Cubs had three teams with losing records in their division and went 40-16 against them. The Cubs also played the AL West this year which was also quite weak (just two teams with winning records and only one of them making the postseason).

  • The Giants on the other hand don't seem to have such glaring differences in their record against teams with winning records and losing records. They did have to play tougher competition with the Dodgers being a tougher rival than the Cardinals for the Cubs. The Giants also had to play the AL East which had 4 teams with winning records and 3 postseason teams.

  • The Giants were after all the team with the best record for the first half of the regular season and even though they were in a tail spin for most of the second half, it seems they have snapped out of their funk by winning 5 of their last 6 regular season games. They also have won 3 of the last six World Series with pretty much the same core players and management.

  • As in the last three postseasons for the Giants, they have a very good starting pitching rotation that is well equipped to take this team on another deep postseason run. Bumgarner, Cueto, Samardzija, and Moore. Need I say more!

  • The Giants also have perhaps one of the best baseball managers and pitching coaches of this era: Bruce Bochy and Dave Righetti.

  • It's an EVEN YEAR!

You can point to postseason stats from before 1995 but that is when only two teams from each league made the playoffs (when divisions were created in 1969) and of course prior to 1969, only the team with the best record in each league went onto the World Series (no postseason at all for each league). With more playoff competition, it becomes increasingly harder for teams with an amazing regular season record to get to the World Series. The sample size of the postseason is simply way too small compared to the regular season which gives way to more randomness. This randomness is clearly seen by the nearly equal records of getting to the World Series and winning it among all playoff seeds.

I am also a firm believer that teams that have to scratch and claw their way into the postseason are better equipped for the nuances and rigors of postseason baseball as they had to play that kind of game during the final couple of weeks of the regular season. On the other hand, a team that clinches a playoff spot quite early is coasting until the postseason begins. Baseball players are creatures of habit and not being on top of your game for more than a few days can really throw things out of whack.

Finally, keep in mind that everyone in the postseason is a good team. You can no longer feast off weak pitchers or strike out inept hitters consistently. The players with amazing stats during the regular season sometimes do nothing in the postseason and vice versa.

When you consider all of the data and points made in this blog, this is precisely why I feel the Giants have a great chance of pulling off the "upset" over the Cubs. Call me a homer but I am beliEVEN!

Prediction: Giants beat the Cubs in 4 games and don't be surprised if the Giants leave Chicago tomorrow night up 2 - 0.