Yesterday, I predicted the Cubs would win Game 6, and go on to win the World Series in 7 games. So far, the first half of that prediction has come true. Both the Indians and the Cubs now stand 1 game away from their first World Series title in quite some time; perhaps you have heard this storyline? With the Cubs sending Kyle Hendricks to the mound to face off against Corey Kluber, this is probably the best match up that either fan base could have asked for. If you’re Cleveland, you have to feel good about Kluber’s chances, after he has already come out and dominated 2 starts in this World Series, not unlike Madison Bumgarner in 2014. Chicago, meanwhile, should feel good about Kyle Hendricks, who led the Majors in ERA this year. In a fascinating wrinkle, Cleveland’s home field advantage has been effectively neutralized by the presence of Kyle Schwarber, who is only hitting as a DH, due to his miraculously quick recovery from a torn ACL suffered at the beginning of this season. This game, to me, hinges on whether or not the Indians’ ace will be able to dominate like he has all Series, or if a combination of the Cubs seeing him a third time in 9 days and this being his second straight start on short rest proves to be too much for Kluber to overcome. In this article, I am going to compare Kluber’s first 2 World Series starts to see if we can gain any insight into what his third might look like, as well as look at Kyle Hendricks’ lone start to try to figure out what a winning game plan for him may look like, before making my pick for Game 7 and whether or not I will stick to my original prediction.
Let’s start with Corey Kluber’s first start, from October 25. Kluber was brilliant, pitching into the 7th inning, while only allowing 4 hits against 9 strikeouts. Of the 88 pitches he threw, 59 of them were for strikes, giving him a 67% strike rate. Again, I went to Brooksbaseball.com to try to get some additional insight into the pitches he was throwing, and I came away with some pretty good information. He threw 30 sinkers, 80% of which were strikes. He also threw 27 sliders, of which 19 of them (70.4%) were strikes. Kluber’s sinker has a huge vertical break, whereas the slider is the sweeping variety; it has a massive horizontal break with almost no vertical movement. He supplemented those two pitches with a 4 seam fastball and a cutter, with a rare changeup being mixed in.
What is interesting about his pitch selection is that he throws the vast majority of his pitches for strikes; batters just find it impossible to make hard contact with the ball. Indeed, batters swung at 33.3% of his sinkers and a whopping 40.7% of his sliders. When they swung at the sinker, they largely made weak contact, putting 5 balls in play off of 10 swings, but only recording 1 hit. When batters swung at his slider, they whiffed about half (5 whiffs on 11 swings, 40.7%) of the time. They were also able to put 5 sliders in play, with 1 hit. The other two hits that were recorded in this game off the cutter, where batters were able to reach safely on both of the balls they put in play. So, to summarize, Kluber relied heavily on his sinker and his slider, inducing weak contact with both pitches but far more whiffs with the slider. Let’s hold these thoughts and examine his second World Series start, and compare the two.
In Game 4, Kluber only lasted to the 6th inning, giving up 5 hits and striking out 6. The Cubs were able to score a run against him, but he was wildly effective in his second World Series start, picking up another win. In Game 1, we established that the winning formula for him involved a heavy dose of sinkers and sliders. In Game 4, he went right back to that formula in an even more pronounced way. Of the 81 pitches he threw, 61 of them were either sinkers (26) or sliders (35). He didn’t waste any time messing around with his changeup (he threw 0) or his fastball (4); the only other pitch that really saw any usage was his cutter, which he threw 16 times. In Game 4, batters whiffed on fewer of his sliders than they did in Game 1 (20% compared to 40.7% in Game 1), but they swung at far more of them (68.6% compared to 40.7% in Game 1). Looking at pitch break data, I notice that the sliders he threw in Game 4 had more vertical break than the ones he threw in Game 1. Batters also swung at more of his sinkers, going from swinging at 33.3% of them in Game 1 to 46.2% in Game 4. Batters were able to put 6 of his sinkers (recording 2 hits) and 7 sliders (also 2 hits) into play. To me, this suggests that the Cubs’ batters were getting closer to figuring out Kluber. This is a trend that may make the Indians and their fans uncomfortable. History is not on Kluber’s side, either.
Since 1995 (the start of the Wild Card era), there have been 30 Cy Young award winners (Kluber included) who have made postseason starts on short rest (defined as 3 days of rest or fewer). According to MLB.com, those pitchers have posted a 9-12 record with a 4.26 ERA. If you think that Kluber has been asked to pitch a lot on short rest in these playoffs, you would be correct: According to the New York Times, in the last 10 years, only C.C. Sabathia in 2009 and Clayton Kershaw in these playoffs were asked to make more than 1 start on short rest. Even more troubling is that these short rest starts are uncharted waters for Kluber. Prior to this postseason, he had never made a start on short rest. He was asked to start Game 4 of the ALCS on short rest and it was not Kluber’s best performance. He only lasted 5 innings, allowing 2 runs and taking the loss. Prior performance is not a guarantee of future outcomes, but the trends would suggest that Kluber is in for a rough start in Game 7, when you combine the Cubs’ increased familiarity with his pitches, Kluber’s own inexperience and mixed results on short rest, the rarity of what he is being asked to do, and the overall poor performances of Cy Young winners on short rest in the postseason. So, now that we know that the deck is relatively stacked against Kluber, let’s take a look at his opponent in Game 7, Kyle Hendricks.
When last we saw Kyle Hendricks, he was being removed from Game 3 of the World Series in the 5th inning with a shutout intact, but having put runners on. Hendricks struck out 6, but he also allowed 6 hits and a walk, so he was far from totally effective. Hendricks threw 85 pitches, of which he seemed to split his distribution fairly evenly between the 4 seam fastball, sinker and changeup, with a few curveballs mixed in here and there. He is not a pitcher who misses a lot of bats, instead inducing weak contact with his sinker, and painting corners with his fastball and changeup. Greg Maddux has been a popular comparison for him thus far, and it’s not unreasonable to think of him as a poor man’s Maddux when it comes to his pitch selection and how he attacks batters. We know now that he was less than effective in Game 3, so I wanted to take a look at what was different in his World Series start, compared to when he is at his best. Seeing as he led the Majors in ERA this year, I thought that the average numbers he put up in this season represented a pretty reasonable sample of what he looks like when he’s at his best, so let’s compare and contrast.
When looking at what Hendricks did differently in the World Series compared to the regular season, there are a few things that immediately jumped off the page. In the regular season, Hendricks used his sinker far more than any other pitch, about twice as often as his 4 seam fastball and roughly 50% more than his changeup. In Game 3, he threw 24 sinkers, compared to 23 changeups and 27 fastballs. The swing rates for all three of these pitches in Game 3 were very similar to what they were in the regular season, which suggests to me that if he had taken the same sinker-heavy approach as he had all season, he might have seen results in line with the dominant regular season he had posted. The Greg Maddux comparison is somewhat accurate, but seeing Hendricks depart from his normal game plan so sharply in Game 3 reminds me of one of my favorite Maddux stories. Maddux’s former catcher in Atlanta, Eddie Perez, tells a story about Maddux serving up a home run to Jeff Bagwell intentionally in the regular season, because he knew that he would see him in the playoffs later that year and Bagwell would be looking for Maddux to make the same pitch. I think it is a bit much to say that Hendricks would be so careless in the World Series as to throw a game in anticipation of making a Game 7 start that would be completely different, but it’s one of my favorite Maddux anecdotes so just indulge me. Getting back to Game 7, though, I have a gameplan for each team that I think could lead them to victory.
If Corey Kluber is going to win Game 7, he is going to do so by going back to the balanced approach he took in Game 1. When the Cubs saw Kluber last, he was hammering them with sinkers and sliders exclusively, and they weren’t far off from figuring him out. The key pitch for me is going to be his cut fastball. If Kluber can mix in enough quality cutters to break up the sinker/slider combination, I think he will have just enough variety to keep the Cubs guessing all game, and make it difficult to figure a guy out that they probably will only get 2 cracks at through the order, which is the elephant in the room: Terry Francona will not let the Cubs get many cracks at Kluber before he goes back to Andrew Miller and the rest of his killer bullpen. The Indians’ hitters, meanwhile, need to be aggressive early and often, especially on the basepaths. I assume that Joe Maddon’s gameplan for this game is Hendricks to Lester to Chapman. We all know that Lester can be run on, and every opportunity is magnified tenfold in a Game 7, which means that small ball is probably going to be the key. If Kluber can get through the order twice, mixing up his pitches like he did in Game 1, and the Indians’ hitters can manufacture a few runs on the basepaths, I believe the Indians have a real chance of winning the World Series.
Kyle Hendricks, meanwhile, has to do the complete opposite. As we covered earlier, he is at his best when he is leaning on his sinker, much like his teammate Jake Arrieta. If Hendricks can use the sinker-heavy approach he took all season, I believe that he will be able to give the Indians a different enough look than they saw in Game 3 that he will be able to get the ball to the Cubs’ bullpen. Maddon’s use of Aroldis Chapman in a blowout Game 6 win is perplexing on its face, but it shows the mindset that Maddon has when it comes to his bullpen: he thinks that he has one guy in there (Chapman) who he can trust. That’s why I believe that the bridge between Hendricks and Chapman is going to be Jon Lester. Lester is a proven playoff commodity, and the Cubs’ best available non-Chapman pitcher. I think, ideally, Hendricks would pitch into the 6th inning, then hand the ball off to Lester for an inning or 2, then turn it over to Chapman. From a hitting perspective, there’s not much advice you can really give the Cubs. These are some of the best hitters in baseball. It’s interesting that we wondered all season if losing Schwarber would cost them a chance to win the World Series, but in reality he was able to return in time to show that his presence is a big reason that the Cubs are in position to win the World Series. Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant are all swinging hot bats, and I think they are too good to not figure out a guy that they will be seeing for the 3rd time in 9 days. It is imperative that they do their damage early, because Andrew Miller hasn’t pitched since October 29, so you know Francona isn’t afraid to go to him early and let him do his thing.
So, with everything we have covered, I suppose it’s time for me to put up or shut up and make a pick. I believe that Kyle Hendricks and the Cubs will win the World Series. I think that the combination of repeated short rest and familiarity will prove to be fatal for Corey Kluber. If Hendricks goes back to the pitch selection and gameplan that he rode to the ERA title this year, I think he is as good as anyone in baseball. This may be oversimplifying things, but if you had to pick one team to win a single baseball game against any opponent this year, you would probably pick the best team in baseball, which is what the Cubs are. The Indians are a great story and it’s a real shame that injuries to Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar robbed us of what could have been a truly epic World Series of pitching, but that’s the way she goes sometimes, and we have been treated to an epic World Series, anyways. I’ve said this before: the two greatest words in sports are “Game 7”, and no sport capitalizes on the slow burn and dramatic moments quite like baseball does. This is going to be something special, and I truly cannot wait. I believe that this is the year the curse ends, and the Chicago Cubs win the World Series in Cleveland.
– Bill Annechino (Twitter)