The Chicago Cubs have been the favorites to win the 2016 World Series all season long, and it would be an upset if they don’t defeat the San Francisco Giants in the National League Division Series. But the history of both teams suggests that the Cubs could be in for a major disappointment as they look to win their first championship in 108 years.
San Francisco already has one playoff win, defeating the New York Mets in Wednesday’s NL Wild-Card Game. While the Cubs haven’t reached the World Series since 1945, the Giants are on pace to win the title this year, considering they were the champs in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
Having led MLB with 103 regular-season wins—the Giants won 87 games—the Cubs have -260 betting odds to win the NLDS, via BetOnline. San Francisco is a +220 underdog.
Chicago has the best overall team in baseball, but the starting rotation is where they really separate themselves from the rest of the league. The Cubs have last year’s NL Cy Young award winner, and he won’t even start in the first two games.
It’ll be Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks who get the starts for Chicago in Games 1 and 2 at Wrigley Field. Hendricks has MLB’s best ERA at 2.13, and Lester is right behind him at 2.44. Lester gets the nod in the series opener because of the way he finished the season, posting a 1.76 ERA after the All-Star Break.
Jake Arrieta had a 3.69 ERA after the All-Star Break, which is unusually high for him. But he remains one of the league’s top starters, and no MLB team has a No.3 starter that’s nearly as good. John Lackey is scheduled to start a potential Game 4, and the 37-year-old has a 3.35 ERA in 2016 with a 1.06 WHIP.
The Cubs have the clear edge over the Giants in the rotation, but they have a chance to steal one of the first two games in Wrigley Field with Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija taking the mound. Cueto is San Francisco’s second-best pitcher with a 2.79 ERA, and Samardzija finished the season strong with an ERA below 3.00 in both August and September.
Because they have Madison Bumgarner starting at home in Game 3, the Giants can completely change the complexion of the series by winning one of the first two games. Bumgarner might be the greatest postseason pitcher of all time, and he further cemented his legacy by pitching a complete-game shutout in the Wild-Card Game. He makes San Francisco the favorite to win Game 3 before sending Matt Moore and his 4.08 ERA to the hill in Game 4.
The Giants will be in trouble in any game that they are forced to use their bullpen. San Francisco led MLB with 30 blown saves, and Chicago’s 3.56 bullpen ERA puts them fourth in the NL. That won’t mean as much in a potential Game 5 since Bumgarner could be used as a reliever. He closed out Game 7 of the 2014 World Series with five scoreless innings.
Chicago’s lineup might not be better than that of the Boston Red Sox, but it’s still the best in the NL and better than what 28 other teams put on the field. The Cubs are led by the likely NL MVP winner, another player in the MVP race and an overall balanced lineup.
Kris Bryant was the NL’s best position player in the regular season, hitting .292 with 39 home runs and a .939 OPS. Anthony Rizzo had nearly identical numbers as Bryant, with the teammates sharing the exact same batting average and on-base percentage (.385), though Rizzo trailed the third baseman by .10 points with a .544 slugging percentage.
The likes of Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist also make the top of Chicago’s lineup extremely difficult to keep off base with a .393 and .386 OBP, respectively. Towards the bottom of the order, Addison Russell and his 21 homers help give the Cubs considerably more power than the Giants.
Only two MLB teams hit fewer home runs than San Francisco in the regular season. Brandon Belt led the team with just 17 long balls, and the team’s best player, Buster Posey, hit 14 homers with a .796 OPS.
San Francisco ranked ninth in the NL in runs scored, but they were fourth in batting average. Relying on homers to score runs often backfires when facing elite pitching in the playoffs, and that’s something the Cubs know all too well. Their big bats were silenced in last year’s NLCS when they were swept by the Mets and their staff of young aces.
The Giants have won three World Series this decade with a lot of the same key players, and they won’t be an easy out in the postseason. Bumgarner gives them a weapon that no other MLB team has, and his Game 3 start could help San Francisco pull off the upset. But Chicago has the edge in every phase of the game, and it’ll be difficult for the Giants to win the series when their ace can only start once.
Series Prediction: Cubs in five games