Now that we are approaching the middle of September, things are starting to take shape in MLB’s postseason picture. The American League, barring a catastrophic collapse by the Oakland Athletics, appears to be set. But the National League is far from being settled, and there are several ways that things can play out. Let’s take a look at which teams give the Chicago Cubs the best possible route to the World Series, based on where they finish the season.
NOTE: All stats and standings are as of September 12, prior to the day’s games.
If the playoffs started right now
As of right now the NL division winners would be the Cubs (1 seed), Atlanta Braves (2 seed), and Colorado Rockies (3 seed), with the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals claiming the two Wild Card spots. With this group of teams, there is a pretty good path to get back to the World Series.
If the Brewers take the Wild Card game, it will be a gift to the Cubs pitching staff as they have logged a 2.64 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and a 3.09 K/BB rate as a team against them this season. They have also allowed just 2.72 runs per game (49 runs in 18 games) to the Brewers this year, while the Cubs offense has scored 3.28 runs per game (59 runs) in their season series to date.
On the other hand, I believe the Cardinals would pose a much tougher threat to the Cubs. Though Chicago’s offense has hit better as a team against St. Louis with a .277/.357/.426 slash line and 5.06 RPG (81 runs in 16 games), the pitching staff has not fared as well with a 4.67 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, and a 1.54 K/BB rate. That inflated ERA is due to the fact that they have allowed 5.31 RPG (85 total runs), and it has also led to St. Louis having the lead in the season series as they have won nine of the 16 contests they have played. We will need to see a much better showing from Cubs pitchers in their final series of the season in order to feel better about this potential playoff matchup.
Once we get out of the first round, it can get a little hairy. The other two teams on track to make it into the postseason, the Braves and Rockies, each pose as tough opponents for the Cubs. During regular season play the Cubs offense slashed .244/.308/.410 against the Rockies, posting the fifth lowest team batting average against an opponent that they played at least six times (though they did still average 5.50 RPG with 33 total runs), and the pitching staff allowed exactly as many runs as the offense scored (33) en route to a 4.58 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, and a .261/.349/.464 slash line against. They didn’t fare too much better against Atlanta allowing 30 total runs (5.00 RPG), a 4.92 ERA, 1.68 WHIP, and a .275/.373/.454 slash line against, and the offense really struggled to a .212/.313/.333 slash line with 28 runs scored (4.67 RPG) in six regular season matchups. Their .212 average is the second lowest team batting average against an opponent that they have played at least six times.
Based on that information, given how the playoff picture sits now heading into Wednesday’s games, the Cubs’ best path to the World Series would be to face the Brewers in the NLDS, and see the Colorado Rockies (hot offense and all) in the NLCS.
Other outcomes, with the Cubs winning the NL Central
As I alluded to in the open, there are still a lot of pieces to fall into place before this race to the postseason is all said and done. The NL West has three teams all within three games of each other – the Rockies, Dodgers, and Diamondbacks – and if one or two of those teams goes off we could see a pair of NL West clubs in the Wild Card game.
Out of those three clubs, the Cubs have done the best against the Dodgers during the regular season. In their seven meetings the Cubs offense went off with a .299/.355/.458 slash line, .376 BABIP, and they averaged 5.00 RPG (35 runs). Meanwhile, their pitchers have recorded a 3.34 ERA (23 total runs, 3.29 RPG), a .232 BAA, and a .260 BABIP (third lowest allowed against any opponent). They have been awful against the Diamondbacks with an offensive slash line of .211/.265/.317 and 2.75 RPG, as well as a 4.50 ERA and 1.44 WHIP allowed by the pitching staff, and their struggles against the Rockies have already been discussed.
There is also an extremely thin chance that the Phillies or Nationals could make the postseason, but the two Wild Card slots are most likely to be taken by any of the Brewers, Cardinals, Rockies, Dodgers, and Diamondbacks.
If the Cubs finish as a Wild Card team
As blasphemous as this is – and believe me, I would hate to see this, too – there is a very real possibility that the Cubs do not finish the season as the NL Central champions. As of this writing the Cubs have a slim two-game lead over the Brewers in the division, and the Cardinals are also right in the mix at 3 1/2 games back. There are still 18 games left in the season for Chicago, with just one of them (today’s game) coming against the Brewers and three more against the Cardinals as their last series of the year. Depending on how the other 14 games turn out, that final series of the year could determine which team gets home-field advantage in the Wild Card game.
If the Cubs were to fall in the standings and play in the Wild Card game, their best chance to win that game would be to go up against the Dodgers. As I mentioned earlier, their highest team batting average against an NL opponent was against LA as they slashed .299/.355/.458 in seven regular season matchups. That would most likely put them in a divisional matchup with the Brewers in the NLDS, and if Milwaukee does go on the run required to take over the division I’m not sure that anyone would be comfortable with that matchup.
After that series they would still face the winner between the Braves or the NL West champion (likely the Rockies), and it would still be an uphill battle to advance since they would not have home-field advantage. This would be the least confidence-inspiring path, largely due to what it would take to put them in that position.
What is the best overall path?
I believe that the best route the Cubs have to the World Series would be to have the Brewers win the Wild Card game to face them in the NLDS, and to have the Dodgers win both the NL West and their NLDS matchup with the Braves in order to meet up in the NLCS. Those are the two potentially playoff-bound teams that the Cubs have done the best against this year, and that makes them the two teams I would most like to see the Cubs face in the postseason.
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