Monday, October 01, 2007

beating arizona

here it comes. that dour old bastard gaius marius is going to shit all over the cubs even in their moment of victory. the rest of the world is rallying, and here's this guy, what a sad, sad man.

given the expectation, let me get the bile out of the way first: i have to admit that i can't recall seeing a rally staged in this town for a club that hasn't won anything yet. as a measure of pure fan desperation, it doesn't get a lot more sorry than that.

but i'm having a hard time fulfilling expectations on the rest.

the cubs are on their way to face the arizona diamondbacks this wednesday, taking what everyone hopes is just the first step of many between here and november. while the cubs finished with just the sixth best record in the league at 85-77, arizona finished a league-best 90-72 in a year without any extraordinary team performances. that usually isn't cause for hope.

but it's hard to position the diamondbacks as a fearsome club. though they were the most consistent team in baseball while posting winning records in five of six months (and going 13-13 in july), they also scored just 712 runs while allowing 732. that the best team in the league was outscored this year is testament to both the unexceptional quality of teams in the national league overall and the freakishness of this season. if the cubs defied the gods by riding improbably strange babip to the playoffs, arizona one-upped them by going 32-20 in one-run games.

what they were pretty good at was pitching. they allowed the fifth-fewest runs in the league at 4.52 per game. but it has to be said that outperformance in this department is heavily concentrated on two aspects of the club: brandon webb and the bullpen.

webb is a force of nature. though his august was babip-aided, even in the remaining normal months he was very impressive. with just 12 home runs allowed in 236.1 innings, he collapses the oppostion power game. when combined with good control and being very hard to hit... well, the cubs should not expect to win any game he starts. the d'backs were 22-12 in them.

they have also shortened games with a bullpen built around jose valverde, brandon lyon, lefty doug slaten, juan cruz and tony pena. pena and slaten, however, have been vulnerable since august, and cruz has a history of volatility. lyon moreover has an era that rather defies the physics of runs allowed, being neither particularly hard to hit nor getting a lot of strikeouts. as a group, this lot has outrun expectations all year and isn't as intimidating as its earned run average would seem to indicate.

arizona figures to go with doug davis, livan hernandez and micah owings behind webb in a four-man rotation. davis is a lefty, but an unexceptional one and the cubs have done quite well against left-handed pitching this season. i find it interesting that they have chosen to start him at home -- davis has struggled somewhat at chase field (4.75 era, 111 h in 96.2 ip) and been stronger on the road (3.75 era, 100 h in 96 ip), which could be a function of the famously thin arizona air. livan has been battered most of the year, particularly in the second half, is very susceptible to the long ball and is not a good starter. owings is a 24-year-old whose sparkling second half is completely a function of abnormally low babip; he's a reasonable control pitcher who does not dominate with strikeouts. he's been somewhat stronger at home (3.81 era) than on the road (4.96 era), and probably should change places with davis -- but it ain't my decision.

if you find all this unimpressive, you can join me. against these guys the cubs will send a three-man rotation of carlos zambrano, ted lilly and rich hill, coming back with a short-rested zambrano in game four to face owings. you can't expect to win the first game against webb, but the cubs put superior pitching matchups on the field for the following three games.

to help cub pitching, what arizona was not particularly good at was scoring. arizona placed 14th in the nl, managing just 4.40 runs/game. much of this, however, should be seen to be a function of a depressed first-half babip. in a more normal second half environment, the offensive output of the club was a more respectable 4.73 rs/g and 253/327/428 team line. this is a decently powerful ballclub with 171 home runs, despite only chris young having exceeded 30 homers as an individual. the first base platoon of conor jackson and tony clark hit 32 combined, 23-year-old third baseman mark reynolds hit 17 in just 366 ab, and every full-season regular hit at least 10. but it is not a patient team, and strikes out plenty (particulary reynolds and young, who normally hit fifth and first).

anyone who has read this blog all year understands that i think the cubs are a .500 ballclub masquerading, with the help of a lot of luck, as a playoff team. i think the same can be said of the arizona diamondbacks. webb is their sole standout player, with the club around him being best described as competent. the cubs can and should beat this team in a best-of-five, primarily by winning the games webb doesn't play in. if they can win game one behind zambrano, it should go even more smoothly.

luck is going to play a huge role of course, but it's going to be up to the cub offense to stand out and the cub bullpen to hold together. the cubs went 17-12 in september to help themselves to the division crown, and they did it on the back not of great pitching but of a resurgently powerful offense. many wondered all year where the anticipated power in the cub lineup had gone, but in september the home runs flooded in like late mail. the team hit 45 home runs in those 29 games, including alfonso soriano's 14; they won't keep that pace up. but they also walked 95 times to boost their september obp to a season-high .351 in the month. if the walks can be combined with some continued power -- probably not against webb, but against davis, livan and owings -- the runs should be more than enough.

provided, that is, that the likes of bob howry, carlos marmol, kerry wood, scott eyre and ryan dempster -- particularly dempster -- don't blow up. bullpen luck is perhaps the biggest variable in any five-game series, and there's no predicting it. but with some more kind glances from that pretty old dame fortune, it seems to me that the cubs should be moving deeper into october.

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