The Cubs managed to win Games 4 and 5 of the National League Championship Series in Los Angeles and turn a 2-1 series deficit into a 3-2 advantage, so now they return to Wrigley Field tonight with the chance to advance to their first World Series since 1945. Yes, really.But
The Cubs managed to win Games 4 and 5 of the National League Championship Series in Los Angeles and turn a 2-1 series deficit into a 3-2 advantage, so now they return to Wrigley Field tonight with the chance to advance to their first World Series since 1945. Yes, really.
But while you can absolutely expect a party atmosphere on the North Side, there's still a pretty sizable roadblock standing between the Cubs and the Fall Classic. His name is Clayton Kershaw, and he's The Best Pitcher In Baseball -- and beyond that, his performance so far this October should do more than enough to put to rest any foolish narratives about how he "can't handle the postseason."
• NLCS Game 6: Tonight 8 ET/7 CT/5 PT on FS1
So if the Cubs want to avoid a winner-take-all Game 7, they're going to first have to figure out how to beat Kershaw (and, most likely, Kenley Jansen), in Game 6. How do they do that? How has anyone done that?
:: NLCS: Dodgers vs. Cubs coverage ::
While the easy answer is "no one can, don't try, he's that good," that's probably not going to be what the Cubs are thinking headed into Saturday night. Let's present a patented three-point plan for the Cubs to try to take down the best the game has to offer. Spoiler alert: It still might not work.
1. Be prepared for how predictable Kershaw can be on the first pitch
There's a seemingly endless list of things that Kershaw is the best at in baseball, but the relevant one here is this: No pitcher in baseball throws more first-pitch strikes. No one. Kershaw threw a first-pitch strike 69.7 percent of the time this season, the highest in baseball and well above the Major League average of 60.1. Think that matters? Other names on the top 15 include Johnny Cueto, Kyle Hendricks, Madison Bumgarner and Max Scherzer.
Depending on what pitcher you're facing and the size of his arsenal, you might see a lot of different looks on first-pitch strikes. But occasional dalliances with a changeup aside, Kershaw is a three-pitch pitcher, and you can be pretty sure which one is coming in on the first pitch: His fastball. In fact, if we look at the 135 pitchers who threw at least 200 first-pitch strikes this year and just look at how many of those first-pitch strikes were fastballs, Kershaw's 78.9 percent is 11th, or in the top 9 percent.
So you know that more than two-thirds of the time, you're getting a first-pitch strike. When you do, more than three-quarters of the time, that first-pitch strike is a fastball. And, it's increasingly one of the few fastballs you might get at all, because over the years, Kershaw has been throwing that fastball less and less, bumping up usage of his slider and curveball.
The fastball is good, but it's probably his third-best pitch, and hitters at least have a chance against it. Over the last two seasons, hitters have a .235 average and .351 slugging percentage on the fastball, compared to .163/.229 on the slider and .126/.171 on the curve. If you want the fastball, you know where to find it ...
2. Be far, far more aggressive than the Cubs were in Game 2
... and yet, the Cubs did things like take four pitches without swinging the bat the last time they faced Kershaw.
Willson Contreras looked completely uninterested in swinging at all in his first at-bat against Kershaw in Game 2, but that was true up and down the Cubs' lineup. Kershaw faced 24 Cubs en route to allowing only two hits over seven innings in a 1-0 victory, and he threw 19 first-pitch fastballs -- including to the first nine batters in a row.
Of those 24 first pitches, only four were clearly outside the zone (one of which was fouled off anyway), yet only five Cubs went after a first pitch. One of those was Ben Zobrist, who hit a ball 100.2 mph that was the second-hardest batted ball of the night for the Cubs, though he lined into an out. Otherwise, the Cubs were content to let Kershaw get ahead of them, which not only didn't put them into good hitter's counts, it didn't do much to build up his pitch count.
Five swings out of 24 first pitches is a swing rate of just under 21 percent. If we look at Kershaw's 125 regular and postseason starts over the last four seasons, the average is just over 37 percent -- and only five times has a team been more passive on the first pitch than the Cubs were in Game 2. As August Fagerstrom of FanGraphs noted, while Kershaw's first-pitch OPS against this year of .727 is excellent on its own, when comparing it to his miniscule overall OPS against of .472, it's one of the larger first-pitch advantages in baseball. You're still in trouble going after a Kershaw first pitch ... just less trouble.
3. Do not fall behind Kershaw without a fight
That last part is important, because if Kershaw gets ahead, he goes from "very hard to hit" to "basically impossible to hit." Looking at all pitchers with at least 100 innings in 2016, the list of lowest OPS against in a pitcher's count is, shall we say, impressive:
Lowest OPS against, in pitcher's counts, minimum 100 innings, 2016
.258 -- Mike Montgomery
.290 -- Kershaw
.312 -- Stephen Strasburg
.314 -- Rich Hill
.342 -- Jake Arrieta
Now those are some names, and a somewhat surprising appearance at the top from Cubs reliever Montgomery, so file that away for potential relief appearances. If we look at the difference between "pitcher ahead OPS" and "overall OPS," we see Kershaw in the top 15 percent.
If you let him get ahead, then he starts firing curveballs and sliders, 60 percent of the time to lefties in pitcher's counts, and 65 percent to righties. Remember above, when we said that Kershaw allowed average/slugging stats of .163/.229 on the slider and .126/.171 on the curve? That becomes .114/.136 (slider) and .103/.152 (curve) in two-strike counts. If you let that happen, you might as well just walk back to the dugout and save everyone the time.
It's not that Kershaw can't be touched, of course. But from what we've seen this year, it takes a very specific set of circumstances. Only twice in 21 regular-season starts did Kershaw allow more than even two earned runs, and there's two very good explanations for each of them. When he allowed four earned runs and struck out only four in six innings in Pittsburgh on June 26, it was his final start for more than two months thanks to a serious back injury, so it's easy to assume he was already hurting.
When he allowed five earned runs to the Marlins on April 26, he was actually dealing until the sixth, having collected eight of his 10 strikeouts without allowing a run. Then the Marlins strung together five hits in a row. The first three were somewhat lucky, none reaching an exit velocity of even 77 mph. Then Christian Yelich crushed a single at 103 mph; it was a fastball. Then a red-hot Giancarlo Stanton -- in the midst of mashing seven homers in 11 games -- put a dinger 433 feet away.
That pitch, also, was a fastball. It came on a 1-0 count after Kershaw buried a slider in the dirt, making it the first hittable pitch Stanton was offered. He didn't miss. It's not a fool-proof approach for success against Kershaw, because nothing is. The Cubs can't do what they did in Game 2, though. They have to attack. They have to be ready. Otherwise, Kershaw will do whatever he pleases with them -- and just maybe, send the Dodgers to Game 7.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.