Playoff baseball never really gets old. Confession time: I've seen maybe 30 games this year. Maybe less. Part of that is having a 1-year old (and a 4-year old), but most of it is the fact that Cubs already did the damn thing. Furthermore, we pretty much all knew in the back of our minds that we were going to be at least competing for the division. I've watched more over the home stretch, but one of the beauties of baseball is that it is there whether you want to watch today or not. There is nearly always a game tomorrow.
Except in the playoffs.
Playoff baseball is a different atmosphere entirely. Individual games carry more meaning. Losing a 1-0 game to Clayton Kershaw isn't a big deal when it happens in the regular season, but when it happens Game 2 of the NLCS, you remember that thing for a long time (we had our revenge, of course). It's here, and we are here for it.
Ryan Zimmerman had a revival of sorts this season, with a .303/.358/.573 line. He crushes lefties, but is not slouch against right-handers either. He's about as mobile as a Maoi, but when you trot around the bases, you can take as long as you want. As good as Zimmerman is, Rizzo is still a hair better this year (.272/.392/.507). Zimmerman has more pop, but Rizzo gets on base more often. In the playoffs, I think I tend towards SLG (the probability of any positive event is lower against good pitching, but HR still give you a run regardless of who you hit one off of), but Rizzo is still better ENOUGH that I lean Rizz here.
Daniel Murphy fell back to Earth slightly this year, but still had the second best year of his career (.322/.384/.543). He rarely strikes out (13.0%), has some pop (23 HR), and killed the Cubs in the playoffs two years ago. I hate Daniel Murphy. He's clearly a better player than Javier Baez (.273/.317/.480), but funnily enough the differential in their lines (.049/.067/.063) more or less just points out to a single every 20 at bats and a walk every 60 plate appearances. I'd like to think that Baez is a single better than Murphy over 4 games defensively, in which case they may be more evenly matched than you'd think at first blush. I lean Murphy here, but don't be at all surprised if Baez takes over the series.
Trea Turner is back from his injury, and he's a dynamic player on the basepaths (46 SB in 54 attempts) and with the glove (one of the best defenders in the league). Addison Russell is about as good defensively, maybe even better, but it's been a lost season for him at the plate and at home. Turner is definitively better than Russell at this point in time and a clear advantage goes to the Nationals.
Both of these players were MVP candidates this year: Kris Bryant slashed .295/.409/.537 with 29 HR and good defense, and Rendon hit the trinity slash (.301/.403/.533) with 25 HR and very good defense (which surprised me – he has always struck me as solidly mediocre there but numbers have loved him his whole career). Since they are similar, I tend to view this as a push.
This is a good old-fashioned rout. People might not realize how good Willson Contreras is, but he's one of (if not the) best catchers in baseball today. Offensively, his wOBA (.362) was third among catchers with 400 or more PA (behind Sanchez and Posey), and he's way better than either of those players defensively. A lack of plate appearances is the only reason he didn't lead the league in WAR for catchers and that's not a consideration in this series. Contreras will catch every single game in this series unless he's injured or Joe Maddon out-thinks himself. On the other hand, Matt Wieters is below replacement-level and Jose Labaton is below Wieters-level. The gap between Contreras and Wieters represents perhaps the largest gap at any position in this round of the playoffs for any team (maybe Severino vs. Santana).
Houston, we have a problem. I'm assuming that Heyward will play here, even though I would start Happ (and Jay in center). While Bryce Harper might not be 100%, he's clearly way better than Jason Heyward. Harper had an OPS of 1.008 this year, while Heyward sported a .715. Heyward is still a defensive genius, though even that is not as overtly obvious as it used to be. Heyward is clearly outclassed by Harper. So is Happ, but at least that is closer. They both hit righties better, so a platoon wouldn't work here, but I think from a power perspective Happ has to be the play here, with Heyward coming in as a defensive replacement/pinch hitter.
I think Jon Jay will probably see the majority of run in center field, which at this point is the right play. A .374 OBP with speed at the top of the lineup is about all you can ask for; a poor man's Dexter Fowler is still a rich man indeed. Jay is a bad fielder at center, but he isn't so bad that you can't leave him there all series. Michael Taylor struggled initially after coming from a July injury, but turned it on in September. Still, he's a career .702 OPS guy. I think this is mostly a push, though Taylor has had the slightly better year (and is the better defender).
Schwarber, to my eyes, is still one of the 3 best hitters on the whole freaking team (Bryant and Rizzo, obviously). If you take only the past 30 days, that's even borne out by the stats. Unfortunately, the rest of the year happened; we can't pretend it didn't. Still, Schwarber is a dangerous hitter who hit 30 HR (1 more than Bryant!) and walked over 12% of the time during a season in which he struck out over 30% of at bats. Schwarber is exactly the type of player that translates well to playoff baseball. His counterpart is either Jayson Werth or Howie Kendrick; Werth had a worse season with the stick than Schwarber did, and Kendrick notched under 200 PA this year (though acquitted himself admirably in those plate appearances). I think Schwarber is a better player than either, though I'm not overlooking the possibility that he either doesn't get the opportunity to play or fails when he does.
The Cubs have the definitive edge here, with Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ being excellent guys to play in a pinch (or even start). Alex Avila is a better catcher than anyone on the Nationals staff. The "dare to be great" option would be Victor Robles, who is going to be one of those guys that challenges for the MVP on a yearly basis. I'm super high on Robles. He may break Rizzo's stranglehold on yearly HBP totals, and he's a 20-year old offensive dynamo that plays top-level CF. Seems good, though he may be a year away from his coming out party.
Max Scherzer is knocking on the door of "greatest living pitcher." Kershaw is better on a per-inning basis, but Scherzer repeatedly gives you 200 innings a year, which Kershaw can't say. In fact, over the past 8 years, Scherzer's fewest innings pitched was 187.2. He's nursing a slight hamstring kerfluffle, but I don't think it'll matter too much. The fact that I can't come up with a Cubs "ace" pretty much tells you what you need to know here. I think Quintana is probably the best pitcher on the Cubs at this current moment, but I lean towards Hendricks as the Game 1 starter. Hendricks has quietly amassed the 11th most fWAR in the NL over the past 3 years (7th over the past 2), and he's done it by allowing the softest contact in the league over that span. It seems self-evident that softer contact leads to lower BABIP, and the soft contact that Hendricks allows seems to be the primary driver in why he beats his FIP on a routine basis. I'd take Scherzer over Hendricks, but it's not a rout.
Stephen Strasburg, when healthy, is about as good as anyone in the league (2.52 ERA, 2.72 FIP, 22.4% K-BB%). He's healthy, and that's a problem for the Cubs. Jose Quintana is very durable and quite good, but his top-end talent simply isn't on Strasburg's level, which is what is important in the playoffs. Advantage here goes to the Nationals.
There's a significant gap from Strasburg to Gio Gonzalez, but Gonzalez is no slouch either. He outpitched his FIP by a lot this year after inpitching (?) it by the same margin last year: I consider Gonzalez to be a pretty good #3 but someone that is very attackable. When healthy, Jake Arrieta is a better pitcher, but it's very close to a toss-up as far as which one I'd rather have right now. I'd probably lean Gonzalez, but the spread of what I expect from Arrieta is so huge that I have no idea who will show up.
This space left blank for the Nationals, who won't trot out a 4th pitcher in this series. The Cubs will go to Lester (in all honesty, Lester will probably start Game 1 for "reasons"). Lester has the playoff pedigree and when he hasn't imploded, he's been very good. Unfortunately, he's detonated several times this year, and I'm not sure he's even 100% healthy right now. I just really hope Maddon has a quick hook if trouble presents itself (I can't believe I'm typing this).
The Nationals had a horrific bullpen until they acquired Kintzler, Madson, and Doolittle. Now, it's among the best in all of baseball. Fun. The Cubs will counter with Edwards, Strop, and Davis, a very fine trio in their own right. The Cubs have a deeper pen than the Nationals. That rarely comes into play in a best-of-5 series, but if the games become bullpen affairs, that's where the Cubs want to be (in no small part due to our much deeper bench).
The Nationals and Cubs have extremely similar offense lineups. The Nationals are a more adventurous team on the basepaths, but that may well be neutralized by Contreras. The Cubs scored 3 more runs than the Nationals thi syear. They had 6 points more of OBP and 12 less of slugging. They sport identical wOBA, and are both at full strength (after having both SS miss significant time). The Cubs have a slightly more even lineup, and the Nationals' production is a little spikier (which I tend to favor in the playoffs). No team has a clear advantage here.
The Cubs are a better defensive team, but it isn't like it was last year when they were the best defensive team in the history of the world. I give the nod to the Cubs, but an outfield of Schwarber/Jay/Happ begs to be tested, and it will.
I think the Nationals are better, and it's clear but close. The advantage is somewhat overblown in my opinion, but it's definitely there. If the Cubs' pitchers hit their 2016 levels of performance, this matchup is essentially dead even, and that's what I'm hanging my hat on.
I think the Nationals deserve to be the slight favorite in this series. First, they are the home team. Second, they have the better pitching staff, and the offenses are a wash. While every intangible from game management to bench to back-end bullpen favors the Cubs, those aren't typically the things that decide baseball games. Would it surprise me if the Cubs won this series? Absolutely not. Do I expect them to win the series? Yeah, I do. I expect the Cubs to win every series until they lose one. Should a rational, unbiased observer expect the Cubs to win this series? No. The smart pick is probably Nationals in 5. Cubs are clinching this in 4 games. The Nationals suck. Let's beat their brains in.