Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

cubs-watching-zobrist-arrieta-russell-schwarberWith the NLCS on tap tonight, it’s fun – data-influenced, and probabilistic fun, but just fun – to look at various statistical projections for the outcome of this Cubs-Dodgers series …

At ESPN, Dan Szymborski runs his ZiPS probabilities on the series, digging into a bunch of different angles, including the probability of victory in every game, given the state of the teams and the projected starters. You can and should read Szymborski’s piece for the details, but it’s fun to see that the single highest probability for the series is the Cubs winning it in seven games (20.4%). While that would be freaking awesome, it would also make for the most stressful nine days ever. You know what? Let’s do it.

Overall, the ZiPS probabilities have the Cubs at 63.2% likely to win the series.

FiveThirtyEight similarly has the Cubs at 64% likely to win this series and move on to the World Series.

Disagreement comes from FanGraphs, however, where the Dodgers actually overtook the Cubs as the overall playoff favorite at some point in September, and you can probably guess when: right about the time Clayton Kershaw made his return. And, hey, can you really take up too much of a beef there? A pitcher like Kershaw can so completely dominate two games in a playoff series (and contribute in a third) that his is a singularly odds-shifting presence.

Then again, Kershaw is coming off of a serious back injury, pitched a freaking ton in the NLDS, and just threw out of the bullpen on Thursday night. Is he going to be as Kershaw-y as he might otherwise be?

In any case, FanGraphs still sees the Dodgers as the favorite in the series, albeit by a razor thin 51.1% to 48.9% margin. That essentially a coin flip.

Which reminds me of the obligatory “crapshoot” discussion before any playoff series.

We call the playoffs a “crapshoot” not because every series is a true 50/50 situation. The Cubs, in my view, and in the more sterile machine-based views of the projection systems, are the better on-paper team in this series. The problem, as we all know too well, is that baseball is a sport requiring a huge sample of games in order to distill “better” from “worse” and manifest them in the results. If these two teams, as constructed, played 100 games, I suspect the Cubs would win 60 to 65 of those games. But you grab any seven-game chunk of those 100 games? Well, you might land in a stretch where some baseball-gonna-baseball things happened, and the Cubs lost too many to move on to the next round.

None of that speaks to the quality of the team that has been constructed, nor does it speak to their heart or desire or preparedness for this series. I know it’s narratively unsatisfying, but sometimes one of the key explanations for why a series played like it did is “randomness and math.”

The other explanations, of course, do lie in the nitty gritty of an individual game as it plays out, and I look forward to deconstructing the games in this series (after I’ve celebrated like mad, or uncurled from the fetal position, as the case may be). For now, we just watch the games.

The Cubs are here. They earned a spot in the playoffs by virtue of being a truly excellent team. They have slightly better odds of winning this NLCS than the Dodgers.

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