NL Wild Card Series Preview: Miami Marlins vs. Chicago Cubson September 29, 2020 at 3:00 pm

NL Wild Card Series Preview: Miami Marlins vs. Chicago Cubs

Seventeen years ago, the Cubs and Marlins met for the first and, until now, last time as postseason opponents in the 2003 NLCS, a series that then-Florida took en route to its second World Series title after a grisly Game 6 collapse by Chicago. The goat will always be Steve Bartman, who even in a Wrigley Field devoid of fans will be mentioned on the series broadcasts somewhere between 15 and 20,000 times, but plenty of players deserve a fair share of blame for the way the Cubs’ dreams of ending a long championship drought fell apart.

But that was then, and the failings of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood and Dusty Baker and Alex Gonzalez have little to do with whatever happens between these iterations of the Cubs and Marlins. The former are here by virtue of winning the NL Central, a mud fight of a division with four playoff teams that Chicago led virtually wire-to-wire; the Cubs are seeking to reverse a run of diminishing October returns. The Marlins, however, are here as predicted by roughly no one — literally no one, in the case of your humble FanGraphs staff — and thanks in large part to the rest of the National League East, the Braves excepted, being the equivalent of a stopped toilet. Even a long stoppage of play caused by over a dozen positive COVID-19 tests and the loss of nearly half the roster for multiple games wasn’t enough to slow down the Marlins, who snapped a playoff drought stretching back to that fateful 2003 season. (Fun fact: Every year the Marlins have made the playoffs, they’ve won the World Series, so get your bets in now.)

The Offense

Don’t expect lots of action: Both of these teams are, to put it charitably, not good at hitting. Neither cracked 100 wRC+ as a whole, and both finished near the bottom third of the majors in wOBA — 19th for Chicago, 21st for Miami, to be exact. The Marlins hit just 60 homers, or one more than what Luke Voit, Jose Abreu, and Marcell Ozuna did as a trio, and were shut out a league-high seven times. The Cubs hit .220 as a team and posted a .213/.302/.343 mark in September that featured a nine-game stretch early in the month in which they scored 26 runs, and that’s with half their season in Wrigley at the height of summer. A home run derby this won’t be.

That could change for Chicago if Kris Bryant and Javier Baez wake up from deep sleeps. Bryant managed a meager .206/.293/.351 line and 76 wRC+, drained by a midseason left finger sprain and a late-season oblique injury. Baez was even worse at .203/.238/.360 and a 57 wRC+, with a strikeout rate of 31.9% and seven walks (!) against eight homers. (Amazingly, that’s the third straight year that he’s put up more home runs than walks.) The Cubs can win this series without them, but them returning to form would help a lot, especially going forward.

The Marlins, meanwhile, came into the season with one of the game’s weakest projected lineups and then lost huge chunks of it to COVID. The result: a .243/.317/.378 post-hiatus line in August and September with a batting order cobbled together from cheap veterans and cheaper pre-arb youngsters barely ready for primetime. There were some success stories, like Brian Anderson‘s continued solid play, big years from lesser names like Jon Berti and Miguel Rojas, and discount mashing from Jesus Aguilar and Garrett Cooper. But it took a lot of over-performance for Miami to get within even spitting distance of league average at the plate, and there’s little punch to be found.

The key for the Marlins may be speed. They finished second in the majors in steals with 51 and have plenty of guys with rockets on their feet, though aside from Berti and Starling Marte, they’re also guys with pool noodles for bats. But they’ll face a major test in Willson Contreras, who caught nine of the 26 runners who tried to pilfer a bag off of him. Another issue for the Marlins: They were much better against left-handers (111 wRC+) than righties (89), which makes sense given that they have just two lefty-swinging regulars: Corey Dickerson and Matt Joyce. And aside from Jon Lester and a few relievers low in the hierarchy, the Cubs are a righty-heavy bunch.

Starting Pitching

That righty-heavy bunch includes the two aces the Cubs will trot out to start the series. Game 1 will feature Kyle Hendricks and the changeup that Greg Maddux taught him in a dream. Game 2 will star NL Cy Young contender Yu Darvish and his endless arsenal of wipeout stuff. How the Marlins will line up opposite has yet to be announced, but Miami has arms capable of going toe-to-toe (or finger-to-finger, I suppose) in the trio of Pablo Lopez, Sandy Alcantara, and rookie phenom/Pedro Martinez impersonator Sixto Sanchez.

That at least gives the Marlins the advantage should things go to a do-or-die Game 3. The Cubs’ choice there will either be Lester, a proven postseason performer coming off a miserable age-36 season (a 5.16 ERA and 15.8% strikeout rate in 61 innings), or Alec Mills, the author of one of this season’s two no-hitters but still homer-prone and lacking swing-and-miss stuff. In other words: It would greatly behoove the Cubs to sweep.

The Bullpen

Here lies one of Miami’s bigger problems. The Marlins finished 2020 with the second-lowest WAR of all relief corps in the game, even worse than the Phillies’ napalm-coated band of failures, to go with a 5.50 ERA and 11.4% walk rate. The COVID-created roster shuffle that was much of Miami’s season had a lot to do with that, as the team had to churn through lots of subpar options, but few guys stuck and succeeded either. Astros castoff James Hoyt and former Dodger Yimi Garcia were the only members of the bullpen with better-than-average strikeout rates, while closer Brandon Kintzler walked nearly as many hitters (11) as he struck out (14).

It should be no surprise that the Marlins did best this season in seven-inning games, going 10-4 in those contests: the fewer innings the bullpen was responsible for, the better. Chicago’s bullpen is no lockdown unit either, but any late-inning lead or early starter departure is going to create a white-knuckle ride for fans in south Florida.

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