The race to break the curse is on.
The Chicago Cubs last won a championship in 1908 and are making their first World Series appearance since 1945. The Cleveland Indians last won it all in 1948, a 68-year active drought surpassed only by the Cubs.
The Cubs advanced after a convincing six-game win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, while the Indians beat the Toronto Blue Jays in just five games. Both teams have drool-worthy starting pitching, but it is their bullpens that will decide who pops the champagne.
Chicago acquired Aroldis Chapman from the New York Yankees at the trade deadline, giving them one of the hardest throwers in baseball history.
Chapman’s fastball averages 100.4 mph, and his 369 pitches 101 mph or faster this season are almost double the next-best pitcher in the majors, Mauricio Cabrera (192). During the regular season, batters managed a mere .150 average against Chapman’s four-seam fastball with 68 strikeouts in 160 at-bats. In the playoffs, hitters are only slightly more productive: 5 for 25 (. 200) with 10 strikeouts.
The key to beating Chapman is to sit on his fastball. Research by ESPN.com’s Sam Miller found that when Chapman is behind in the count he throws fastballs 93 percent of the time with a home run rate that quadruples compared with when he is ahead in the count. But don’t be fooled into thinking Chapman’s recent jams — struggling with inherited runners and allowing two runs in a non-save situation in Game 5 of the NLCS — mean he is just a one-pitch pitcher: His change-up and slider are also nearly untouchable.
Chapman even showed more command this season in non-save situations (9.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 21.2 innings pitched) than save situations (3.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 36.1 innings pitched), giving Manager Joe Maddon flexibility in using his flame-throwing closer.
But the real star reliever in the series is Chapman’s former teammate, Andrew Miller of the Cleveland Indians.
Including his time in New York this season, Miller struck out 123 batters in 74 1/3 regular season innings, walking only nine. Miller then pitched four shutout innings in two appearances against the Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series, and his performance against Toronto — 14 Ks in 7 2/3 innings — earned him AL Championship Series MVP honors. In his postseason career, he has thrown 20 scoreless innings, striking out 31 with just three walks.
Miller confuses hitters with a straightforward two-pitch repertoire featuring a four-seam fastball and a slider.
Andrew Miller’s slider usage (Source: MLB)
The fastball carries an above-average velocity (94.3 mph) with some sinking action that generates a 53 percent groundball rate. His slider is just plain nasty, “sweeping across the zone with exceptional depth,” making it a potent weapon to both right- and left-handed batters, who are hitting .161 and .170, respectively, against the pitch this season, playoffs included.
Miller uses the slider as the first pitch often, and he routinely goes to it when the count has two strikes, resulting in a strikeout in 31 of 48 at-bats ending on the pitch this season.
“The fastball makes the slider better,” said Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin. “Trying to catch up to 96 and then having to adjust to the sweeping slider like he has is tough. It looks like a strike for a really long time and then it darts out of the zone.”
Miller’s weakness is simple but not easy: take advantage of the first pitch he throws. In those instances, batters have a 1.214 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against, albeit in just 15 plate appearances this season. That’s better than when the batter is ahead in the count (.556 OPS against) and far more productive than when Miller is ahead (.282 OPS against).
“It’s so fun to be a part of this team,” Miller told Matthew Florjancic of WKYC. “It’s a blast to be a part of. We have one more big step, but we’re going to the World Series, and that’s what you dream of.”