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Cubs vs. Indians: Hitters

Which group of position players will win out in the World Series?

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Chicago Cubs
Will Montero and the Cubs reign supreme? Or will Kipnis lead the Tribe to the crown?
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

It’s World Series time! We’re guaranteed at least four more baseball games this season, and all of them will take place this week. Both the Cubs and Indians are underdogs — neither team has taken home a championship in several decades — meaning one fanbase will go home elated, while the other one wallows in dejection. As for the series itself: My colleague Carl Triano previewed the clubs’ pitching staffs earlier today, and I’m following up with a look at their hitters. Which team has the superior offense? Will the team that scores the most runs win the series? (That’s only a semi-sarcastic rhetorical.)

Let’s start with catchers, which is really the sole area where one team holds a clear advantage over the other. These are the postseason batting lines for the two teams’ backstops:

Team PA AVG OBP SLG OPS
Cubs C 42 .282 .310 .538 .848
Indians C 27 .174 .259 .348 .607

The Indians tried to address their black hole behind the plate in July, but Jonathan Lucroy spurned them (luckily for the Brewers), and they couldn’t swing another trade in time. That left Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez as the club’s primary catchers. The former hasn’t played at all in the postseason; the latter has the pitching staff’s trust, and pretty much nothing else.

Where the Indians have a drought, the Cubs — as is so frequently the case these days — have an oasis. Willson Contreras hit well in a small sample during the regular season, and he’s caught fire in the postseason. David Ross and Miguel Montero provide the reliable depth that the Indians could sorely use. In terms of catching talent, Chicago clearly reigns supreme over Cleveland.

Moving to the designated hitters/pitchers, we don’t reach as definitive a conclusion:

Team PA AVG OBP SLG OPS
Cubs P 23 .190 .261 .476 .737
Indians DH .268 2.510 2.510 2.510 5.020

In Game 1 tonight at Progressive Field, the Cubs will likely start Kyle Schwarber as their DH. He tore his ACL and LCL in April and has played only a couple of rehab games since then. My colleagues Travis Sarandos and Jen Mac Ramos don’t think he’s ready to return, and I’m inclined to agree with their judgment. On the other side of the coin, Carlos Santana and Mike Napoli have taken turns in the DH spot for the Indians this postseason. (Note: The above stats for Cleveland’s DH’s are an average of these two players’ production.) Each of them offers a respectable bat that I doubt Schwarber can match if he’s not fully recovered.

But that matters only for the contests in Cleveland. What about when the teams travel to the North Side? Jon Lester is a spectacularly terrible hitter (if slightly improved from his pre-Cubs years), but the rest of the Cubs starters have shown at least some level of competence at the dish. Plus, as NL pitchers, they have a lot more experience simply standing in the box than the Indians pitchers do. Consider this: Lester had 71 plate appearances this year alone, whereas Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Josh Tomlin have combined for 55 plate appearances in their major-league careers. Getting one of them to even lay down a bunt is going to be difficult. In this regard, I’d give the edge to whichever team plays at home.

Now, on to the infield, where the star power shines across the diamond and in both dugouts:

Team PA AVG OBP SLG OPS
Cubs IF 168 .271 .321 .465 .786
Indians IF 123 .224 .268 .405 .673

The Cubs’ infield is in its second year as the envy of everyone in baseball. They have Anthony Rizzo, a phenomenal slugger, at first base; Javier Baez, an underrated rising star (or at least until his incredible NLCS), at second base; Addison Russell, another underrated rising star, at shortstop; and Kris Bryant, a properly rated wunderkind, at third base. No one here struggles at the plate, and with the arguable exception of Russell — whom I’ll discuss later this week — all these players excel in the field.

However, the Indians possess a formidable infield as well, albeit one that’s struggled in October. The non-DH half of the Napoli/Santana monster has held down the fort at first, hitting well and playing adequate defense. Jason Kipnis has had three All-Star-worthy campaigns in the past four years (although he didn’t actually make the cut in 2016). Francisco Lindor combines a jaw-dropping glove, an emerging bat, and a stunning smile, making him a budding MVP candidate and heartthrob. And Jose Ramirez has transferred smoothly to the hot corner after spending a good chunk of the summer roaming the outfield. While the Cubs probably take the infield cake, the Indians don’t trail them by much.

We’ll wrap up with the outfield, where the playoff results have really diverged for these two teams:

Team PA AVG OBP SLG OPS
Cubs OF 140 .150 .214 .252 .466
Indians OF 85 .208 .224 .351 .574

Jason Heyward was awful in the regular season; Jason Heyward has been awful in the postseason. Nothing to see here. But the relative struggles of Ben Zobrist have caught the Cubs by surprise: after a torrential spring and a lukewarm summer, he gained momentum in September before coming up lifeless (aside from some free passes) in the Division and Championship Series. If he doesn’t turn things around against Cleveland — and if Dexter Fowler doesn’t remain hot — Chicago will run into some problems.

In contrast to the Cubs’ three high-price stars, the Indians have run out a crew of misfits and senior citizens in their outfield for most of the 2016 season. They’ve started to play down to that level in October: Tyler Naquin, Coco Crisp, and Rajai Davis went a combined 6-for-42 versus Boston and Toronto. Both teams draw most of their offensive strength from their infields; the Indians probably have the better outfield, but it’s a dubious distinction.

At the end of the day, we can’t really say for sure which team will win. Last year, the Royals were a .532 true-talent team that stormed their way to the title. In the postseason, anything can happen. With that said, I think the treasure trove of talent that Chicago has assembled gives it the upper hand over Cleveland. It’ll be a tough battle, but I’d expect the Cubs to win the World Series.

. . .

Ryan Romano is a contributing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot, and about the Brewers on BP Milwaukee.