And so it comes down to this. A month ago we were looking at an offseason of posts saying "we got nothing for Andy LaRoche, Carlos Santana and Bryan Morris" but now here we are, on the verge of getting a better post season hero in my life than Jose Lima. The question is, do we actually have a chance of getting Lima out of the Dodger canon?
According to Baseball Prospectus there are three factors that have a direct correlation with post season success: a good closer, a strong defense, and a strikeout heavy rotation. The combination of these stats is referred to by BP as the "Secret Sauce". Over the last 10 years, a team that was in the top three among playoff teams in secret sauce has won the World Series. Now, this doesn't mean that not being good at the secret sauce is a death sentence, the 2006 Cardinals and 2003 Marlins were both the least saucy teams in the playoffs, but it certainly appears to help.
The Cubs are definitely a saucier team than the Dodgers this year. The Cubs trail only the Red Sox in sauciness thanks to the second best defense in baseball, and a rotation with big strikeout pitchers Rich Harden, Ryan Dempster, and Ted Lilly (surprisingly, Carlos Zambrano doesn't make that list this year with only a little more than six strike outs per nine). The only thing keeping the Cubs from being saucier than anyone is a few badly timed meltdowns by Kerry Wood, since Wood might not even be the best reliever in the Cubs bullpen, this isn't as tough of a pill to swallow. A good closer means more in the playoffs since they come in for multiple innings far more often than they do in the regular season. Since there's no need to use Wood for extended sessions when you have Carlos Marmol in the bullpen, the Dodgers still have to worry about facing shutdown relievers as early as the sixth inning.
The Dodgers meanwhile come into the playoffs with less sauce than anyone. The additions of Manny Ramirez and Casey Blake boosted a struggling offense, but they killed the team defense. However, things aren't as bad as they seem now that the stone gloved Angel Berroa and Jeff Kent have been replaced by Rafael Furcal and Blake DeWitt. Power pitching isn't the Dodgers strong suit. Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw have strong strikeout numbers, but Derek Lowe and Hiroki Kuroda are pitch to contact type of guys. Secret sauce likes strikeouts since power pitching works much better against big time hitters, and the Cubs lineup is loaded with them. Up to three of these games could be pitched by put the ball in play type of guys, and history says that's not a good thing.
Like the Cubs, the Dodgers don't have a truly dominant closer unless Saito suddenly recovers from his two month layoff, but like the Cubs have Marmol, we have Jonathan Broxton to make up for it. On paper, we have far more bullpen depth than the Cubs, but that really isn't true. Joe Beimel is the only other scary pitcher we have. He's quietly evolved into one of the most dominant LOOGYs in baseball and hasn't allowed a home run since July 21st 2007. However, the only lefty weapon the Cubs have is Jim Edmonds so this will be neutralized. A last minute change has cut Ramon Troncoso, who quietly had a great year with terrible luck this year, he struck out a batter an inning, a better than three to one strikeout to walk rate and a better ground ball rate than Derek Lowe. He'll be replaced with James McDonald who has wildcard written all over him. Cory Wade is living off fairy dust with mediocre peripherals and a .222 BABIP so he could disappear at a moments notice. Without Troncoso or Hong-Chih Kuo the Dodger bullpen is really just Saito and Broxton, and the Cubs can match that with Wood and Marmol.
While pitching and defense are more important in the playoffs, you can't just ignore offense. On paper, the Cubs have the superior offense, outscoring the number two Mets by 56 runs and the Dodgers by 155, but as wide as the gap seems, the two teams aren't as different as they would appear. The big thing is that the Dodgers aren't the same team now that they were for the first four months. Manny has been arguably the best trade deadline acquisition ever, and while Casey Blake hasn't set the world on fire, he's been an upgrade over the nothing we got from Blake DeWitt and Andy LaRoche earlier this year. We've also stopped messing around with Andruw Jones and Juan Pierre and given Andre Ethier the full time job, and we've been rewarded with the VORPiest season by a Dodger outfielder since Shawn Green in 2002. Finally, we've managed to rid ourselves of Angel Berroa at last and we can get Rafael Furcal in there. He's a wildcard, sure, but he's got to be better than Berroa.
Meanwhile, a lot of the Cubs offense has come from sources that could disappear at any moment. Jim Edmonds rose from the dead and is contributing again after two very disappointing seasons, and players notable for their blandness have set the world on fire. Did you know Mark DeRosa had 21 home runs this year? How about Mike Fotenot dropping a .909 OPS? These are numbers that could just disappear at any time. With all of these factors, The Hardball Times has declared that we have the best offense in the NL. I wouldn't quite take it that far, but that almost one run per game gap between the Cubs and ourselves isn't as scary as it looks.
The Cubs are a very dangerous team, by far the best in the NL, so I can't say that we're the favorites, but Ned Colletti has shaped this into a very different team over the course of the season, and we're better than our 84 wins would indicate. This is far from impossible.