NLCS preview: Dodgers enter rematch against Cubs with more favorable stats, but L.A. declining since midseason, while Chicago is rising

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(Updated at 4 p.m. CDT to reflect that Corey Seager of the Dodgers is not on the NLCS roster due to a back injury.)

The 2017 National League Championship Series is a rematch of the 2016 series between the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers. But this year, the tables are turned.

Last year, the Cubs were kings, leading Box-Toppers team rankings in 2016 almost wire-to-wire, and coming into their NLCS matchup against the Dodgers holding practically every advantage. This year, they’ve scraped together their success with a pitching staff that is little more than half as good as it was when it led them to a World Series title in 2016.

This year, the Dodgers were dominant—at least early in the season, leading Box-Toppers team rankings from late June until early September. On July 4, pitcher Clayton Kershaw had 20.1 Box-Toppers points and was on pace to earn nearly 40 for the season, which would shatter the single-season record of 33.7. On July 8, rookie Cody Bellinger took the lead among NL batters with 7.7 Box-Toppers points.

But then came late August. The Dodgers lost 16 of 17 games from Aug. 26 to Sept. 11. They fell out of the dominant top spot in Box-Toppers team rankings and finished ranked third. Kershaw went on the disabled list for five weeks in July with a bad back and when he returned did not resume his torrid pace of earning Player of the Game honors, finishing with just 3.0 points after July 4 and ending with 23.1, third among all players. Bellinger fell from leading NL batters in Box-Toppers points, earning only 1.0 more point in 2017 and ended finishing 10th among NL batters with 8.7.

The Dodgers limped to the end, still with baseball’s best record and an NL West crown. 

If the Dodgers were able to coast into the postseason on their first half performance, the Cubs might take satisfaction in how far they’ve risen despite their first half. 

On July 9, the Cubs—the defending World Series champions—ranked 19th, in the lower half of all teams. It would have seemed crazy in 2016 to think the Cubs needed to acquire another pitcher at midseason in 2017. In 2016, five Cubs pitchers were among the top 20 players in Box-Toppers points. But in 2017, many of the same 2016 pitchers were struggling. So in July, the Cubs acquired pitcher Jose Quintana from the White Sox. They won six straight games after the All-Star break. And on July 21, they rose to seventh place in Box-Toppers team rankings and were the hottest team of the week. Gradually, they inserted themselves into the playoff race, winning the NL Central and finishing sixth among all teams in Box-Toppers team rankings.

But despite the Dodgers decline and the Cubs rise, the Dodgers still hold many advantages. They rank higher in Box-Toppers team rankings with 138.9 Box-Toppers points to the Cubs’ 120.5. (The Dodgers are Box-Toppers’ highest-ranked team remaining in the postseason, while the Cubs are the lowest-ranked.) The Dodgers likely key 14 starting players have more Box-Toppers points, 110.9-92.8 (see the chart on this page: NL Championship Series player comparisons).

When comparing the likely four starting pitchers for each team, Dodgers players have a combined 64.5 points compared to just 36.1 for the Cubs.

For comparison, last year at the NLCS, the four starting pitchers for the Cubs, three of which are the same as this year’s, had a combined 64.6 points. (The Dodgers four starters in 2016 were a combined 54.5 points.)

That means the Cubs four starters in 2017 are only 56 percent of what they were in 2016. All of last year’s returning pitchers suffered declines. Jon Lester fell from 22.1 Box-Toppers points to 10.7. Jake Arrieta fell from 15.7 to 6.7. Kyle Hendricks fell from 13.4 to 3.7. John Lackey, who was in the rotation last year but is listed as the “extra” pitcher this year, declined from 13.4 to 6.0. Only Quintana, the newcomer, is a bright spot, leading Cubs pitchers with 15.0 points (including 8.0 he earned before being traded from the White Sox). In 2016, Quintana had 10.4 points with the White Sox.

The Dodgers also seem to have the advantage among closers, with Kenley Jansen (7.0 Box-Toppers points), ahead of Cubs pitcher Wade Davis (5.0 points). Kenta Maeda, highest-ranked Dodgers pitcher not expected to start and inserted into Box-Toppers “extra” pitcher slot, had 10.0 points in 2017, more than his Cubs’ “extra” counterpart Lackey (6.0 points).

The only advantage the Cubs seem to have over the Dodgers this year is the starting eight batters. Those eight batters have a combined total of 45.7 Box-Toppers points compared to the Dodgers’ 29.4. That is a major turnaround from last year, when the starting eight for the Cubs had 28.0 points to the Dodgers’ 31.9.

It seems that in 2016, pitchers were most responsible for most of the Cubs’ wins. That has changed in 2017, as Cubs batters are responsible for more of the Cubs’ Box-Toppers points. However, while the ratio has changed giving batters a much larger share of points, Cubs pitchers are still responsible for a slight majority of the team’s overall point total.

Here is a comparison of Cubs’ Box-Toppers points in 2016 and 2017 earned by batters and pitchers:

2016—Total 139.5

  • Batters—38.5 (27.6 percent).
  • Pitchers—101.0 (72.4 percent).

2017—Total 120.5

  • Batters—55.7 (46.2 percent).
  • Pitchers—64.8 (53.8 percent).

Anthony Rizzo had perhaps the most prominent rise in Box-Toppers points among Cubs batters from 2016 to 2017. In 2016, he had just 3.0 Box-Toppers points (even though he finished fourth in NL Most Valuable Player voting). This year, Rizzo leads all Cubs and all NL batters with 15.5 Box-Toppers points. Rizzo’s low point total in 2016 was due, in part, to the Cubs’ dominant pitching. Even if Rizzo was having a great game, there was often a pitcher having a better game beating him out for Player of the Game. This year, even though Rizzo is statistically having a year very similar to 2016, he’s earning Player of the Game honors more frequently as those same pitchers excelling in 2016 struggle in 2017.

Rizzo’s 15.5 points is the second-highest for a batter since 2013. But batter’s seasonal Box-Toppers point totals have declined in recent years. In the first five seasons of Box-Toppers player tracking from 1995 to 1999, batters had 15.0 or more Box-Toppers points 25 different times and ranked among the overall top 10 players 19 times. In the past five seasons, only three batters have reached 15.0 points and only one has ended up ranking among the overall top 10 players—Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers ranked eighth in 2013 with 16.9 points.

Other key players to watch in the 2017 NLCS:

  • Clayton Kershaw is Box-Toppers’ highest-ranked player remaining in the postseason. The Dodgers pitcher has 23.1 Box-Toppers points, third among all players and second among NL pitchers. Kershaw has only earned 2.0 of those points since the All-Star break and has struggled down the stretch.
  • Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood has 15.7 Box-Toppers points, eighth among NL pitchers. Wood has not yet pitched in the postseason.
  • Jose Quintana is the only Cubs player among the top 10 in Box-Toppers points among pitchers with 15.0—he ranks ninth among NL pitchers. Last year, as previously mentioned, the Cubs had five pitchers among the overall top 20 players and four among the top 10 NL pitchers.
  • Cody Bellinger is the only Dodgers player among the top 10 NL batters in Box-Toppers points with 8.7. As previously mentioned, Bellinger led NL batters in early July but earned only 1.0 more point for the rest of the season. Bellinger is likely to win NL Rookie of the Year honors.
  • Corey Seager of the Dodgers has 7.0 Box-Toppers points, first among NL shortstops for 2017.  (Update: Seager is not on the Dodgers roster for the NLDS because of an injured back. It’s likely Enrique Hernandez, who earned 1.0 Box-Toppers point this season will replace him. The post has been updated to reflect his absence.)

The Dodgers made the NLCS by beating the Arizona Diamondbacks in three games in the NL Division Series. Dodgers’ Box-Toppers Players of the Game in the series were Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen and Yu Darvish.

The Cubs made the NLCS by beating the Washington Nationals in five games in the NL Division Series. Cubs’ Box-Toppers Players of the Game in the series were Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Addison Russell.

NL Championship Series player comparisons

Likely starting players for the Cubs and Dodgers listed by position with their Box-Toppers point total (BTP) for the 2017 regular season and their overall rank among all players:  

Pos Cubs BTP Rank Dodgers BTP Rank
1B Anthony Rizzo 15.5 14 Cody Bellinger 8.7 64
2B Javier Baez 5.2 184 Logan Forsythe 2.0 444
SS Addison Russell 3.5 302 Enrique Hernandez 1.0 624
3B Kris Bryant 6.0 129 Justin Turner 2.5 393
CA Willson Contreras 5.5 182 Yasmani Grandal 1.5 527
CF Albert Almora Jr. 3.5 312 Chris Taylor 4.5 228
LF Kyle Schwarzer 4.5 230 Curtis Granderson 3.2 315
RF Jason Heyward 2.0 465 Yasiel Puig 6.0 140
SP Kyle Hendricks 3.7 280 Clayton Kershaw 23.1 3
SP Jon Lester 10.7 33 Rich Hill 12.7 21
SP Jose Quintana 15.0 15 Yu Darvish 13.0 20
SP Jake Arrieta 6.7 110 Alex Wood 15.7 13
CP Wade Davis 5.0 195 Kenley Jansen 7.0 102
PI John Lackey 6.0 127 Kenta Maeda 10.0 36

National League Championship Series Game 1, Cubs at Dodgers

The pitching matchup Saturday:

Cubs—Jose Quintana, 15.0 Box-Toppers points, 15th among all players, ninth among NL pitchers.

Dodgers—Clayton Kershaw, 23.1 Box-Toppers points, third among all players, second among AL pitchers.

Quintana has appeared twice:

  • NLDS Game 3—Quintana started and was Player of the Game with a Box-Toppers game score of +8.2 in the 3-1 win over the Nationals (5.2IP 2H R BB 7K ND).
  • NLDS Game 5—Quintana appeared in relief in the seventh inning and had a Box-Toppers game score of -1.8 (0.2IP H 0R BB K) in the 9-8 win over the Nationals. Player of the Game was teammate Addison Russell with a Box-Toppers game score of +3.0.

Kershaw has made one appearance in the postseason:

  • NLDS Game 1—Kershaw started and had a Box-Toppers game score of -2.9 (6.1IP 5H 4R 3BB 7K W) in the 9-5 win over the Diamondbacks. Player of the Game went to teammate Justin Turner with a Box-Toppers game score of +5.0.

About Box-Toppers—Box-Toppers tracks who most helps their team win the most games. Using standard box score statistics, Box-Toppers uses a simple formula to determine a Player of the Game for each Major League Baseball game played. That player is the person who contributed most to his team’s win. In regular season games, players earn 1.0 Box-Toppers point for being named Player of the Game and can earn bonus points for being Player of the Day or top player or batter in their league for the day.

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A listing of all Cubs and Dodgers players active with those teams at season’s end who earned Box-Toppers points during the 2017 season can be found here.

Here is a look at Box-Toppers 2016 NLCS preview between the Cubs and Dodgers. And here is Box-Toppers report on the sixth and final game of that series, won by the Cubs.