Every Contenders’ Postseason Nightmare

How the Hopes and Dreams of the National League Elite Could come Crashing Down in October

Chet West/ via Flickr.com

Black cats, Billy goats, and a foul ball haunted the dreams of the Chicago Cubs faithful for years until a one fateful night in November 2016. The World Series championship exorcised these demons and brought restful sleep to Cubs faithful the world over.

For five months, Cubs fans slumbered happily knowing they were World Series champions. But then the 2017 season commenced and things didn’t go according to plan.

As Chicago Cubs fans continue to dream of another long postseason run, the team on the field is preoccupied with a division race that is far closer than anybody predicted. The upstart Brewers’ Cinderella story season has provided more than just a mild nuisance to the defending champs. It could derail the dynasty narrative and shift the bragging rights in the NL Central Division north to Milwaukee.

As a result, sleep has been harder to come by for Cubs fans these days. Playoff dreams have turned to doomsday nightmares as wandering minds peruse through the horrible scenarios that could materialize come October.

Assuming the Cubs make it there of course, which is a premature assumption at this point.

Nevertheless, this worst-case-scenario mindset isn’t unique to the Cubs. Each National League contender dreams of a World Series title. But, occasionally a nightmare will interrupt the pleasant dreams of each because of the volatile nature of the postseason.

Here is the most frightening postseason nightmare for each National League contender. WARNING: If you root for one of these teams you may have trouble sleeping after you read this.

Chicago Cubs: The Bats Go Silent With RISP

This has been the prevailing Achilles heel for this team since they closed the book on the rebuild in 2015.

This season, the Cubs have slashed .239/.336/.431 with runners in scoring position which is 26th-best in MLB based on batting average, 19th-best based on on-base percentage, and 14th-best based on slugging percentage.

These numbers more closely resemble similar regular-season struggles in this category in 2015 (.236/.338/.376) then the more middle-of-the-road numbers they posted with runners in scoring position in 2016 (.252/.351/.420).

In 2016, the Cubs overcame a .248/.304/.389 slash line with runners in scoring position during the postseason to win a World Series championship. In 2015, they weren’t so lucky as an overall .205/.314/.432 line in the postseason ultimately contributed to their elimination in the National League Championship Series against the Mets.

One of the primary culprits for the Cubs struggles with runners in scoring position this season, reigning National League MVP Kris Bryant has slashed .227/.337/.467 in these situations.

The Cubs need clutch hits more plentifully with runners in scoring position if they hope to repeat as World Series champions.

Arizona Diamondbacks: 40-year-old closer Fernando Rodney Doesn’t Cut It

All is swell in Fernando Rodney’s world when he has a reason to break out his signature archery celebration like he did in his last two games against the Cubs.

But, despite these recent celebrations, Rodney has been a disaster for most of the season. His 4.79 ERA checks in at №176 among relievers who’ve pitched at least 30 innings this season. Additionally, his five blown saves are tied for ninth worse in MLB.

The numbers don’t tell the entire story, and Rodney did go two straight months this season without surrendering an earned run. However, stacked up against top closers in the National League (the Kenley Jansen, Wade Davis, and even Corey Knebel types of the world) Rodney simply doesn’t measure up.

He just lacks the bravado numbers of a typical closer. He’s posted a full-season ERA below 3.00 just three times in his career (2005, 2012, 2014) and has a career ERA of 3.74, all 800.1 innings of which came in relief. His 4.63 ERA in 12 postseason appearances isn’t inspiring a ton of confidence either.

It’s not even his age that makes Rodney a lesser postseason closer option. His best pitch was always his changeup and he’s lost just about one mile per hour off of his fastballs this season compared to his career averages (Pictures snipped from BrooksBaseball.net)

Career velocity averages for each pitch
2017 average velocity for each pitch

Overall, Rodney is a solid reliever but he probably isn’t anybody’s first choice for the closer on their team.

Washington Nationals: The Bullpen Still Isn’t Good Enough

Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo invested his time this July improving a bullpen that finished dead last in MLB with a 5.20 ERA during the first half of the season.

On July 16, the Nationals added relief pitchers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson in a trade with the Oakland Athletics. Then, they added Minnesota Twins closer Brandon Kintzler via another trade on July 31.

Rizzo identified a need and went to extensive lengths to address it. But, were these additions enough?

Since that first trade on July 16, the Washington Nationals bullpen has posted a 4.27 ERA which is 18th-best in MLB during that span. A modest improvement, but one that many of the Nationals’ potential playoff opponents would scoff at.

It probably isn’t coincidental that National League playoff hopefuls such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, and Arizona Diamondbacks rank second, fifth, and sixth respectively in bullpen ERA this season.

Successful postseason teams have bullpens that can dominate opposing offenses. The Nationals tried to make this happen prior to the deadline, but so far it hasn’t panned out any substantial way.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Starting Pitching Magic Fades Under the Pressure

Clayton Kershaw’s sustained regular-season dominance is almost unprecedented since the turn of the century. Since 2000, only two other qualified pitchers — Felix Hernandez, and Pedro Martinez, — have matched Kershaw in posting a season-long ERA below 2.50 on at least three occasions (data previously obtained by using FanGraphs leaderboard tool). Kershaw’s brilliance is so complete that since 2009 he’s averaged a 2.23 ERA across those nine seasons.

But when October rolls around everything begins to malfunction. In 18 postseason appearances, Kershaw has a 4–7 record and a 4.55 ERA. Not what you’d expect from the best starter of his generation.

Clayton Kershaw has been anything but otherworldly in the playoffs.

This trend doesn’t just begin and end with Kershaw. Recently acquired ace Yu Darvish has an 0–2 record and a 5.40 ERA in two postseason appearances. Don’t forget that the 30-year-old right hander has a 5.81 ERA in his last eight starts and a career-worst 4.01 cumulative ERA this season. Will the uniform change reverse his fortunes and help him pitch effectively in the playoffs?

Then there’s the overachieving Alex Wood whose career-best 2.33 ERA this season helped him earn his first All-Star appearance of his career. Maybe it’s a Dodger curse but unfortunately the same story applies to Wood in the postseason. He has a 4.91 postseason ERA across four starts.

The Dodgers starters lead MLB with a 3.20 ERA. But that doesn’t matter much if they can’t reciprocate this level of performance come October.

Colorado Rockies: The Rookie Starting Pitchers Crumble

The postseason really isn’t the place for rookie starting pitchers.

Cubs fans saw it first hand last season with Los Angeles Dodgers starters Julio Urias and Kenta Maeda both falling apart in the National League Championship Series. Not that this is the rule for all rookies, but the big stage can be overwhelming for some young guys.

The Rockies currently have four rookie pitchers in their starting rotation: Jeff Hoffman, German Marquez, Antonio Senzatela, and Kyle Freeland. Hoffman and Freeland are the elders in the group at 23 years old.

Could the inexperience in the Rockies starting pitching staff derail the high-powered offense come October?

This young pitching staff got off to a good start (very good if you factor in the ballpark in which they play), finishing the first two months of the year with a 4.32 ERA which was 14th-best in baseball. But since June 1, the Rockies rotation has been among the worst in baseball, posting a collective 5.38 ERA which was fifth worst during that span.

This drop is possibly the result of extraneous factors (ballpark, opponents, etc.) combined with a league-wide adjustment to all these fresh faces. However, if the league has indeed adjusted, the Rockies pitchers need to re-adjust to the league. Colorado’s postseason hopes could ride on their young pitching staff’s ability to pitch well enough to at least give the high-powered offense a chance to win games.

Milwaukee Brewers: It Was All A Dream

It would be irresponsible to exclude the Brewers from this list considering they sit just 1.5 games behind the Chicago Cubs in the race for NL Central supremacy.

A dream first half of the season ended with Milwaukee leading the division by 5.5 games with a sparkling 50–41 record. It was a great underdog narrative with a team of misfits outperforming expectations and holding off the Goliath Chicago Cubs bid to run away with the National League Central for a second straight season.

Yet, since the second half of the season began on July 14, the Brewers have quickly fallen from their underdog label, and back into harsh reality. The Brew Crew are 7–12 in the second half and have seen the Cubs swiftly overcome the deficit in the division to take a 1.5 game lead (I snipped the following charts from TeamRankings.com)

Milwaukee’s run differential at the All-Star Break
Since the All-Star Break, Milwaukee’s run differential has dropped by 21 runs

If the Brewers make the playoffs, the excitement would be palpable. After struggling so badly in the second half and watching their lead in the division quickly dissipate, going on another run would breathe life back into both the players and the fans. The story would shift on its axis once again, from one of doomsday proclamations to it wasn’t all just a dream, the Brewers would prove themselves a quality contendor.

With this atmosphere as context, imagine the letdown if they win the division only to be swept in dominating fashion by the Washington Nationals. That is the last thing that this young Brewers team or its fans wants to happen.

Sometimes reality is the worst nightmare of all especially if this reality doesn’t match how you dreamed it.

Stats that aren’t linked come from BaseballReference.com.

Paul Steeno spent 11 years pretending he was good at running. After hanging up the track spikes and officially becoming an elite hobby jogger, he decided to do something that he was actually good at: like writing about the Cubs. He is also a perpetually frustrated Chicago Bulls fan. This one time he got super lucky and ran 3:52 in the 1500 meter run.