Simulation: Sorry, Cubbies -- it's a Phillies-Dodgers NLCS

The 2008 regular season was another good run for fans of the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies, with both teams repeating as division champions.

Those fans are hoping, however, that their favorite teams do not repeat their failures of the 2007 playoffs, when the red-hot Diamondbacks defeated the Cubbies and the super-red-hot Rockies rocked the Phils. But the D-backs and Rockies won't be back this time around; they'll be replaced by two teams that reaped big rewards from late-season trades: the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose trade for Manny Ramirez paid big dividends, and the Milwaukee Brewers, who acquired CC Sabathia and rode his clutch pitching down the stretch to nudge the Mets for the wild card. For the faithful in Milwaukee, there will be playoff baseball for the first time since 1982.

At the request of ESPN, we employed our Diamond Mind simulation software to project the results of the NL Divisional Series. Before revealing our projected results for the NLDS, here is a brief recap of our methodology:

  • We updated our projections and ratings for each player based on his 2008 regular-season performance.

  • Although playoff rosters were not yet finalized, we used our best judgment about who would be selected, the starting rotations, the batting orders, and the bullpen and bench roles.

  • We made judgments about players who are carrying an injury into the postseason. Beyond deciding, for purposes of setting these roles, whether or not a player would play, we did not attempt to simulate how such an injury might hamper the player, except to the extent already reflected in his regular-season performance.

  • We then simulated each series 1,000 times.

As unpredictable as the outcome of the regular season can be, luck can play an even greater role in a short series. Nevertheless, the results of our simulations project the Dodgers to upset the Cubs, disappointing Cubs fans yet again. Our projections show that the Dodgers will face the Phillies, whom we see as overcoming the Brewers.

The Dodgers-Cubs series projects to be the closest of the four division series. Led by big hitting from Ramirez and clutch pitching from the Dodgers' right-handed pitching rotation, which helped keep the Cubs' lineup in check, L.A. prevailed in 529 of 1,000 series against the Cubs:

The Dodgers pulled the upset with only a scant plus-0.13 average run differential per game over the 1,000 simulation runs. On a per-game basis, Los Angeles averaged 4.54 runs per game over the 1,000 series, compared to just 4.41 for Chicago. Our simulations show the Cubs to be particularly vulnerable to right-handed pitching, and the Dodgers are planning to start righties for each game.

The Brewers-Phillies series also projects as a close one, though not quite as close, with the Phillies beating the young Brewers in 549 of the 1,000 simulation runs:

Particularly interesting was the fact that Brewers-Phillies series, though not as close overall as the Dodgers-Cubs series, projected to be more likely to go the full five games: 411 of the 1,000 runs went the distance, compared to 355 of the 1,000 runs of the Dodgers-Cubs. These results suggest that Milwaukee's best hope will be if they can get it to a Game 5, when Sabathia could pitch a second game of the series (we have him projected to start Game 2 and, if necessary, the decisive Game 5).

It was no surprise that Ramirez was the hitting star for the Dodgers. After driving in 53 runs in his 52 games as a Dodger, Manny was certainly Manny (his OPS for the simulation runs was .984, including three series in the sim runs in which he hit six home runs). But it was really the Dodgers' staff that was the difference. L.A. posted a 4.05 team ERA against the Cubs' potent lineup for the 1,000 simulation runs, led by Derek Lowe's 3.24 in two starts.

While Aramis Ramirez had a good series, the Dodgers' staff held Alfonso Soriano (.235 BA with an OBP of just .278) and Derrek Lee (.221 average) in check.

If the Brewers are to win, the simulations indicate that Sabathia may be the key. In many of the simulations won by Milwaukee, Sabathia won two games, including a stellar performance in the very first simulation run, in which he was 2-0 with a 0.54 ERA, 19 strikeouts and only one walk in 16 1/3 innings pitched.

But while Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and J.J. Hardy came through for the Brewers, the Phillies' pitching shut down the rest of the Brewers lineup, coming up with a team ERA of 3.98.

The Philadelphia offense was paced by standout performances by Chase Utley and Pat Burrell, overcoming disappointing performances at the plate by Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins.

As we noted in our 2007 previews, the odds swing dramatically in favor of the winner of Game 1, particularly in a best-of-five series, and that is even more true for the NL this year.

With the Dodgers-Cubs series so close, the winner of Game 1 has a very high probability of winning the entire series. And if the Brewers win Game 1, they have Sabathia for Game 2. That said, we still see the Dodgers and Phillies going on to meet in the National League Championship Series.