Who will win the World Series? It's not who you think

ByJayson Stark via ESPN logo
Monday, October 3, 2016

So here we go. The Chicago Cubs are going to ...

Wait. Get a grip. What am I doing? What am I saying? What am I getting myself into?

Yes, it's time for that column you've been looking, waiting for all these months. Time for that moment when I (incorrectly) tell you exactly who will (translation: won't) win the World Series.

And it would be soooooo easy, soooooo safe, soooooo obvious to pick You Know Who. The best team in baseball. The winningest team in baseball. The team with the legendary 798-year World Series drought. (OK, so it's 108 -- whatever.) The team that would rock the planet like no one else if it actually, finally, magically wins the World Series.

But sorry, my friends. Can't do it. I made up my mind eight years ago that I am never, ever going to pick the Cubs to win the World Series again. They can thank me later.

The Boston Red Sox are going to win the 2016 World Series. That's my actual (guaranteed to be inaccurate) prediction. But when it came time to write this piece, I felt there were just as many reasons to explain why I WASN'T picking the Cubs as why I WAS picking the Red Sox.

So why not the Cubs? I'll get to that momentarily. But first, it's time to reveal the results of my annual Who's Going to Win the World Series survey of 25 astute baseball executives. And if you're expecting a Cubs landslide here, well, the results are revealing.

I asked the group to pick the team that would advance to the World Series from each league and then predict who would win it. In the case of execs from clubs in contention, I asked them just to pick a team in their league they feared most, along with the club they thought would get to the Series from the other league.

I conduct this survey every year because A) it's fascinating and B) hey, nothing makes me feel better about my own prognostication ineptitude than knowing that the smartest front-office minds in the game are just as awful at this as I am.

Over the past two years, do you want to guess how many execs who took part in this exercise guessed the eventual winner of the World Series? That would be exactly ONE. None predicted the Giants in 2014. One picked the Royals last year. So keep that in mind as we unveil the results of this year's voting:

American League Favorite (or Most-Feared Team)

Red Sox 16

Rangers 7

Blue Jays 2*

(*Survey conducted while the wild-card race was still raging.)

National League Favorite (or Most-Feared Team)

Cubs 13

Dodgers 10

Nationals 2

World Series Winner

Cubs 7

Red Sox 6

Dodgers 4

Rangers 4

So did you expect it to be that close? Nope. Me, neither. But I got the distinct vibe that many of these folks felt much like I did -- that picking "the best team" never makes you look like a genius anyway, so why not go down some other road?

"Obviously, the pick is the Cubs in the National League," quipped one NL exec. "So I like the Dodgers."

"Too much hype about the Cubs," said another.

"Out of principle, I won't pick them," said an AL exec.

Well, I'm not sure precisely what principle is at work here. But you get the idea. So why not the Cubs? Here are four reasons why not:

1. Beware of the No. 1 seed: Only two times in the past 25 postseasons has the team with sole possession of the best record in baseball won the World Series (2009 Yankees, 1998 Yankees). And to find the last time a National League team had the best record and won it all, you need to go back (gulp) 30 years -- to the '86 Mets. So there's that.

2. The pressure is about to mount: "In the postseason, the pressure on both teams to win is usually about 50-50," one exec said. "But in this case ... the pressure is on the Cubs every game, because of how well they've played, because of their record and, most of all, because of the expectations, especially in that city. If they lose one of the first two games at Wrigley, the pressure will be incredible."

3. What's up with Jake? Two different execs went out of their way to discuss the recent issues of Jake Arrieta, a guy whose work over his past 16 starts (4.44 ERA) looks a lot different than the superhuman impression he'd been doing over the previous year and a half. "Never seen him look so ordinary," one NL exec said after Arrieta's last start. "I would be concerned if I was them."

4. The voice of doom: Finally, the last thing a team saddled with a 108-year title drought needs is MY "support." I've been writing this column before every postseason for more than a decade. I've picked the Cubs three times -- 2003, 2007 and 2008. If you don't recall their jubilant World Series parades in any of those years, you would be correct. That's all my fault. My prediction record is so disastrous, I'm practically the Cleveland Browns of prognosticators. So why would I want to go and doom the Cubs at a time like this? If the bitter residents of Chicago ever decide to blame someone besides a billy goat, I don't need that someone to be me. I think the Cubs will get to the World Series. But somebody else can pick them to win. I'm out.

Phew. Glad I got that out of the way. I feel better now. But more importantly, that allows me to move along to the other big theme of this column:

Five reasons the Red Sox will win

1. What a lineup: The Red Sox have scored an incredible 83 more runs than the next-best offense in the American League (Cleveland). While the Blue Jays had a similar run-scoring gap last season, only one other AL team in the past 80 years has managed to put up a 100-run gap between itself and the pack -- and you need to go back all the way to the 1950 Red Sox to find that one. "Their lineup is so deep and so good," said one AL exec. "The way they work counts, foul balls off, wear down pitchers, they're just so good. And they hit good pitching."

2. Their strength is greater than any other team's strength: Let's get back to that last line: They hit good pitching. Or to put this in the words of a rival GM: "Boston's offense is the singular best strength of all the teams." Now those are words that get my attention this time of year. When we try to break down which clubs profile best to survive the four-week October marathon, isn't that what we look for -- a team so dominant that even the best teams in the sport can't stop it from doing what it does best? And that's the Red Sox. Against pitchers who average a strikeout per inning or better, the Sox lead the major leagues in average, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS. Against pitchers defined as "power pitchers," Boston's OPS (.798) is 65 points higher than the next-best team. But the Red Sox are also first in OPS against "finesse" pitchers (.848). And they went into the weekend as the only team in the past five years with an OPS of .800 or better against both left-handed and right-handed pitching. So good luck finding a matchup that looks like this team's kryptonite.

3. Their rotation is better than you think: It would have been easy to theorize a month ago that this team didn't have enough starting pitching to navigate October. But you might want to rethink that. Clay Buchholz and Eduardo Rodriguez have made 11 starts between them since Sept. 1. They've allowed two runs or fewer in eight of those starts. Nobody questions whether Rick Porcello is the real deal anymore. ("He's dangerous, super-confident, incredibly intelligent and super-aggressive," said one rival exec. "He's put it all together.") And while you can feel free to question David Price's 5.12 career postseason ERA, "I'd rather have him pitching Game 1 or 2 than a lot of guys," a longtime NL exec said. Price is 8-0 and 2.37 in his past eight starts against teams other than the Yankees (who won't be participating), for what that's worth.

4. Their bullpen is hot: Amazing how the return of Koji Uehara has put the pieces of this bullpen back in place. Since the beginning of September, the Red Sox pen ranks second in the AL in ERA (1.81), and first in opponent average (.198) and strikeout rate (10.4 K/9). The funny thing is, aside from concerns about their left-handed relief, the most questions I heard about anyone in this bullpen were about the closer, Craig Kimbrel, mostly because of his 15 walks in his past 20 innings. ("There are days it looks like he just doesn't trust himself, and I don't know why," said one scout.) But if the biggest worry in this bullpen is a man with 83 strikeouts and just 28 hits in 53 innings, that doesn't sound like much of a crisis to me.

5. Papi Power: Every once in a while in sports, the script writes itself. So there's just something about the way the stars keep lining up for David Ortiz's retirement tour that feels as if there could be one more incredible chapter to come. One NL exec admits that when he picked the Red Sox, "that's part of the equation. There's definitely something magical about it." Well, if there is, you might want to file this away. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, only two position players in the past 60 years (Dal Maxvill and Gene Tenace, back in the 1960s, '70s and '80s) have won four World Series without sneaking onto the Yankees. And nobody has won four for a team that wasn't the Yankees since Jim Gilliam did it for the Dodgers in the '50s and '60s. Well, Big Papi already has three rings. And October looms.

So there you have it. Five carefully thought-out reasons why this pick makes sense, backed with the reassuring support of a bunch of really bright people in the game. Now what could possibly go wrong?

Outside of the fact that any team in this tournament (including the Cubs) could turn into the 2014 Giants as soon as this fun begins, I can think of only one thing that could get in the way of the Red Sox's fourth ride on the duck boats in the past 12 years:

That they just got picked by me to win it all, of course. Which means they're now officially doomed.