Though sports are fueled by speculation, opinion and debatable assertion, baseball—to borrow a tidbit from our country’s Declaration of Independence (h/t to Thomas Jefferson)—holds certain truths to be self-evident.

Among them is that playoff baseball is a different brand of the game, one that’s dominated by pitchers. The parity in the sport increases because teams only need to win a handful of games—three in the division series and four in both the league championship and World Series—in stark contrast to the test of a 162-game regular season. A starting pitcher has so much influence over a single game that his team can be offensively inept yet still ride the coattails of his dominance during the much shorter playoff schedule.

If you’ve made it through this rhetoric, then you understand why the Chicago Cubs aren’t overwhelming favorites to win the World Series, and why it’s fair to suggest that the San Francisco Giants, more than the New York Mets or St. Louis Cardinals, are the biggest threat to derail the Cubs among NL wild-card hopefuls.

Having clinched the NL’s best record, Chicago will face one of the three aforementioned teams in the NLDS.

But Cubby Nation should hope, pray and plea that it’s not the Giants, because San Francisco’s pitching stands as the most threatening.

The Cardinals’ 4.13 ERA ranks eighth in the NL, behind every other team that would be in the playoffs. In fact, if St. Louis doesn’t play October baseball, the top five teams in NL ERA would end up as the league’s playoff teams.

When the 2016 season began, many thought the Mets had the game’s best starting staff, boasting a group of power arms that would satisfy New York’s most demanding fans.

Then ace Matt Harvey was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome. He was ruled done for the year. Righty Jacob deGrom underwent elbow surgery this month. He’s done for the year. Most recently, lefty Steven Matz, who hasn’t pitched since Aug. 14 due to elbow inflammation, was—drumroll…OK, you guessed it—ruled done for the year.

That all leaves right-hander Noah Syndergaard, who might own the organization’s most promising arm but has dealt with bone spurs this season. One pitcher is hardly enough for the offensively inept Mets, anyway. Even with its 12-run extravaganza Tuesday night, New York ranks 26th with 654 runs scored this season.

We may talk about the Mets as an October threat in future seasons. But injuries have swallowed their chances in 2016.

Which brings us to the Giants, the team that boasts starting pitching capable of dominating any series. While one dominant pitcher won’t satisfy a team’s October needs, two is just enough. And if those two are at the top of their games, three may not matter.

That’s important because southpaw Madison Bumgarner (2.71) and righty Johnny Cueto (2.79) own the fourth- and fifth-best ERAs in baseball, respectively, this season.

Cueto is nursing a groin injury and missed his start Sunday. But his expected return for the playoffs would undoubtedly make the Giants among the biggest threats to Chicago.

The Cubs, it should be noted, do have MLB’s best ERA (3.10), and starters Kyle Hendricks (1.99) and Jon Lester (2.28) own baseball’s two best individual marks in the category. Chicago’s reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, Jake Arrieta, ranks seventh with a 2.85 ERA.

This isn’t a dispute as to whether the Cubs are better than the Giants, though, only one that suggests that San Francisco’s pitching presents a tougher matchup for Chicago than that of St. Louis or New York.

That said, both Bumgarner and Cueto have fared well against Chicago.

In two games against the Cubs, Bumgarner only allowed two runs and issued two walks. Cueto only pitched one game against Chicago, but allowed just one run in seven innings of work. His career numbers at Wrigley Field—3.07 ERA and 1.26 WHIP—give reason to be optimistic about his potential to help San Francisco steal a game on the road.

Bumgarner and Cueto have four World Series rings between them. The former won three with the Giants, and the latter earned his last year with the Kansas City Royals.

Lester is the only player among the Cubs’ top three pitchers who owns a World Series ring. Hendricks and Arrieta got their first taste of playoff baseball just last season.

Of course, the Giants need to win the one-game NL Wild Card matchup in order to get their shot against the Cubs. If he’s available, Bumgarner, the team’s ace, is likely to get the call.

But even in that scenario, Cueto would be available to pitch Game 1 of the NLDS, thus allowing the duo to pitch a combined three possible games in that series—the exact number a team needs to win.

So, in essence, if Bumgarner and Cueto dominate as they can, it won’t matter what happens in the other two games.

Of course, that puts all the pressure on the duo. But one could argue based on numbers and experience that there isn’t a pair of pitchers in baseball a team would rather have at the top of its rotation.

Given what it takes to win in the playoffs, the Cubs certainly aren’t the only team with the players—check that, the arms—to make an October run.


All stats current through Tuesday’s games.

Seth Gruen is a national baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.

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