After being perched atop everyone’s weekly power rankings for the whole season, people are starting to doubt the Chicago Cubs.Many websites like ESPN and Sports Illustrated now consider the Giants- who own baseball’s best record- to be the top team in the league. I’ve even seen some rankings place Washington over the Cubs as well.
These power rankings aren’t the be all and end all, but it does show how far the Cubs have slipped after many proclaimed them to be on track to finish as one of the greatest teams of all-time. These pundits weren’t wrong: the Cubs were playing at a historic clip. Yet since June 1st, Chicago is only 18-20. More recently, they’re a horrific 6-15 with a -32 run differential.
What has happened to them? Pretty simple: Their pitching, which was great in April and May, has completely collapsed. And I mean collapsed. Over the past 30 days, Chicago’s pitching ranks 28th in the Majors in WAR. Their starting staff has the league’s fourth highest FIP over that span as well, which suggests that the secret to the early season success of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, and John Lackey had little to do with them, but the Cubs’ fifth ranked defense. Moreover, Chicago’s relievers have been below average this year. While they haven’t been as bad as the starting rotation of late, the Cubs bullpen still ranks 24th in WAR and has the league’s fifth highest walk rate per nine innings.
I have no problem with the Cubs, but I’m kind of glad they are starting to slip. The reason why is because I was confident before the season that the Cubs would regress in 2016. I loved Chicago’s lineup, but I doubted that Arrieta could replicate his 2015 season and I was skeptical of Lester and Lackey being good enough to make the Cubs serious contenders.
Obviously, for most of this season, I could not have been more wrong. Arrieta started the season brilliantly, Lester had an ERA under 2 for most of May, and guys like Kris Bryant were even been than I expected. Now that the Cubs have tailed off a bit though, I’ve been hearing less about my “horrible” prediction from friends, which makes me feel a little better. Plus, I was one of the only people saying that Arrieta was bound to come back to Earth after a sensational April, which has turned out to be true.
However, I’m not out of the woods yet. Fangraphs still likes Chicago to easily win the NL Central and they give them an MLB-high 17.3% chance to win the World Series as well. But the question I have is this: Was Chicago’s torrid start legit?
My initial thought was that maybe the Cubs simply didn’t play many good teams at the start of the season. It turns out this was true: The win percentage of the teams Chicago has played since June is higher than that of the clubs they played in April and May (.478 vs .432). In addition, if we look at how well Chicago has fared against the weakest teams in baseball, it’s clear that they have beaten up on poor teams. Against teams with a win percentage below .425, the Cubs are 18-8 with a staggering run differential of +105. No wonder why Chicago’s run differential looks so good; that’s what happens when Cincinnati is in your division! I understand that Chicago can’t control who is on their schedule and that it is obviously more impressive to beat these teams by double digits than it is to beat them by a run; yet the reality is that the Cubs look far less impressive when we take away their victories over the league’s cellar-dwellers (35-27, .565, +34 run differential against all other teams).
The other reason for Chicago’s deceptive start was that its pitching staff was over-performing. I noted back in mid-May that Jake Arrieta had the largest discrepancy between his ERA and FIP, which suggested that he was benefitting from some great defense and some lucky batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and HR totals, which many sabermetricians say are beyond the pitcher’s control. Since then, both of those figures have dramatically increased. Meanwhile, John Lackey saw his BABIP surge from .196 in May to .294 in June, which is in line with the league average BABIP of .300. Similarly, Jason Hammel’s low HR/9 innings figure through June did not hold up: He got smacked around over the past month (1.44 HR/9) and gave up five home-runs in a start against the Mets a week ago.
There’s no reason to think the Cubs can’t expect their hitting and fielding to continue to be among the league’s best, but can their pitching turn around? I’m not so sure, for two reasons. One, the Cubs BABIP still remains the lowest in baseball by a healthy margin. Again, even with a great defense, BABIP is awfully hard to control, which suggests that the this figure should continue to approach the league average (.300) in the coming months. And second, Chicago’s starters have the second largest discrepancy between their ERA and FIP in the Majors (Texas is first). If you’ve been reading Jeb Clarke lately, this is an indication that the Cubs starters could continue to decline in the second half.
Simply put, I think things will continue to trend the wrong way for the Cubs. I’m usually optimistic about teams with great run differentials, but consider this: Only one of the previous ten teams to lead baseball in run differential at the All-Star break went on to win the World Series (the 2013 Red Sox). There’s plenty of parity in baseball among the top teams, which is why even though the Cubs are still a safe bet to make the playoffs, they are no longer the favorite to win the World Series come October. That honor belongs to San Francisco, who is just as well-rounded as Chicago and possess an even better pitching staff. Moreover, the Nationals, Mets, and Dodgers all have pitching staffs that may be better suited for postseason success than Chicago’s. Simply put, it’s going to be a difficult road for the Cubs come October, and that’s without even considering the pressure to break their 108-year curse.
Sorry Cubs fans: I don’t think this is going to be “the year” after all.
Lester and Ross photo courtesy of Getty Images