Baseball is a beautiful and cruel game. One of my favorite things about baseball, compared to other sports, is that, because of the long season, flukes and luck and bad bounces tend to even out over the course of the year. The “good” teams typically end up “good” in the standings, and underlying trends in a team’s or player’s stats tend to bear themselves out in the baseball card stats by the end of the season.
But not always. Sometimes, baseball is just cruel.
Today, the Chicago Cubs stand a season-low 10 games below .500, ostensibly living into the crumminess many of us projected back in Spring Training. But FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron digs into the numbers behind the numbers, and concludes not only that the Cubs are better than their record would suggest … they’re a whole lot better.
I can’t summarize the entirety of Cameron’s work within just a couple sentences, so you’re going to want to read the piece for yourself. The upshot, though, is that when you compare the Cubs’ player performances to the player performances of the teams the Cubs have played (using wOBA), the Cubs have actually (as of yesterday) outperformed their opponents. They are the only team with a losing record that can claim that, and, indeed, the worst team with the kind of positive wOBA differential that the Cubs have is a couple games over .500.
That model suggests – and I think we’d all anecdotally say – the Cubs’ primary “problem” this year has been the unlucky sequence of events that has befallen them. Giving up hits at the wrong time. Not getting hits at the right time. (Think bullpen blowing games late, and batters hitting so poorly with runners in scoring position, for example.)
Because sabermetrics holds that teams can’t control the sequence of events, the Cubs are simply victims of extraordinarily bad luck (the worst luck in baseball this year by many times over). Which, you know, sounds a bit right.
On the other hand, the flaws in the roster were apparent back when the Cubs broke Spring Training, and, at its core, the team has struggled where you would have expected them to struggle (offensive production, bullpen), and been solid where you would have expected them to be solid (starting pitching).
So, what I wonder: how much of the Cubs’ outperformance of their opponents at a granular wOBA level is actually due to good luck? Sure, we can say the Cubs should have a better record than they do based on how they’ve performed, but maybe they should have performed worse based on their true talent level. Is Scott Feldman performing at his true talent level? Travis Wood? Kevin Gregg? Cody Ransom? Luis Valbuena? Etc., etc.
So … maybe being 10 games under .500 isn’t all that cruel or unfair after all.