The Chicago Cubs are 9-17. In the month of April (and that game in March), they did not win a single series. It was not an auspicious start for a team that didn’t figure to have one.
They ended on a high note, flashing offensive hope and a great bullpen in a big win over the Reds. But, to keep things in perspective: last night’s win brought the Cubs to within 10 games of the division-leading Brewers. Of course, that says as much about the Brewers’ hot start as it does about the Cubs’ struggles. Even the Cardinals are just three games better than the Cubs in the loss column, and they’re 5.5 games behind the Brewers. The Central would be all bunched up if not for the Brewers.
Consider: the Cubs are now just a game behind the Pittsburgh Pirates, whom they could have beat about four times earlier this year in close games. That is/was a pretty clear playoff roster right there, and the Cubs are right there with them.
The Cubs’ expected record, based on runs scored and runs allowed is actually 12-14, suggesting they’ve been (you guessed it) pretty unlucky in sequencing and close games. Guess how many other teams in baseball are three games worse than their expected record? Just one. The Los Angeles Angels are about 3.4 wins short of where they “should” be, based on runs scored and allowed. But they’re not crying too much – they still have a winning record.
If the records in the NL Central were what we expected them to be, based on runs scored and allowed, the Brewers would still be on top, at 16-12, a half game better than the Cardinals. The Cubs and Pirates would be tied for last, but at 12-14, they’d be just three games out of first. If the Cubs are 12-14 today, three games behind the Brewers (only two back in the loss column), how differently are we discussing the season? My s, u, r, p, i, and e keys would probably get worn out from typing “surprise” so many times.
… but the record is what matters when the accounting is done at the end of the year. You can shoulda-woulda-coulda all day long, and finagle a positive sheen for literally every bad team in the league (or a dusty one for every good team). It’s always useful to have context, so long as you keep a proper head on your shoulders. The Cubs are 9-17. That’s a fact.
And it’s a fact that stings when it comes to playoff projections. The Cubs were never particularly high, but their playoff odds have fallen all the way to 1.6%, according to BP. It’s even worse at FanGraphs: just 0.9%.
The Cubs have scored the 6th fewest runs in baseball, and have allowed the 15th most. No, it’s probably not “fair” that they’ve got one of the three worst records in baseball at this point, but those aren’t the marks of a “good” team, either.
Expectations play such a huge role in how we interpret this kind of information. Were the Cubs expected to be a playoff-caliber team this year, and these were numbers, you’d be doubly frustrated: first, that the Cubs were underperforming, and second, that the Cubs were really unlucky.
But, since the Cubs were expected to be bad, no one really wants to hear about the unlucky part … but they’re really quick to tell you how poorly the team is performing. It can be both, though, and we saw it last year for the Cubs (bad and unlucky), and we’re seeing it again this year. It, well, sucks.
Hopefully some better bounces come the Cubs’ way in May, though I remain less interested in that than I am in the fantastic performances turned in so far by Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Welington Castillo, Emilio Bonifacio, Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Jason Hammel, and the young arms in the bullpen. If we see more of that – and maybe a breakout for Mike Olt, and a great stretch by Jake Arrieta and Edwin Jackson – I don’t much think I’ll care about the Cubs’ record and luck in May.