The Cubs have been one of the most disappointing teams over the last 10 years.
(No, I did not accidentally forget a zero.)
Depending on whether or not you are a Cubs fan, your reaction to that statement probably landed somewhere between a laugh, a cry or a, “Yeah, tell me something I don’t know.” But it’s not that simple.
I’m sure most of you know that, over the last decade, the Cubs have had some quick playoff exits, surrounded by plenty of last place finishes. But what I’ll bet you didn’t know is that, over that same period of time, the Cubs were projected to be much better than their record indicated. In fact, according to a FanGraphs study by Jeff Sullivan, the Cubs won 55 fewer games over the last 10 years than they were projected to win at the beginning of the season. If you feel that number is extreme, you’d be right. Out of the remaining 29 teams, the Cubs -55 win differential is dead last, and 19 wins worse than second place.
Maybe you feel that this discrepancy is more of an indictment of the projection systems themselves, rather than evidence of a series of Cubbie Occurrences, but there’s more to it than that. Last season, Brett took a look at the Cubs actual record versus their expected record based on Pythagorean Expectation calculations, a system of determining how many wins a team should have, based on the actual amount of runs scored/allowed. What he found was that in 16 of the last 21 seasons, the Chicago Cubs actual record has been behind what should be expected. It seems that the projections aren’t necessarily the problem.
So what’s the deal?
One thing to emphasize up front: since we’re talking about projections and expected records, you can’t just say “because they’re bad.” To the extent the Cubs have been bad, that was already accounted for in the projections and expected records. The Cubs underperformed bad.
Sullivan’s first angle at an explanation dug into the Cubs’ clutch performance over the last decade. Statistically, we wouldn’t expect players or teams to perform differently in clutch situations than they would in any other situation, but FanGraphs did their best to capture statistically something that our eyes and hearts tell us is true – “Clutch”. And unsurprisingly, given what you’re thinking right now in your head, the 2005-2014 Chicago Cubs have been second to last in Clutch score over the last 10 years.
So that’s it, right? The Cubs have not performed in Clutch situations, and that has meant routine and repeat underperformance relative to projections (and Pythagorean record).
Well, it’s not necessarily that simple. Even if you accept Clutch as a stat, a team’s clutch performance one year does not predicate the next. So, in theory, there shouldn’t be any reason for the Cubs to have been consistently “un-clutch” over such a long stretch of time. Clutch, alone, isn’t going to explain the Cubs’ underperformance.
Trying for another explanation, the commenters at FanGraphs wondered whether the Cubs tendency to be “sellers” at the trade deadline was skewing the statistics, but that’s not true either. The Cubs have won 46% of their games before the deadline and just under 48% of their games thereafter. In fact, they actually lost more games than they should have in the first half (36), as opposed to the second half (19), over the last ten years.
Check out Sullivan’s piece for more of his thoughts on this Cubs underperformance phenomenon. It’s something we’ve anecdotally felt as Cubs fans for years now, but I guess at least it’s nice to see someone trying to put some statistical explanation with it. (And if you missed Brett’s discussion last year of the other kind of Cubs underperformance, you can read it here.)
In the end, I have no perfect explanation or even hypothesis for this serial underperformance.
If you want to frame it positively: this probably shouldn’t have happened. Teams aren’t supposed to be consistently poor clutch performers, year to year. Additionally, trading away good players hasn’t affected the Cubs’ outcomes, whether it should have or not. And, most importantly, a history of underperforming your projections is statistically not predictive of years to come.
That last point may be especially relevant, for the 2015 Chicago Cubs. In a year that is expected to witness several rookies and new players carry a healthy chunk of playing time, most past Cubs – perhaps with some bad-luck-inducing tendencies – are gone. The 2014 Cubs just about matched their projections, by the end of the season. Maybe that means these particular players may be more likely/able to match their much more optimistic 2015 projections than their predecessors were.
If that sounds a little too magical for your taste, I understand. But I also don’t have a great explanation for why the Cubs have so consistently underperformed their projections and their expected record for such a long stretch. There’s gotta be a little (black) magic in there somewhere.