We’ve come to dreaded, uncharted waters in our Cubs fandom. The 2016 Cubs have been anointed as the best team in baseball, and it’s not as though that is particularly bold statement. Already a top three team in 2015, the Cubs lost very few players, added three significant free agents, gained valuable playoff experience, and are returning healthy and in full strength.
Still, when FanGraphs released their initial Projected Standings for 2016 with the Cubs on top (95 wins), it somehow became all the more real. It is dreaded, not because of a jinx or a curse, but because of nearly unobtainable expectations. It is uncharted waters, because the Cubs are so rarely expected to win the division and make a deep run in the playoffs. However, if the Cubs failed to reach the NLDS or – knock on wood – the playoffs at all in 2016, the season will have surely felt like a let down.
The Washington Nationals, if you recall, kept similarly high expectations for their 2015 season, only to be disappointed throughout. They suffered through ineffectiveness and injury at the highest level, and their’s is the cautionary tale for the 2016 Chicago Cubs.
In addition to their 2016 projected standings, FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron came out with an accompanying article that digs a little deeper into the numbers. It’s a good read that provides league-wide context for the projections, so check it out.
In regards to the Cubs specifically, Cameron brings up the fact that, although they are better on paper, the 2016 Cubs projected win total (95) is actually lower than their win total in 2015 (97). While you can take that in multiple directions, I believe it actually serves to underscore just how silly-good these projections are. In a way, projecting a team to win 95 games is more unusual than any given team actually winning 95 games. Like the Cubs in 2015 (or the Cardinals seemingly every season), good teams reach lofty win totals due to a confluence of luck stacked on top of their actual level of talent. The more talent your team has, the less dependent on luck their ultimate win total will be. For example, if the 2015 Cubs were, say, an 85-win team on paper, their additional 12 wins were just a positive – yet unreliably lucky – variance.
Now, 95 games isn’t the Cubs’ floor in 2016. It’s no teams floor, and it never will be. However, unbiased, statistical projections (like the ones from Steamer) are important and do carry significant weight. The Cubs, it would seem, have put themselves in the best possible position to be as unreliant on positive variance (luck) as any team in baseball.
That can happen again.
The Cubs can be great, do well, get all the luck they need and still not make it past one playoff game or series. Be prepared for that. Also, be prepared for them to underperform their projections. Variance works in both directions. And while I believe the Cubs have the right type of coaching staff and depth to avoid significant negative variance (to the degree by which they could), it’s still a very real possibility.
But again, just keep that in the back of your mind. The Cubs were good in 2015, got better/healthier in the offseason and project to be very good in 2016. No one knows precisely what will happen next season, but there’s no question that the Cubs are in the single best position to succeed. And for that, you can get excited.