The Chicago Cubs have been very good over the past two seasons (and, in fact, I’d argue that they even looked quite strong near the end of 2014, as well).
But did you know they were also not bad during that stretch?
That may seem confusing at first, but there is actually a distinction between the two in the context of this post. Plenty of teams can perform well and win, while still handing out playing time to some less-than-stellar players (by WAR). The Cubs, however, were among the very best at limiting their playing opportunities to the very best.
At FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan measures and writes about which teams “Avoided the Awful” with the greatest success over the past three seasons, and it’s both fun and revealing.
By adding up all of the individual negative player WAR from 2014-16 (i.e., players who weren’t just below average, they were worse than the theoretical replacement player who is available at all times), Sullivan was able to create a ranking of the teams that gave the least amount of playing time to the worst players. You can check out his article at FanGraphs here for more, but I’ll give you a taste right here of the best at not being bad from 2014-16:
- Washington Nationals: -9.5 WAR
- New York Mets: -9.6 WAR
- St. Louis Cardinals: -10.3 WAR
- Chicago Cubs: -10.5 WAR
- Baltimore Orioles: -11.0 WAR
Surprisingly, the Brewers (-12.8 WAR) made the top ten at number nine overall, which was two spots ahead of the eleventh placed Pirates (-13.3 WAR). The Reds, perhaps expectedly, finished dead last with -24.7 WAR. Yikes.
Of course, like I said, the ability to avoid negative WAR isn’t the same as being good. The Brewers, for example, were among the best at avoiding the awful, but among the worst at, you know, being good (26th among positive WAR).
But since we have this data, I thought it be fun to dive in a little deeper with the Cubs.
For example, how much of that -10.5 WAR do you think came from which season (2014, 2015, 2016) and how many players were negative in each?
Both answers are just below (number of negative-WAR players in parenthesis):
- 2014 (12): -5.9 WAR
- 2015 (11): -2.4 WAR
- 2016 (9): -2.2 WAR
Okay, that might have been the easy part. As we know, the most recent iteration of the Chicago Cubs was among the best teams in history, let alone compared to a losing 2014 season. But there wasn’t much difference in total number of players between the seasons, and the 2015 and 2016 Cubs were quite similar overall.
How about this: Who were the bottom five performers (by WAR) in each of the three seasons with the Cubs?
First up, 2014. Can you guess without looking?
2014 Negative WAR “Leaders”
- John Baker: -0.8 WAR*
- Junior Lake: -0.8 WAR
- Javier Baez: -0.8 WAR
- Ryan Kalish: -0.8 WAR
- Nate Schierholtz: -0.8 WAR
I guess it should be no surprise to see Javy Baez there, after all, that was the debut season, in which he struck out 41.5% of the time. Seeing Junior Lake’s name is a fun trip down memory lane, while Kalish and Schierholtz … well, they just sound about right for that era. No pitchers made the bottom five, but Jose Veras (-0.3 fWAR), Eric Jokisch (-0.2 fWAR), James Russell (-0.2 fWAR) and recent minor league re-signing Zac Rosscup (-0.1 fWAR) all qualified.
Let’s move onto 2015, shall we?
There were eleven players with a negative WAR value for the Cubs in 2015, seven were position players and four were pitchers. The bottom five is comprised of two position players and two pitchers (the fifth spot is a four way tie between two pitchers and two position players, as well). Can you guess?
2015 Negative WAR “Leaders”
- Arismendy Alcantara: -0.4 WAR
- Jonathan Herrera: -0.3 WAR*
- Zac Rosscup: -0.3 WAR
- Brian Schlitter: -0.3 WAR
In addition to the names above, Junior Lake, Matt Szczur, Rafael Soriano, and Tommy Hunter all tied for fifth worst, with -0.2 WAR in 2016.
Alcantara is my favorite worst player on the 2015 Chicago Cubs, given how differently his season began and ended. If you recall, Alcantara had a mostly positive (in terms of scouting, not so much on the numbers) debut with the Cubs in 2014 and actually won not only a roster spot for 2015, but a semi-starting job on the team that ultimately made it to the 2015 NLCS. He started six of the Cubs first 12 games, famously unable to get on base in his first 21 plate appearances. He was then sent back to the minors and never made it back up with the Cubs.
Everyone’s favorite ground ball specialist, Brian Schlitter, also makes an appearance.
And finally, let’s take a look at 2016.
In 2016, the Chicago Cubs won 103 baseball games – not including October, and two big ones there at the beginning of November – but not every player was a positive by WAR. Indeed, by this calculation, nine total players (four position players, five pitchers) actually netted negative WAR for the season. Can you guess them all?
2016 Negative WAR “Leaders”
- Adam Warren: -0.6 WAR
- Tim Federowicz: -0.3 WAR
- Brian Matusz: -0.3 WAR*
- Jeimer Candelario: -0.2 WAR
- Joel Peralta: -0.2 WAR
- Joe Smith: -0.2 WAR
- Spencer Patton: -0.2 WAR
Adam Warren, he who was projected for great things out of the Cubs’ bullpen and eventually rotation, was the biggest offender in 2016, theoretically costing the Cubs a bit more than half a win. He has since been returned to the Yankees, but you should know that he was actually worth +0.1 fWAR once he returned for the second half of the season in New York (3.26 ERA).
Candelario is an interesting finalist here, given that he had only 14 plate appearances to leave a mark. Unfortunately, he did leave a mark, it just, uh, wasn’t the type you want to leave. Good things are still ahead, young man.
Not on the list, but extremely notable you’ll find Miguel Montero (-0.1 WAR) and Kyle Schwarber (-0.1 WAR). Schwarber, of course, had only two games and five plate appearances, so you can pretty much throw his numbers out, but Montero is a decidedly unexpected revelation.
I knew that he didn’t quite have the season he was hoping to have (in terms of production at and behind the the plate, as well as playing time), but I didn’t expect him to have finished with a negative WAR value overall. If you feel similarly, there’s actually a very good, measurable, and convincing explanation for the disconnect.
Check out this list of stats, without any explanation first:
- Anthony Rizzo: 4.32
- Kris Bryant: 2.65
- Dexter Fowler: 2.06
- Addison Russell: 2.04
- Ben Zobrist: 1.73
- Miguel Montero: 0.75
Those numbers above are for Win Probability Added throughout the 2016 for all Cubs position players, and Montero was sixth best on the Cubs. Indeed, his CLUTCH rating (yes, that’s a real statistic) was second best on the Cubs, just behind Addison Russell. So even though he wasn’t the most valuable player to the Cubs in 2016, he sure picked up a lot with his timing, and helped the Cubs in the times that mattered most nearly as much as anyone.
Only fitting, then, that it was Montero’s RBI single in the 10th inning of Game Seven of the World Series that provided the Cubs what proved to be the margin of victory.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.