Here’s a couple of interesting facts: According to CSN Chicago, the Chicago Cubs were the first defending World Series champions to be in first place on Labor Day since the 2010 New York Yankees. In addition, they had the largest first-place lead among reigning World Series champs on Labor Day since the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies.
Weird … also, cool?
Apparently, the “World Series Hangover,” legitimate or not, has reared its head quite prevalently over the past decade or more, as a vast majority of reigning champs have not been in first place heading down the stretch, and when they are, their lead is not very significant. Heck, those 2009 Phillies are the only reigning WS Champs to win their division the following year since 2002(!).
And to be fair, given the way the season started, the Cubs looked like they were more likely to join the majority than break the mold:
Early July compared with early September… pic.twitter.com/NbVgEOlaH6
— Ben Finfer (@BenFinfer) September 7, 2017
But instead, they battled back in the second half, earning a fantastic 33-18 record over 51 games so far, and have a 4.0-game lead over the Cardinals here one week into September.
At the Athletic, Sahadev Sharma explores what makes it so difficult for World Series winners to do what the Cubs are in line to do this season, and you’re definitely going to want to check it out. With quotes from players like Jon Lester and Wade Davis, manager Joe Maddon, and president Theo Epstein, this question is attacked from all sorts of different perspectives, so, naturally, not everyone agrees on what exactly is the issue.
According to Epstein, for example, the physical fatigue of playing and pitching for an extra month can really hurt certain guys. From Maddon’s perspective, it’s the human element, “the desire, the push, whatever is necessary to do this,” that drops off the year after winning a World Series. And still for Lester, it’s the lack of a significant break between the end of the last season and the start of the next one.
Fortunately, the Cubs manager is acutely aware of these issues and suggests that he purposefully kept his foot off the gas early in the season. He said he decided not to push too hard too soon, because he was afraid that if he did, “it would end up like 2003 and 2009,” when the Angels and Rays, respectively, disappointed after World Series runs with Maddon on the coaching staff.
And in case you’re not quite sure you buy that (I can understand some skepticism, given the way the first half went), know that Anthony Rizzo really appreciates it. At CSN Chicago, Rizzo discussed the grind of a follow-up campaign and suggests that his experiences in 2015 (when the Cubs sprinted into the postseason and ran out of gas) and 2016 (when the Cubs coasted into the postseason and went all the way) really changed how he looks at things.
“We learned from 2015 how to control winning,” Rizzo theorized. “Because by then, by the finish line, the emotion of the wild-card game, that (whole) emotional rollercoaster, it just wore us all out and we all hit a wall.” He went on to say that in 2016, the Cubs were more prepared and conditioned for the postseason and that’s what they’re aiming for again this year. “So I don’t think in here you’re going to find much panic. We know we’re in first place coming after a championship season … ” and the presumption is that they don’t want to peak early and have an early exit in October.
So has this season gone according to plan? Of course not. The Cubs would much rather have a massive lead and coast as best they can into the playoffs. But given the background of their own team and previous World Series winners, it still pays to be patient and not push too hard, too soon. They’ll save that for October.