Even though they didn’t actually win their division last year, the 2018 Chicago Cubs made their fourth consecutive playoff appearance on the strength of 95 regular season wins. Indeed, they won the division with three fewer victories in 2017 (92-70), and dominated everyone in 2016 (103-58), but somehow just barely managed to sneak into the tournament with 97 wins back in 2015. It’s been weird.
But if you cut through the weirdness for a moment, a broader truth emerges: for the past four years, the Chicago Cubs have been a no-doubt playoff-caliber team throughout. The strength of each team and the certainty with which they’d be playing in October has waxed and waned, but on each of the last four Opening Days, no one could say the Cubs weren’t at least “contenders.”
The same is true for 2019.
Sure, some systems – like PECOTA – are projecting doom and gloom (79-83, last in the NL Central), but I’ve mostly ignored those projections, outside of having a little fun.
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) February 19, 2019
After all, even apparently objective projections like PECOTA has their flaws and baseball, for as much as I love advanced analytics, is never going to be played on paper. But that also cuts both ways.
PECOTA is hardly the only set of projections out there. FanGraphs, for example, just released their initial 2019 playoff odds, and whaddaya know … they see the Cubs right back up top.
2019 NL Central Playoff Odds
- Cubs: 64.5%
- Cardinals: 44.3%
- Brewers: 27.0%
- Reds: 15.8%
- Pirates: 10.8%
I must say, in terms of relative order, I’d bet FanGraphs blows PECOTA (Brewers-Cardinals-Reds-Pirates-Cubs) out of the water in 2019. That just feels more right, and I don’t just mean the Cubs positioning.
The Cubs have a 47.7% chance of winning the division, by the way, and then an alternative 16.8% chance of taking a Wild Card spot.
As for the rest of the divisions, here are the leaders across the board:
2019 MLB Playoff Odds By Overall Odds
- NL East: Nationals (79.9%)
- NL Central: Cubs (64.5%)
- NL West: Dodgers (89.8%)
- NL Wild Card 1: Phillies (48.9%)
- NL Wild Card 2: Cardinals (44.3%)
- AL East: Yankees (96.3%)
- AL Central: Indians (94.5%)
- AL West: Astros (94.9%)
- AL Wild Card 1: Red Sox (90.6%)
- AL Wild Card 2: Twins (35.1%)
Heh. It sure feels like those same six teams have been projected division winners for a while now, with only the Yankees and Red Sox swapping places, right? Don’t get me wrong, in an era where teams make either/or choices (rebuild or compete) windows like this are going to happen, but it’s certainly interesting to see.
As for the Wild Cards, I think the Cardinals and Phillies both represent smart bets (and you certainly can’t count out the Brewers or Braves from anything). While the AL’s picks are so very telling of the complete lack of parity in that league. The first Wild Card team has a 90% shot at the postseason and the next best candidate … just 35%.
There’s simply no one to challenge the Indians in the Central or Astros in the West at the moment, and the Yankees/Red Sox are the only sure-fire good teams in the East. The American League kinda sucks right now and all of those lofty win totals from last year are clearly a representation of that imbalance.
But let’s refocus on the Cubs.
Beyond their 64.5% chance of making the playoffs, the Cubs have a 56.3% of making the NLDS (be it by winning their division or the Wild Card game). That’s first in their division, of course, but well behind the Nationals (68.0%) and Dodgers (87.3%). Basically, this is telling us what we already know: the Cubs are arguably at the top of the NL Central on paper, but that division is so much tougher from top to bottom than any other group in MLB.
Let’s go a few steps further:
Odds of Winning the NLDS:
The Dodgers have by far the best chance in the National League to make their FOURTH consecutive NLCS appearance (they lost to the Cubs in 2016, beat the Cubs in 2017, and beat the Brewers in 2018). Once again, that reminds us that they’re expected to run away with their division and likely wind up with the best record in the NL, pairing them against the winner of the Wild Card team (i.e. one of the weaker NL playoff teams), which should give them home field advantage and a better shot at advancing.
Odds of Winning the NLCS:
Man, even the Dodgers chances of reaching the World Series are enormous. I can’t say I’m disappointed by the Cubs odds, but if I were a color, I’d be green.
So what are the chances the Cubs sneak one more World Series win into this window of contention this season? Eh … they’re alright:
Odds of Winning the World Series:
- Astros: 18.3%
- Yankees: 18.2%
- Indians: 13.2%
- Dodgers: 12.1%
- Red Sox: 10.9%
- Nationals: 7.5%
- Cubs: 5.1%
- Phillies: 2.5%
- Cardinals: 2.4%
- Braves/Mets: 1.4%
Remember, these playoff odds are not exactly ranking baseball’s best teams, but rather baseball’s best teams with the clearest path to the World Series.
But the bottom line is this: According to FanGraphs, the 2019 Chicago Cubs have by far the best odds to win the NL Central and then some of the worst odds to progress deep into the tournament among the remaining playoff teams. While it’s true the MLB postseason is very difficult to predict given the nature of baseball, things like seeding and home field advantage are likely to play against the Cubs odds, wherever the are to start. So much can and will change between now and then, though, and, on the whole, this is a great outlook for 2019.