Laying Bare an Ugly Stretch of Cubs Baseball
Sometimes I find it therapeutic to unpack a bad game or a bad stretch of baseball from a philosophical perspective, and, typically, I write it down as I’m unpacking. Sometimes that turns into a post, sometimes it is simply an exercise in getting my headspace back into a place where I can carry on with my day and not fret at every turn about the sport that’s frustrating me.
I thought that’s what I was going to do this morning, after the Cubs lost a total gut-puncher to the Cardinals late last night, their 8th loss in 12 games.
But when I actually started putting fingers to keys, it turned out to be much more of a simple and grounded look at what has actually happened during this stretch of losing for the Cubs, and why – after the earth’s rotation forces us to step back and count a new day – it’s really not all that bad. I know it’s tiring to hear the same thing over and over when the team is losing, but the Cubs really aren’t playing that badly right now. In baseball, but there’s not always a one-to-one correlation between playing well and actualizing wins.
To start, although it was what I highlighted in the EBS last night, I want to make it explicit here, because it’s just so damn frustrating (and so damn baseball): the Cubs outhit the Cardinals last night 9 to 5, the Cubs out-walked the Cardinals 4 to 1, and Cubs pitchers out-struck-out the Cardinals 11 to 6. But the Cubs had all singles, and the Cardinals hit two well-timed homers. Suddenly you take all those other numbers, and they get washed away, replaced by a simple 1 (the win the Cardinals got, which cannot be taken away) and a 0 (the win the Cubs did not get). Peripheral stats and projections and all that fun stuff is good for what it is, but the exquisite pain of baseball is that all that really matters at the end is whether you banked that win or not.
In this ugly stretch for the Cubs, they’ve banked just four wins, and failed to bank eight. In truth, until I stepped back and looked at it this morning, I thought it was worse than that. I suppose part of that is because a loss to the Cardinals and series losses to teams like the Padres and Brewers feel extra crummy.
There are bright sides here, if you want to see them. The first is right there in the 4-8 thing – as far as bad stretches go, that’s really not all that bad, especially when they are immediately preceded by an eight-game winning streak.
Further – maybe this isn’t a bright spot so much as interesting (and kind of annoying) – during that stretch, the Cubs have actually outscored their opponents 43 to 37. That’s a pretty hard trick to pull off, but it happens when you blow out your wins and lose your games by the follow runs: 3, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 1, 1.
Seriously, look at those run differences again. No wonder we’re all tearing our hair out and frustrated as hell. Not only have the Cubs lost 8 of 12, but they were all close games. That means our frustration level was at maximum velocity for the entirety of those games.
Here’s the thing about good teams: they tend to lose a lot of close games. Since every team loses a lot of games in a given season, and since the best teams are in more of those games, a lot more of their losses are going to be close.
In other words, you could argue that this losing stretch for the Cubs actually does more to confirm that they’re a good team, rather than to dispel it.
I’ll admit, though, that I didn’t have any doubts this was a good team, even after this down stretch. It’s pretty easy to see a couple of those games turning the other way on a bounce here or there, and then it’s suddenly a 6-6 stretch that nobody gets too bent out of shape about. So I didn’t really need this kind of a look to confirm the Cubs are good. But it was nice to see anyway, I suppose.
At 29-14, the Cubs still have the best record in baseball, but the underlying numbers – the performance behind their results – actually suggests they should have an even better record (around 32 or 33 wins, according to FanGraphs and BP), and that gap has widened during this stretch. In other words, when you’re looking at this 4-8 stretch from a 10,000 foot view, the Cubs were probably really unlucky not to win more than four games. What can you do with that information? Well, not much, since that 4-8 record is now banked. But you can, once again, at least remind yourself that the record in this stretch is probably not indicative of real problems or predictive of future losses.
Over this 4-8 period, the Cubs have lost 3.5 games in the NL Central to the Pirates, dropping the lead from 8.5 games to 5.0. That’s not great to see, but it’s still a healthy lead, and that drop could have been a whole lot worse if the Cubs didn’t sandwich a series win over the Pirates into this stretch.
So, that’s about all I have this morning on this front. The losing has not been fun, especially since it came after a historically good start for the Cubs (which, it turns out, is really fun to watch!). I’m not trying to convince you of anything here, as there’s a big part of me that’s still really salty, too.
I just wanted to lay it all out, as much for myself as for you.