Recency Bias, the 162-Game Sample, and Why the Cubs Don't Win Anymore

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Recency Bias, the 162-Game Sample, and Why the Cubs Don’t Win Anymore

Chicago Cubs

sad cubs soler fall failAt dinner yesterday, I was telling The Little Girl, 5, about the Cubs’ loss to the White Sox on Monday night. Her response let me know that she is clearly ready for a lifetime of Cubs fandom:

“But dad, how come the Cubs don’t win anymore? They used to win all the time, and now they don’t!”

I could only laugh. From the mouths of babes.

Of course, the Cubs do occasionally win, but it’s easy to see where her perception was coming from. The Cubs have now lost just about as often as they’ve won over the past couple months, and, when that comes after a 25-6 start (or 47-20, if you prefer), it probably does start to feel like the Cubs don’t ever win anymore.

I wonder what she’ll say when I tell her about last night’s loss.

For reasons laid out in the EBS, I was not a fan of that one. I mean, you never really are a fan of a loss, but, for me, it’s fairly rare that I watch a game and think that I saw a crummy performance. The pitching was very good last night overall. The offense, though, got a little unlucky, but also mostly just failed to take advantage of a pitcher who was not exactly throwing the nastiest, well-located stuff. But, whatever. I was irked in the moment, I slept, I’m over it. On an individual game-by-game basis, this process is not terribly difficult.

Some broader perspective: the Cubs had won 7 of 10 coming into this series against the White Sox, so it’s not like they’ve exclusively been getting terrible results lately. That said, there are some longer term issues on the offensive side – Jason Heyward’s continued woes, Ben Zobrist’s slump, a team-wide power outage, and an inability to drive in runners in scoring position, for a handful of examples – that keep popping up, and have driven a lot of the poor results in the last month and a half.

It is not reasonable to freak about a couple losses, or even a long stretch of .500 ball. We always have to guard against recency bias. It is, however, reasonable to point out some real problems, and ponder whether they will course-correct on their own, or whether they need, somehow, to be addressed.

Still, the reason baseball teams play 162 games is because it takes an enormous sample to separate the “true talent” good teams from the random noise that is prevalent in the sport. I know some people hate to be told that not every game is won by the better team, but it happens daily around baseball – so much of the sport’s results are just unpredictable variance.

In other words, you need as much data as possible to say this is a playoff team, and this is not a playoff team. The ultimate “data” are the wins and losses, and they all count. That’s a big part of the reason I’m not impressed when people chop off the Cubs’ crazy successful first month and a half of the season and say, “see, they’re barely a .500 team!” That crazy successful first month and a half was still the performance of this team. It’s part of the sample. If you keep chopping it down to only the most recent stretches, you’re not really going to know anything at all about a team. After all, is last night’s game the real Cubs? The last two games? You wouldn’t say that, right? So why would you say it for just a few weeks worth of games?

The Cubs are in a very bad stretch of results right now, yes, even including the three series wins coming out of the break. Some of that is flukey, but a lot of it is tied to genuinely bad performances. The real question is whether the bad performances are reflective of defects in the underlying true talent, or whether they are simply part of the natural ebb and flow of a baseball season. I review this roster, consider everything, and I think it’s likely to be the latter. If I’m right, the Cubs will most likely go through a nice stretch of results at some point relatively soon.

If I’m wrong, the Cardinals will keep closing that gap in the NL Central – at 6.5 games right now – and all of our collars will start to feel quite a bit more snug.

And The Little Girl will keep asking me why the Cubs don’t win anymore.

Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.