Friday Positivity: A Good Reason the Cubs Targeted Defense and Pitching This Offseason
Who wouldn’t want to head into their weekend feeling just a touch better about the Chicago Cubs? Sure, we know their chances at making the postseason are far worse than many other teams, but hey, we also know that those chances are not zero!
So, I’d like to sit with those non-zero chances for a moment, and share something really interesting from David Schoenfield at ESPN. It’s a point that tracks with something Jed Hoyer has suggested this offseason, and also tracks with what the Cubs have clearly attempted to do with their offseason moves: if you want to surprise to the upside in a given season, it might be a little easier to do it on the run-prevention side than the run-creation side.
From Schoenfield, who was writing about five teams that could surprise to the upside this year, and who had just recounted the Cubs’ moves this offseason:
Anyway, it’s clear the Cubs expect to prevent a lot more runs in 2023. It’s worth asking: Do our improving teams tend to improve more on offense or run prevention? I looked at the 21 teams in the study who improved at least 10 wins, which would put the Cubs at 84 victories — and close to the wild-card chase. For each team I compared the number of runs they scored or allowed above or below the league average in their losing seasons and then the following season:
- Our 21 teams improved an average of 46.8 runs on offense
- They improved an average of 88 runs on run prevention.
So teams making the leap tend to improve more on defense than offense, which is exactly what the Cubs are aiming to do.
In other words, if you’re aiming to make a leap of 10 wins or more in a single offseason, it might be a little easier – or more successful – to pull it off by preventing a lot more runs the next year, as opposed to scoring a lot more runs the next year.
In other other words, it’s possible that the Cubs’ focus this offseason on pitching and defense was less about market forces (read: massive price tags for big bats), and more about a considered evaluation of how they could improve in 2023, regardless of cost.
I … tend to think it’s probably a combination of both. But I gotta say, I do like knowing that, historically, it’s been way more common to bounce big in a given season because you got better at run-prevention (I think the Cubs will!), rather than because you got better at run-scoring (I think the Cubs might not!).
There you have it. Some Friday positivity. Take it with you into the weekend, and be your best self.
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(By the way, a long additional Sort-Of-Math-Theory I want to get into this discussion somewhere, but that I know I don’t necessarily have the chops to calculate out. So I’ll bury here at the bottom in a long parenthetical footnote.
I suspect that the more runs that are scored in a given game (or, more precisely, a large set of individual games), the better your statistical confidence that the “better” team actually won the game. We know there is a TON of random variance in baseball, by its very nature, so it seems to me you would see a lot more random variability in the outcomes of low-scoring games than in high-scoring games. The latter have more opportunities for true talent to shine through, in one direction or the other, on each side of the ball. But since you don’t HAVE to win games by five runs, and can instead just win them by one, not-as-good-teams are probably going to have a better luck-based chance at winning more games if they can keep the scores lower.
If you’ve got true talent on your side in run-prevention, it strikes me as a little easier to flukily win some 2-1, 3-2 games, than it does to flukily win some 10-9, 11-10 games if you focused more on run-creation. The games are separated by just one run in each case, but there is less chance that a single random run will be the difference, since there are SO MANY runs in the game. Many of them will have to actually be earned by your talent.
Is this making any sense? I am pretty sure I have a good point buried in here somewhere, but my lack of top-level statistical faculties are preventing me from laying it out as well as I want.)