Boy, this quote sure reads differently in July than it did in May.
"I am not going to answer any question that mentions the Chicago Cubs and the Golden State Warriors," said Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations.
Back then, the Cubs and Warriors were linked because they were both examples of unstoppable juggernauts, the likes of which the sports world has rarely seen. People kept bugging poor Theo about it. Could the Cubs be the best team in baseball history? Could be, could be.
Things are quite different in July. A chart of how the season has gone:
It’s simple math. The first digit goes down by one, and after two months, the second and third numbers go down by two. I’ve checked it and re-checked it, so if you want to argue with it, go ahead, but you’re arguing against math and science.
Okay, fine, that might be a bit hyperbolic. What we do know is that the Cubs are slumping, and they’re doing it in a horrible, stunning way. They’ve lost three in a row to the Cincinnati Reds and Atlanta Braves. They were just swept in a four-game series by the New York Mets. They’ve lost seven of eight, and 12 of their last 17. Since their high-water mark on June 4, with a 39-15 winning percentage, they’ve gone 13-18. They’ve been playing .500 ball almost as long as they were mesmerizing the baseball world with their gaudy record.
The Cubs have been mediocre as long as they were unstoppable, in other words. Yes, you have to cherry pick your start and end dates to reach that conclusion, but what is the start of the season if not the greatest cherry-picked date of all?
So what can we learn from this? Well, Big Important Lessons, obviously. Because if I started with a headline of "It’s a long baseball season, with a lotta ups and a lotta downs," there wouldn’t have been a point in writing the rest of the article. With that, here are some points to keep in mind about the 2016 Cubs:
Their fast start was a mirage because no pitching staff is that good
Back in April, I wrote about what it would take for a baseball team to break the all-time wins record. There was a passage about the pitching staff that team would need:
Take the 2015 Cardinals. They had five excellent starting pitchers, and they combined for 20 wins above replacement, which was the biggest reason the team won 100 games. But if they had the top five pitchers in baseball last season -- Zack Greinke, Jake Arrieta, Clayton Kershaw, Dallas Keuchel, and Max Scherzer -- they would have combined for 40 WAR. Take those wins, slap them onto the '16 Cardinals, and bingo bongo, you have a new record.
So all a team would need to do is accumulate the five best pitchers and have them all stay healthy and effective.
The 2015 Cardinals had a historically efficient starting rotation. Really, one of the best of the last couple decades. And it would have still taken more for that rotation to make that team one of the best ever.
The 2016 Cubs started the season by allowing 57 runs in April. Fifty-seven runs! In the 22 games they played, their runs-allowed distribution went like this:
0 runs: 4
1 run: 5
2 runs: 5
3 runs: 4
4+ runs: 3
Other than those three sub-par games, the Cubs were basically Clayton Kershaw in April. The entire staff, from Jason Hammel to Neil Ramirez, combined to pitch like an MVP candidate, much less a Cy Young candidate.
And whenever you see something outlandish like that, you have to know it isn’t going to last. If you assume it won’t last, you’ll look smart 19 out of 20 times, and you’ll get to point to those 19 times when the 20th happens. If the Cubs’ FIPs matched their ERAs, they’d have an excellent rotation instead of a legendary one. Expect that for the rest of the season, just to be safe.
They’re still the best team in baseball
And I’m not sure how you can argue the point. The San Francisco Giants have the best record, and the Texas Rangers are close behind, but the only thing we knew with any degree of confidence before the season started was that the Cubs were the most complete team on paper. Then they crawled out of the paper and started eating villagers. They were beaten back a little bit, but they’re still paper-strong, which is a compliment, not an insult.
The Cubs still have an absurd expected record, 58-27, based on the runs they’ve scored and allowed. That’s been taking a hit over the last month, as you can imagine, but it’s still a brain-curdling stat. If you use BaseRuns, which calculate the runs a team is expected to score, they still grade out better than the actual 2016 Cubs. No matter what direction you take, which stat you use or what angle you’re looking at, the Cubs score a lot more runs than they allow. That’s sort of the definition of a truly great team.
Other than the injury to Kyle Schwarber, just about everything that was supposed to be great with the Cubs is still there, still motoring along. The top of the lineup was supposed to set up an excellent middle of the lineup, which was supposed to take the pressure off an excellent bottom of the lineup, and that’s happening. The rotation was supposed to be deep, 1 through 5, with a clear ace and No. 2 starter, and that’s happening. The bullpen was supposed to be another strength, with several power arms for the late innings, and that’s all true.
They can improve at the deadline, sure. One of the problems with a ridiculously complete team is that there aren’t obvious moves to make, but they might be the ones who emerge with Andrew Miller. Just as importantly, they can improve internally, as they’ve already done with Wilson Contreras, unlikely utility belt and cult hero.
No, the Cubs aren’t the Warriors of baseball. For one thing, they might actually win the championship. For another, they’re not going to set a single-season wins record. Still, the Cubs are the best team in baseball, just like we assumed before the season started, and if you were told they would be 52-33 with an eight-game lead in the NL Central, you might have remarked, "Yeah, that’s about right."
The only thing that hasn’t been expected is just how clearly defined the ups and downs have been. Our brains love it when those patterns emerge. Makes it so easy to assume they mean something. They don’t. Ignore the easy dichotomy of the Cubs’ season, and just appreciate them for what they are: one of the more complete 25-man rosters we’ve seen in a decade. A bad month isn’t going to change that.