Baseball

So…Is This Cubs Thing Real?

If you follow me, you know I had a good chuckle at the mass self-defenestrations going on around town when the Cubs started out 2-7. It amounted to not much more than a bad week, and every team has a bad week in baseball. In fact, they have more than a bad week. You’ll recall the 2016 Cubs went and had a bad month before the All-Star break. The 104-win Dodgers of ’17 couldn’t tie their shoes, breathe right, or manage to not fall down for four minutes for basically all of September. Last year’s Red Sox…lost like, four of five once. Anyway, teams do this.

Since then, there has been no team better than the Cubs, and they currently they have the best winning-percentage in the National League and are only behind the Astros overall. Now, the Cubs aren’t 23-7 good. No one is, as that would be a 124-win pace. Currently, they’re on a 104-win pace. They have a +56 run-differential, however you value that, which is tied with the Dodgers for best in the NL and behind the Rays and Astros overall (WAY behind the Astros at +83). By that measure, the Cubs should be exactly what they are, at 25-14. They’re right along their expected axis.

So with a bad week-plus and now essentially a dominant five-six weeks in the book, are they this? I was curious.

The way we can find out, at least partially, is to see if there are irrationally spiking stats to this season. Maybe an abnormal BABIP or average with runners in scoring position or the like. Shall we?

Offensively, the Cubs don’t really lead in any category, they’re just among the best in pretty much every one. They’re 11th in runs overall. They have the second-best wOBA in the NL, one point behind the Dodgers and behind the Astros and Twins overall (again, miles behind the Astros. Seriously, do the Astros ever lose? Should they?) If you go by wRC+, they’re still second but there’s a slightly bigger gap to the Dodgers in the NL. Again, no one’s with in 19 points of the Astros in this category, and you should just start preparing yourself for this season maxing out at losing to Houston in five games in October. That’s like the best scenario right now.

wOBA and wRC+ kind of filter out the noise, but in case you need to know the Cubs are 10th when it comes to BABIP at .301. That mark has always put a team between 10th-15th the past five years, so it’s hardly remarkable. I go to average with runners in scoring position just because that’s kind of a thing that can spike, and also something I laugh at the Cardinals for for years now as in ’15 they hit .308 in that spot as a team, claimed it was just the Cardinal Way instead of just luck, and then haven’t been heard from since. Anyway, the Cubs are hitting .260 right now in that spot, which is right in the middle of the pack. So there’s no spiking there. There’s really no spiking offensively at all.

If you look individually, it’s entirely possible that Bryant and Baez will flatten out at some point, though the latter more than the former because there’s little luck about what Bryant is doing. Contreras too. But Rizzo is due a correction, and Jason Heyward might as well (though don’t count on it). I think the offense is just this good, even if that’s still based on a Schwarber-binge I’ve been waiting for since like 2017 now.

To the pitching side. The Cubs have the second-best ERA in the NL, third-best in baseball, and by the time this series with the Reds is over might take over the NL-lead. If you go by FIP, which takes the defense out of the equation, the Cubs rank 9th overall and 6th in the NL. It seems unfair to eliminate the defense when talking about this, because the Cubs have constructed this really good defensive team and their pitchers won’t stop benefitting from it this season. But we’ll come back to this. If you go by xFIP, which seeks to filter out odd home run spikes, the Cubs are fourth in baseball.

When it comes to luck categories while pitching, the Cubs rank 6th in BABIP against at .275. Now here’s where you might see something of a market correction, but it probably won’t be a large one. The past five years, a team BABIP-against mark of .275 would have been first or second-lowest every year. But, the Cubs the past five years have never had one higher than .287, because of that defense, and that includes an utterly insane .255 against in 2016 (seriously, that team was like seven 1986 Patrick Roys). Because of what the Cubs sport defensively, it’s very hard to imagine that they’re going to stop being close to this efficient in getting outs unless all their starters begin giving up ICBMS all the time.

The Cubs are also benefitting a touch from their left-on-base percentage at 76.6%. But that’s not obscenely high, and basically in line with what they’ve done for the past five years.

So based on league-wide stats, the Cubs basically are this good. There’s nothing weird about them being here right now. Obviously, multiple players could hit slumps, or get hurt, or something that will flatten these out come June or July or August.

As far as comparing them to the 103-win 2016 team, they’re a touch behind but most of that could be explained by variance. They strike out slightly more hitters, but walk more. They have a slightly worse ERA and FIP. Offensively, they’re actually a touch better than 2016 so far. They walk a little more, though strike out a little more. They slug more, get on base a touch better. So by what we know here in town as well, the Cubs are where they should be as well.

So basically, everybody shut up unless you’re going to be happy.

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