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The Math Nerd’s Guide
to the
Chicago Cubs

The best team in baseball? Numbers don’t lie.

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The Cubs began last season playing in front of unfinished bleachers—a nice metaphor for a team in turnaround. But their rebuilding, as we all know, came in ahead of schedule, with the squad posting 97 wins, the third most in baseball, and falling one playoff series short of the World Series. Then, this winter, the Cubs went out and got three key free agents to make themselves even better.

So is this the year?

“I don’t know if this team has a weakness,” says Christina Kahrl, a baseball writer for ESPN online and a cofounder of the legendary stats-oriented website Baseball Prospectus. “This team has so much going for it, in terms of depth and talent. You could totally see the Cubs winning a hundred or more games and putting away the best record in the league.”

423 Runs scored by new second baseman Ben Zobrist (left) in the past five seasons, placing him 11th among all major-leaguers 37 Percentage of hits by Addison Russell (center) last year that went for extra bases. That was second best among shortstops. 99 Runs knocked in last season by Kris Bryant (right)—the fourth-highest total for a rookie in the past 10 years Photo: Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune

Even more impressive, Theo Epstein and his general manager, Jed Hoyer, have built this powerhouse—a team that many Vegas bookmakers have set as their World Series favorite—without taking on the kind of obscene payroll that has come to define the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Cubs’ biggest threat this year. Epstein & Co. have done this in no small part by embracing sabermetrics. For the uninitiated (those who haven’t seen the movie Moneyball ), that’s the use of advanced analytics to evaluate players in new and often nuanced ways. The result is a team that is strong at nearly every position and blends rising young stars with free-agent veterans.

How the Cubs Stack Up

When it comes to roster-wide WAR—wins above replacement, a good measure of overall strength—the Cubs are in a virtual dead heat with the Dodgers. But the Cubs have a better chance of winning the World Series, according to simulations by baseball-analytics website FanGraphs.

1
Los Angeles Dodgers
52.1 WAR
$244 million payroll ($4.68 million per WAR)
2
Chicago Cubs
52.0
$167 million ($3.21 million)
3
New York Mets
46.6
$132 million ($2.83 million)
4
Washington Nationals
43.4
$145 million ($2.83 million)
5
Houston Astros
42.6
$97 million ($2.27 million)
15
Chicago White Sox
35.4
$123 million ($3.47 million)

WAR

Wins above replacement

Combines various offensive and defensive metrics to project how many wins a player is worth to a team over the course of a season, compared with his potential replacement.

Chances of Winning the World Series

1
Chicago Cubs
18.7%
2
Los Angeles Dodgers
13.5
3
Boston Red Sox
9.6
4
Houston Astros
9.5
5
Cleveland Indians
8.0
Notes Payrolls estimated for 2016. All data as of February 29. sources FanGraphs, Baseball Reference (payroll)

How Key Players Add Value

The Glove

Addison Russell

Barely 21 when he was called up from the minors early last season, Russell proved so skilled on defense that he pushed stalwart shortstop Starlin Castro to second base—and ultimately made him expendable. According to the metric UZR, among players with at least 400 innings at the position, Russell was the best fielding shortstop in baseball last year—and a serious glove upgrade from Castro.

Defensive Rating (UZR/150)

At the plate, Russell struggled. But if he fulfills the hitting promise he showed in the minors, he could become the best player out of the Cubs’ extraordinary young core.

UZR

Ultimate zone rating

Measures how many runs a player saved with his defense, compared with an average fielder at his position. UZR/150 projects that total over 150 games—roughly a season.

The Ace

Jake Arrieta

Trading for Arrieta in 2013 bolstered the team’s pitching staff more than any other move. Not just because he turned out to be arguably the best pitcher in baseball last season, but also because the Cubs acquired him on the cheap. And for good reason: His last full season with the Orioles, in 2012, he racked up a hideous 6.20 earned run average and posted a dismal 3-9 record.

ERA (the lower the better)

But advanced statistics—specifically, strikeout rate (percentage of hitters he K’d) and WHIP—suggested an improving talent, the kind of risk a rebuilding team like the Cubs was wise to take. That bet, of course, paid off big.

Strikeout Rate (the higher the better)

WHIP (the lower the better)

WHIP

Walks plus hits per innings pitched

Measures a pitcher’s propensity for allowing runners to reach base, factoring out fielding errors. Calculated by adding walks and hits, then dividing by innings pitched.

The Complete Player

Jason Heyward

One of the Cubs’ few disappointments last season was Jorge Soler. Predicted to be a Rookie of the Year candidate, he hit a mere .262, with a .324 on-base percentage. Heyward, the prized off-season acquisition who will replace him in right field, represents a big upgrade. And not only at the plate, where he put up numbers of .293 and .359 in 2015. He’s a much better fielder and—as measured by BsR—baserunner.

The addition of Heyward also allows the Cubs to platoon Soler in left field with Kyle Schwarber, giving that slot in the batting order power from both sides of the plate.

BsR

Baserunning

Calculates the number of runs a player’s base–running skills produced for his team, compared with that of an average baserunner. It factors in such stats as stolen bases, advancing (or being thrown out) on batted balls, and grounding into double plays.

The Utility Man

Ben Zobrist

Manager Joe Maddon likes to move his players like chess pieces, which makes Zobrist, who was signed in the off-season and had played for Maddon in Tampa Bay, particularly valuable: Other than pitcher and catcher, he’s played every position.

Where Zobrist Has Played (number of games in his career)

Another reason he was a stellar pickup: He has one of the best batting eyes in baseball. Only six major-leaguers walked more than they struck out last year. Zobrist was one.

Walk-to-Strikeout Ratio

The Framer

Miguel Montero

Framing is the catcher’s subtle art of snagging a borderline pitch in such a way that it’s more likely to be called a strike. It’s about receiving the ball firmly, with minimal movement of the glove, arm, and body, so that it looks as if the catcher expected it there and thus the pitcher wanted it there—the defensive equivalent of projecting confidence. Few catchers are as skilled at this as Montero. Baseball Prospectus estimates that last year, with his framing, he saved 16 more runs than the average catcher. That’s fourth best in the majors. The chart below shows Montero’s effective strike zone in 2015 versus that of the Nationals’ Wilson Ramos, whose framing was close to the league average. Their zones are similar in size, but Montero was more effective with low balls, which, as the heat map below shows, are the most common.

Effective Strike Zone

sources FanGraphs, Pitch Info (Montero)

A Loaded Team

The Cubs have few weak spots, which makes them particularly formidable. In terms of WAR, all but two of the team’s starters rank in the top 10 in the majors at their respective positions. Even the no-name bullpen is among baseball’s best.

Infielders

Miguel Montero

Catcher
Age: 32
1.7 WAR
15th Rank at position

Anthony Rizzo

First Baseman
Age: 26
4.9 WAR
2nd Rank at position

Ben Zobrist

Second Baseman
Age: 34
3.1 WAR
4th Rank at position

Kris Bryant

Third Baseman
Age: 24
5.5 WAR
3rd Rank at position

Addison Russell

Shortstop
Age: 22
2.7 WAR
8th Rank at position

Outfielders

Kyle Schwarber

Left Fielder
Age: 23
2.5 WAR
5th Rank at position

Dexter Fowler

Center Fielder
Age: 30
1.8 WAR
20th Rank at position

Jason Heyward

Right Fielder
Age: 26
4.6 WAR
3rd Rank at position

Pitchers

Jake Arrieta

Pitcher 1
Age: 30
5.2 WAR
5th Rank at position

Jon Lester

Pitcher 2
Age: 32
4.7 WAR
3rd Rank at position

John Lackey

Pitcher 3
Age: 37
2.8 WAR
6th Rank at position

Kyle Hendricks

Pitcher 4
Age: 26
2.3 WAR
6th Rank at position

Jason Hammel

Pitcher 5
Age: 33
1.6 WAR
7th Rank at position

Bullpen

3.5 WAR (as a whole)
8th Rank at position
Sources FanGraphs, as of February 29

Meet the Geek Squad

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have upped the Cubs’ front office IQ in the past three years by hiring these stats-driven baseball analysts.

Christopher Moore

Director of Research and Development
The former contributor to the sabermetrics site Baseball Analysts has a doctorate in neuroscience from Princeton University.

Ryan Kruse

Systems Architect
The software engineer created BaseballMod.com, an open-source Web app for searching at-bat and pitch data.

Albert Lyu

Assistant Baseball Systems Developer
Most recently a business intelligence consultant at the Chicago analytics company Mattersight, he contributed to BaseballMod.com and FanGraphs.

Tom Tango

Consultant
One of the most famous saberists, Tango (a pseudonym; he keeps his identity secret) is best known for developing the pitcher performance metric FIP (fielding independent pitching).
Photos: Loaded Team: (SCHWARBER, RUSSELL, RIZZO, HAMMEL) NUCCIO DINUZZO/CHICAGO TRIBUNE; (BRYANT, HEYWARD, LESTER, HENDRICKS) BRIAN CASSELLA/CHICAGO TRIBUNE; (FOWLER, ZOBRIST, LACKEY) ARMANDO L. SANCHEZ/CHICAGO TRIBUNE; (ARRIETA) CHRIS SWEDA/CHICAGO TRIBUNE; (MONTERO) JOSE M. OSORIO/CHICAGO TRIBUNE; (WRIGLEY FIELD) Pages JOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGEs; Key Players (RUSSELL) ANTHONY SOUFFLE/CHICAGO TRIBUNE; (ARIETTA) NUCCIO DINUZZO/CHICAGO TRIBUNE; (HEYWARD, Zobrist) JOHN ANTONOFF, (MONTERO) CHRIS SWEDA/CHICAGO TRIBUNE

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