The Cubs's rebuilding project is unquestionably ahead of pace, but early on this season, baseball observers gave the team a chance to make the playoffs. Two ESPN experts picked them to get there, one as division winners, the other as a wild-card team. Two of Grantland's experts did as well, both as a wild-card team. So did two of CBS's experts. And two of Sports Illustrated's experts.
If there's a consensus, it was something like this: The Cardinals would be the best team in the NL Central, the Pirates close behind, and the Cubs would be good enough to have an outside shot at squeaking in. Which is exactly what happened—except for the part where the Cubs had both the third-best record in baseball and in the division.
But the Cubs right now are a different team than the Cubs that started the year. It took a couple weeks for Kris Bryant to get promoted. Addison Russell came up in late April, and while he hasn't hit the cover off the ball—he doesn't get on base a lot, but he's got good pop—he's been a plus defender and given the team more flexibility in the infield. Kyle Schwarber wasn't promoted until June, and didn't stick until July. Jake Arietta was a promising reclamation project coming off a very good 156 innings in 2014, instead of the arguably the best pitcher in baseball after arguably the best half-season ever. (Arietta generates a lot of ground balls, fifth highest among qualified pitchers; Jon Lester is 27th out of 78. So the promotion of a slick fielder like Russell had to have helped both.)
So this is a much better team than the one that started the 2015 season. And they're playing like it. Consider:
- In the first half, the Cubs went 47-40, good for the the ninth best record in baseball. In the second half, they went 50-25, the second-best record in baseball, with a .667 winning percentage—just slightly behind the Blue Jays' .676 winning percentage.
- In the second half, Cubs' pitchers put up 11.7 wins over replacement by Fangraphs' numbers—almost two wins better than the second-place team.
- In the first half, Cubs' batters put up 9.9 WAR, good for 12th in the majors, but only scored the 23rd most runs, which is ultimately the point. In the second half, they put up 15.5 WAR, third-best in baseball, and scored the sixth-most runs in the majors. WAR includes fielding—and the Cubs tied for first with the Giants by that measure.
- In the past 30 days, the Cubs were the only team to lose fewer than 11 games—they're 21-8 during that stretch. Their pitchers have the lowest ERA, the second-highest strikeout rate, and the lowest walk rate in baseball in the past month, and have given up the fewest home runs. As Rian Watt points out, they've been even better over the past week. On offense, they've scored the sixth-most runs in baseball in the past month.
- Combine an astonishing run of pitching and a top-10 offense, and you get the best run differential in the past 30 days: The Cubs have outscored their opponents by 52 runs. That's more than twice the Pirates' run differential; the Cardinals have been outscored by 14 runs.
How much will that matter in the playoffs? It's hard to say. The Cubs have possibly the best pitcher in baseball, and are 11-8 against the Pirates this year. If they can survive the unpredictable play-in game this Wednesday, they'll face an injury-riddled Cardinals team that performed worse than either the Cubs or the Pirates in the second half and was a mere .500 team over the past month. They finished as a 100-win team nonetheless, but on a run of astonishing luck that seems unsustainable.
If the Cubs did manage to get past their division rivals, they could, in some ways, face a greater challenge in the Dodgers. By ESPN's Cy Young predictor, Jake Arietta leads the National League, but the second- and third-most likely winners are the Dodgers' top two starters, Clayton Kershaw (who has better peripherals and leads Arietta in WAR) and Zack Greinke (who has an even lower ERA than Arietta, somehow). Gerrit Cole, who they'll face in the wild-card play-in, is fourth.
The Cubs may be the second wild-card team in the National League, but they've been the best team in the National League since settling on their current roster. That hardly predicts the outcome of one game, much less the rest of the playoffs; second-half winning percentage and a team's performance during the stretch run aren't, in and of themselves, predictive of playoff success. But the rebuilding franchise that entered 2015 with an outside chance at reaching the playoffs is now a much, much better team. No matter what happens on Wednesday and beyond, that's what they'll be going into 2016 with.