Photo: Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune
I had what I thought of as modestly high hopes for the Cubs this year, something along the lines of "wait 'til next year (in which they could break .500, which would be nice)." They did briefly pass the Brewers for not-last in the NL Central (until they lost four straight to fall half a game behind). They only have a slightly worse record than the Dodgers, who were actually supposed to be great this year. So, there's that.
Not exactly moral victories, but maybe moral-losses-in-overtime. Nonetheless, they're ten games below .500, which looks like a bad team. But maybe not; they could be a decent team that happens to lose a lot. The Sun-Times's Gordon Wittenmyer noticed something interesting the other day:
"Cubs: 36 more H, 30 more 2B, 6 more HR and slug% 39 points higher than opponents. And 3.65 ERA. But 5 fewer runs, 9 games under .500. …"
Translation: the Cubs are outhitting their opponents: more hits, more extra-base hits, more home runs, on top of a pretty good pitching staff (even in the absence of Matt Garza). But they're not outscoring them. Which is kind of weird.
Someone mentioned to Wittenmyer that he'd never seen a team "struggle in one run games like the 2013 Cubs"; Wittenmyer said that that's the sign of a bad team. But a bad team shouldn't be outhitting its opponents. A bad team is the Marlins, who are currently performing below replacement level at the plate (sadly, the Sox aren't much better).
And they're not even getting outscored by that much: an average of 0.2 runs a game. The Nationals and Phillies are getting outscored by 0.6 and 0.7 runs, and they're one game on each side of .500, respectively. The Cubs are slightly below average at the plate and slightly above average on the mound. Their Pythagorean win-loss record—an attempt to determine what a team's record would be if they had average luck—is 22-24. All the evidence points to them being a middling team, not a bad one.
Which raises the question: what?
At Fangraphs, the excellent baseball analyst Dave Cameron dives into the Cubs' mysterious underperformance. Which, oddly enough, makes them look even better still, using a stat called wOBA that takes everything positive that a batter can do (walk, get a single, get an extra base hit, walk, hit a sac fly, and so forth) and weights it by how valuable doing that thing is.
Not only is Wittenmeyer correct, his tweet actually undersells the point; the Cubs have the 11th best wOBA differential of any team in baseball. In terms of just counting and valuing the individual plays in a context neutral setting, the Cubs have performed better than the Orioles, Giants, Diamondbacks, and Yankees, among other teams who are off to much stronger starts from a win-loss perspective. The Cubs are the only team to have a higher wOBA than wOBA allowed and a losing record at the same time.
Wittenmyer and Cameron are saying the same thing: the Cubs are playing better than their opponents; Cameron is just demonstrating it more precisely.
What's wrong with them? Cameron puts it elegantly: "Their record is almost entirely a reflection of the power of the timing of various events." As he shows, the Cubs have been terrible in the clutch, much worse than any other team.
That the Cubs' record is merely a function of bad luck is probably not quite true. Carlos Marmol has pitched in half the team's games, even though he's not the pitcher he briefly was. The Cubs tried and failed to plug Kameron Loe into the bullpen after he was cut by the Mariners for being the worst pitcher in baseball (six home runs in six innings over four games). They've blown the third-most saves in baseball. Some of that is timing; some of it's other forms of bad luck (Fujikawa's injury); but some of it is just a bad bullpen.
The starting rotation is arguably a top-10 one; their bullpen has been one of the worst; and it's the bullpen that gets the clutch situations.
But the pen is getting better: Fujikawa's back, Kevin Gregg has been reliable, and the return of Garza puts the well-performing swingman Carlos Villanueva into relief. Their problems hitting in the clutch look more like actual, inexplicable bad luck, and if you believe in numbers instead of goats, their record should reflect their true performance soon.