Listening to the Cubs on WSCR was once a nightly ritual for me, along with drinking a can of Old Style. I gave up on the Cubs during the team’s 11-game losing streak earlier this summer (although I continue to drink Old Style). It was too dismaying, especially when they lost to the Brewers. As the smaller of two Lake Michigan metropolises with Algonquin names, Milwaukee should never be able to claim superiority over Chicago in anything.
I started listening to the Cubs again last weekend, just to hear how bad the post-purge team is. At first, they sounded promising. On Saturday, against the Marlins, the Cubs were on the brink of breaking their latest losing streak. In the top of the 8th inning, some guy I’d never heard of (Frank Schwindel) hit a three-run double, putting the Cubs up 4-3. Then, in the bottom of the 8th, another guy I’d never heard of (Sergio Alcantara) committed two errors at shortstop, allowing the Marlins to take a 5-4 lead.
“That’s… not what you want to see,” announcer Pat Hughes remarked. Hughes works for the Cubs, so understatement is the only way to express his dismay at the horrors he’s been witnessing on the diamond.
On paper, the 2021 Cubs will not go down in history as one of the worst teams in baseball history. Even if they lose all 41 of their remaining games, they would finish with a record of 52-110. That’s not as bad as the 2003 Tigers (43-119), the 1962 Mets (40-120), or the 2018 Orioles (47-115). Fangraphs projects them to go 17-24 the rest of the way, a .409 winning percentage, to finish at 63-93.
Even that would be a remarkable collapse for a team tied for first place in the National League Central as late as June 24. But those were the Cubs of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Craig Kimbrel. The Cubs of August—the Cubs of Alcantara, Michael Rucker, Matt Duffy, Ryan Meisinger, and a bunch of other spare parts who started this season in the minor leagues, and will probably be headed back there, if they don’t end up in the Korean Baseball Organization—may, in fact, be the worst team ever fielded by a major league franchise.
One of the beauties of baseball is that if you can’t find a statistic to back up an assertion, you can always invent one. Here’s what makes me think these Cubs are the worst ever. Since the July 30 trade deadline, the Cubs have been outscored 126-63. In those 15 games, the Cubs have generated 33.5 percent of the total runs, during which time the Cubs are 2-14. None of the abovementioned losers even approached that level of incompetence at the basic functions of a baseball team: scoring runs and preventing them. The Tigers scored 39 percent of the runs in their games, the Mets 39 percent, and the Orioles 41 percent. I had to go all the way back to 1899 to find a team outscored as badly as the current Cubs: the legendary 20-134 Cleveland Spiders, who recorded a deficit of 1252-529, for a 29.7 percentage.
The pitching staff’s Earned Run Average since the trade deadline is 7.79. That’s more than a run higher than the all-time record of 6.71 set by the 1930 Philadelphia Phillies, and nearly a run-and-a-half higher than the second worst, the 1996 Detroit Tigers, at 6.38.
The historically bad team these Cubs most resemble is the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, a squad Sports Illustrated called “the worst team in the history of major U.S. pro sports.” The Athletics went from the World Series to a 36-117 record in just two seasons, after owner/manager Connie Mack got rid of five future Hall of Famers—Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, Home Run Baker, Herb Pennock and Eddie Collins. Attendance was down at Shibe Park, and the newly-formed Federal League was offering big salaries, so Mack could no longer afford to pay his superstars. (Even the losers who replaced them did better than the current Cubs, scoring 36.5 percent of the runs in their games.)
In the words of SI’s Jon Wertheim, “Mack trafficked in the let-’em-down-easy talk that will ring familiar to sports fans a century later. In order for the franchise to move forward, it’s time to embrace a youth movement…. It would be fiscally irresponsible for us to match your competing offers…. It isn’t personal; it’s just business. Mack offered a familiar trope to the media and the A’s fans too, reassuring them that the team was building for the future, that any short-term pain would be to the long-term benefit of the franchise.”
That sounds a lot like what Cubs owner Tom Ricketts told his fans after the team’s 2021 fire sale: “[W]e are building a new championship team and the fact is everything that happened last week really has accelerated that process.”
It took Mack a dozen years to fulfill his promise. From 1929 to 1931, the Athletics won three straight pennants, with Hall of Famers Lefty Grove, Mickey Cochrane and Jimmie Foxx beating out the Yankees of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig every time. They won two consecutive World Series, one at the expense of the Cubs. We can only hope such a mini-dynasty is in the Cubs’ future. In the meantime, anyone who jumped on the Cubs’ bandwagon in 2016 had better be prepared to suffer as much as Cub fans suffered in the century before that World Series championship. Or more.
If you can stand to listen, Pat Hughes is trying to put the best spin on this rebuilding summer. On Monday night, he awarded left fielder Patrick Wisdom the “Catch of the Day” for chasing down a flyball to end an 8-run seventh inning by the Reds, which led to a 14-5 defeat—their 12th in a row, surpassing the losing streak that initiated this fiasco. (All the relief pitchers in that game— Rucker, Meisinger, Dan Winkler, and Jake Jewell—have a negative Wins Above Replacement rating this season per Baseball Reference. Most were in Iowa before the trade deadline, and weren’t prepared to take the places of the real major leaguers the Cubs dealt away.)
“Nice to see guys playing hard no matter what the scoreboard says,” Hughes attaboy’d the losing team whose fortunes he is contractually obligated to narrate.
That’s the saddest thing about these Cubs. No matter how hard they play, they still can’t win.