Yes They Can
Newsflash: The Cubs are playing terrible right now. But it just doesn't comport with the facts of this team in my eyes. I don't get it. Why are they losing?
Mostly, it's just bad luck. I know that seems like hyperbole but let's look at some basic information on the Cubs.
The Cubs, coming into today's game, were tied for 5th in the NL in runs scored but 7th in the NL in runs scored per game just above league average.
The pitching looks much worse as the Cubs came into today's game 11th in ERA. The runs scored/runs allowed results in a pythagorean won loss record of 17-19, 2 games better than the 15-21 record they had coming into today's game.
So they should be 2 games better just assuming the runs scored/runs allowed were fairer but even that isn't fair. The Cubs should have scored slightly more runs and should have allowed a ton less. They should be challenging the Cardinals right now.
The Cubs are 5th in the NL in wOBA and haven't been especially lucky offensively. They have a decent K rate, a decent walk rate and above average isolated power. Linear weights suggest they should have scored 181 runs this year, not 167.
To make matters worse, the Cubs are second in the NL in xFIP! Only the Padres are barely better. That is partly a sign that the Cubs defense is worse than expected but it's also a sign that they have been very very unlucky. The Cubs actual record this year should be closer to 22-14, not 15-21. Taking away 2 games for defense (which is probably too many) they still come into today's game at 20-16. Can you imagine how much different the tone would be on this site if the Cubs were actually doing that?
Now, two very annoying facts make all this data less relevant. The first is that the Cubs have buried themselves in a hole so deep that even if they played at this level the rest of the year, they probably wouldn't make the playoffs. The second is that they put up that record against less than stellar opposition. Still, it's a sign that things aren't completely what they seem.
If the Cubs were to play 20-16 baseball (.556) the rest of the season, they would get to 85 wins. That might make them a contender for the NL wildcard. I thought they might be through but maybe not. They need to start showing results that live up to their peripherals but it's the underlying numbers that suggest many have given up a little too early here.
The Cubs are in first! How lovely.
Considering the astounding number of talking heads and idiot columnists in the sports world these days, I'm kinda surprised no one wrote about this a few days back. The Cubs' sweep of the Reds was not an earth-shattering result, and did anyone really expect the Cardinals to beat the Phillies at home?
As a result, we get to have that, "If the season ended right now..." conversation as many times as we'd like today. Of course, we've still got more than one-third left of the season to play out before anything's decided. With that, I thought I'd take a look at both teams' upcoming schedules, to get a gauge on what's reasonable to expect going forward.
The Cubs and Cards each close out the month of July with a four-gamer. Both teams are at home, but the quality of their opponents isn't quite equal.
The Cubs take on the Astros, a team that has somehow played its way into third place in the NL Central. It's true that the offense has some pretty huge holes in it throughout the line-up. However, as you'll see in the upcoming Series Preview, the Cubs have a couple of tough pitching match-ups ahead of them. Neither of the first two games (Z vs. Wandy, Demp vs. Oswalt) will be easy wins by any means. If the Cubs drop both, they'll need Randy Wells and Kevin Hart to pitch well against Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz to salvage a series split.
At the same time, it doesn't look like the Cardinals will have much of an advantage in any of their match-ups, either. Their series probables are: Wolf vs. Carpenter, Billingsley vs. Wainwright, Kershaw vs. somebody (TBA), and Kuroda vs. Lohse. If Carp and Wainwright go nuts, the Cards might get lucky with Lohse and take three of four. More likely, they'll split, or worse.
It'll be important for the Cubs to pick up a game on their way into August, because it'll be a tough month to try to stay in the lead.
Generally, there's the issue of opponents' winning percentage. The Cards take on teams with a collective .449 winning percentage, while the Cubs take on a schedule with a .490 percentage.
There are a few key series that explain the difference in strength of schedule. The Cardinals have arguably one tough series, a three-gamer at Los Angeles. In contrast, the Cubs have three difficult series in August: four games of their own at Dodger Stadium, playing host for three games to the Phillies, and four games in Colorado against a surprisingly spunky Rockies team.
Pitching match-ups and reinforcements from the disabled list will hopefully give the Cubs the extra oomph they need to carry the division lead into September. In the meantime, it'll be important to take advantage of this next series, to try to get some breathing room before heading into August.
I’ve actually been thinking about this topic for about two weeks, and to be honest it would have probably been slightly more appropriate before the recent stretch of divine intervention, but I digress…
The 2008 Cubs were the best Cubs team I’ve ever seen. (Considering the amount of bickering that has been going on recently I’m sure this will be debated, but statistically speaking and seemingly intangibly speaking, they were one of the best.) They could beat any team and no matter the defecit, they were in every game. Almost straight through from April to September, the 2008 Cubs ran in to few glaring issues that ever threatened their chances of winning the division and they ended up clinching a week before the end of the season. That’s when the fun ended.
From one of the greatest offenses in club history to one of the biggest eggs laid in playoff history, that team took a nose dive. But that didn’t even seem to be the worst part. Nor was the worst part that they were so dominant all year and were being discussed as the easy National League representative in the World Series. The worst part wasn’t that pretty much the entire team, with a few notable exceptions, was expected to come back in 2009. The worst part wasn’t even the fact that I had accepted that we sh*t our pants in the playoffs, not even that mattered.
No, the worst part was that I was convinced that no matter how good the 2009 Cubs were, the entire season would just be one giant pressure cooker set to implode in October. I was sure that from April through September it wouldn’t matter how big our lead was, or how dominant our run differential was. The only thing that would matter would be 3 games in October.
Think about it this way: on June 22, 2008 the Cubs were 20 games over .500, had a 4.5 game lead and a +112 run differential! That team was unstoppable. I truly felt in my heart that last year was going to be the year. As we all know, it wasn’t.
Exactly 1 year later we are 3 games over .500 and only 2.5 out of first place. Oh, and our run differential? +12. Exactly 100 runs less than where we were last year at this time. That’s not going to last. This team is virtually the same lineup. They will hit. And the playoffs? No one’s talking about the playoffs; no one is saying this is a lost season unless we get out of the first round. All of the pressure right now is on having a successful season and making the first round. You could even almost make the argument that stumbling and sputtering through the first 2/5ths of the season could be the best thing to happen to this year's team. Now the pressure isn't about “Yeah, you’re winning, but what about in October? What you’re doing now doesn’t matter until you win a game in October.” The pressure is about now. It’s about a division race in the middle of the summer. Something the 0-for-October team from last year didn’t have to deal with.
I'm not being naive, either. This team is by no means perfect and currently has plenty of holes. They’ve frustrated and infuriated me all season, but this division is still there for the taking. They are the best team in the division, and I don’t think many would disagree that even in third place it is still theirs to lose. The two teams ahead of us whom we beat by 7.5 and 11 games last year? They got worse.
Look, (imagine Uncle Lou here) the point is there’s nothing wrong with a little adversity as long as you learn something from it. At this exact point last year The World Champion Phillies were coming off a 5 game losing streak (in the midst of a 1-7 stretch), only 7 games over .500 and a 1 game lead in the division. I bet anything they’d say the adversity and challenges they fought through the entire season are what propelled them to be the last team standing at the finish line. Let’s keep this in perspective. It couldn’t hurt. Go Cubs.
The wonderful thing about blogging -- all your words are as immortal as your domain registration and hosting contract. That means that in the years GROTA has been around, we've said plenty of really stupid things that time proved us to be totally wrong about.
For example - I was wrong about Mark DeRosa.
When the Cubs let DeRosa go for some young pitching that very well prove me right in the end about the DeRo deal, I said it was no big thang. After all, the Cubs had a tremendous hitter in Mike Fontenot who could bat lefty and would probably put up numbers equal-to or better-than the '09 DeRosa.
I said DeRo would revert. He'd had a career year in 2008 and, at his age, career years don't get duplicated.
I said that Fontenot was a better defensive second baseman. (Actually, this one still might be true, he hasn't gotten to play there a whole lot.) And with the addition of the versatile backup Aaron Miles, DeRosa's ability to play multiple positions would not be missed.
Hell, it's June 22nd. We're well on our way through the 2009 season. And the evidence to the contrary about my bold opinions is staggering.
Mike Fontenot is not cutting it as a starter. Actually, the amount of doubles and homers he's on pace to hit are fine and dandy. The problem is his .230 AVG. Strike that, the problem is his .121 AVG against lefties. At the very least, Fontenot needs somebody to spell him against south-paws. Even Aaron Miles would be acceptable -- BAM! is batting .259 against lefty pitching, which is better than the next-to-nothing that Lil' Mike is delivering.
Then again, DeRosa is a near-.280 hitter so far this year, on pace to hit 31 homers, drive in 118 RBI, and post an OPS of .819. And he is killing lefties.
On a team starving for offense there is no denying that the Cubs would've been better off with DeRosa on the roster. So, big-time screw-up for Hendry, and admission of being wrong from me. But before you get on my case too much about it, be honest about how fast you gave up on Derrek Lee -- many were sticking forks in him back in October 2008.
Now, lately one of our writers has taken a significant amount of flack -- even from some of our other writers -- for being harsh on the players on this team. He said Lee was toast about a month ago, he's called Soto fat and lacking ambition, he's declared to be embarrassed for ever having advocated Fukudome, and so-on. Well, Rob, I'm callin' you out.
At one point this season, Lee was batting .194 with 3 homeruns and 15 RBI. (That was on May 13th, by the way). In just over a month since then, Lee has been batting .374 with 8 homeruns and 20 RBI. The point being that, in baseball, nobody's done until after they've taken their last at bat.
As for Soto, this has been a strong point of disagreement between Rob and the rest of us. He thinks Geo grew fat on his laurels. I don't know for sure that he gained weight over the winter, but I do know that he started the year with a sore shoulder and a screwed-up swing. At his low point, April 30th, Soto was batting .109 with 0 homers and only 2 RBI. Since then, he's hitting .264 but more importantly with 5 homers and 17 RBI. Geo's not out of the woods but he is definitely, undeniably hitting the ball better.
Fukudome, on the other hand ... eh, it's hard to say. After starting the year with a .338 AVG in April, Kosuke batted .277 in May with only 1 homer and 5 RBI and is batting .180 in June, even after Saturday's 4-hit assault. I'm prepared to give this one to Rob, but not until we see where Fukudome is by mid July.
Oh -- and Milton Bradley. I don't recall that Rob has given Bradley too much flack for his crappy 2009 season, but I just wanted to note to everybody that Don't Wake was batting .097 on April 29th. Since then, he batted .268 with 3 homers and 12 RBI in May and is batting .286 but with only 2 extra base hits in all of June. Still -- he's improving.
The point is that nobody really knows. We can guess, we can trust our gut, we can follow projections and detailed statistics, but until the games are played we're just rolling dice and making bold declarations that we hope nobody will bother to remember.
What I will say is that the difference between a good team and a bad one appears to occur in inches. The Cubs team we've followed through the start of June was indescribably awful. They failed to get big hits, they couldn't win close games, they surrendered late leads, and on a whole they were just painful to watch.
Probably they are still that team, at least a little. But with the Questionable Quartet coming around, we suddenly have a team getting huge hits late in games, often coming from behind to win on their last at bat, with a bullpen that still appears to be shaking off the cobwebs but has been able to hold down small leads. It's the same team, the same personnel, and suddenly they don't look like they're going to lose 90 -- instead they appear as if they just might win that many games.
All I can say then, to Rob and many others, is that this to me is proof that nothing can be assumed or taken for granted. We live in a Cubbie Bubble where we see the worst and assume it doesn't happen to any other team -- or maybe we assume it means more because these are the Cubs, for gawd's sake. But I wrote a while back about the Superlative Season in which if we aren't rewarded with a perfect year of baseball we think the team has no chance at all of winning imperfectly.
On the contrary, I still think the Cubs are playoff bound. I still think it will happen in spite of the managing. I still think this team is immensely talented. And I absolutely believe that in October, this team -- already so beset by adversity -- will be prepared to shrug off at least some of the pressure they will feel to win it all. At this point their talent will almost certainly be bigger than their wins total, and in October talent wins out.
Of that I am certainly not wrong.
Why We're Here
As mentioned on Friday - and expounded upon later by Rob - Wayne Drehs recently wrote a response column to a Bill Simmons article which itself was lamenting the devaluation of a Red Sox championship through the cheating ways of Manny Ramirez. (Phew, that was a long sentence.) In other words, this article is a continuation of Rob's response to Wayne's take on Bill's opinion about the Red Sox's title as impacted by Manny's cheating. Lots of effect, single cause.
I wrote a brief response in the comments section of Wayne's article which I will expand upon now.
What would I sacrifice for a Cubs championship? For starters...
Years ago a very standard opinion was that Wrigley Field was holding the Cubs back. The park was too small to hold enough people to spend enough money to build a winner. The day games took too much of a toll for the players to remain at a level necessary to win in the playoffs.
Since I first heard that argument, the Cubs have slowly begun to increase the number of night games at Wrigley while jacking up ticket prices and selling more than three million seats on a yearly basis - all things nobody anticipated. So when this debate appears nowadays I take it to be more of a commentary about how Cub fans were conditioned to love Wrigley Field more than the team itself. Anybody who would actually choose Wrigley over winning isn't a Cub fan but instead is a fan of a beautiful ballpark. These people should buy and wear Wrigley Field jerseys, not Cub jerseys. But I'm in it for the team. I don't care what happens to Wrigley; they can rename it, they can spray paint Sears ads into the ivy, it doesn't matter to me.
Not to mention that if I knew with absolute certainty that a Wrigleyless Cubs would win the World Series I'd volunteer to blow it up myself. But since we can never be certain of anything, then the question of Wrigley becomes one of income and that feeds into the second part of this article.
How much money?
One reason to keep Wrigley Field around is this simple truth: Wrigley without a competitive Cubs team is still worth two million seats a year. Wrigley with a competitive Cubs team is worth more than three million, regardless of the cost of the tickets. Based on the rabid fanbase and the relative unavailability of seats, the Chicago Cubs could -- and should! -- sell the most expensive tickets in baseball. As a relatively poor Cub fan who has to spend hundreds upon hundreds of dollars to go to just one game a year, the actual physical cost of a ticket means nothing to me.
With that in mind, so long as they consistently put the majority of that money into the team -- giving the Cubs one of the most expensive payrolls in the game -- then I don't care what they charge for tickets. $50 for bleachers? No problem. $1,000 for behind home plate? Sounds like a party! So while I wouldn't care if the Cubs bulldozed Wrigley Field for a new ballpark with all the modern conveniences, I have come to believe that they are more likely to win in Wrigley than anywhere else because -- for good or bad -- the ballpark is part of the attraction and that makes it a valuable tool in getting money to build a winner.
And anybody who argues that the organization has less incentive to build a winner because the ballpark is the attraction is nuts. I wouldn't need complex flow charts and statistical analysis to tell you that a Cubs World Championship would be hugely, immensely profitable for the team owner. As much cash as the Cubs generate now, it'll be even bigger and better once they win. Guaranteed.
Cheat to win? Isn't that sort of the point?
Poor Bill Simmons. He's not sure how he'll be able to look his son in the eye someday. A perfect season has been soiled for him. His heroes are apparently the first team to ever win a World Championship by cheating! Gasp!
I am extremely fond of pointing out that probably the vast majority of baseball players have been consuming greenies since the time of the Korean War. There are legends enshrined in Cooperstown who got there because they threw nasty spit balls and were exceptionally good at hiding nails and sandpaper in their gloves. Managers and players have actually spent real money on hiring people to put jinxes on their opponents. In baseball they actually have a statistic to measure a person's success at stealing - and if you're a really good base thief you'll probably get into the Hall of Fame!
I will not only be totally unsurprised if the Cubs cheat to win, I actually expect it. If they don't have a guy in the scoreboard with binoculars and a transmitter along with another guy in the dugout with an ear piece then I will be shocked and disappointed. You will never be able to show me with absolute certainty a team that won without cheating, it doesn't matter the sport or the level.
But let's take it a step further. What if, the day after the Cubs win the World Series, the FBI catches half the team in an alleyway buying steroids and HGH from a dealer?
Well, I'd be pissed off at their stupidity for getting caught, but I'd be relieved that it didn't happen until after they won. And cheat or not they'd still be winners.
Obviously it's not possible to erase the Jordan years, or to remove from history the '85 Bears. Obviously we can't change history. But if the Cubs actually win a World Series then Cub fans would be losing connection to a huge part of our shared history and a very big part of our identities.
After all, we are known far-and-wide for our pain, heartbreak, and suffering. The Cubs are well known for their history of being lovable losers. It's as much a part of their identity as is Wrigley Field -- and one of the most annoying phrases in my vernacular. But if the Cubs won, all of that would change.
It'd be like you looking back on when you were 12 and remembering how exactly it felt to be tortured by an older brother, teased by a girl in school, and forced into pointless labor by a distant father. No matter how hard you try you probably won't be able to capture that exact feeling of righteous frustration. Once the Cubs are winners -- and especially as the years go by -- we will lose connection with how it felt when they were hard-luck losers.
So yes. It is possible to sacrifice history in the name of winning. And since I am not exactly proud of the Cubs' history of losing I am perfectly content with that. I can't wait for it to happen.
Of course it would be entirely fitting for the Cubs to follow this course -- keep Wrigley, charge an arm and a leg, and win at all costs -- only to win in unusual and unexpected circumstances.
In other words, once the Ricketts Family steps in and begins to direct this team, watch what will happen. The year Wrigley is shut down to be renovated -- in other words, the year the Cubs play in US Cellular -- that will be when they win it all.
And even that would be perfectly okay with me. Anything for a title.
It's that time of year again. Last year - as you may recall - we predicted that the Cubs would win 120 games. Mostly we did that for the humor. This year, though, we've all grown up a bit and have come to the conclusion that it's better to be realistic than ridiculous. And so, with no fanfare or surprise, Goat Riders of the Apocalypse is unveiling the new model of the Carlos Zambran-0-Meter; and this one goes to 110.
- 97 wins. That's what the Cubs had last year to the surprise of pretty much everybody - even the people who expected them to win the division. They easily won the NL Central despite the Brewers acquisition of the single most dominating starting pitcher in baseball last year (sorry, Cy Young winners, Sabathia was better). And what's the difference between 2008 and 2009? Simple - Sabathia is gone. So is Sheets.
Meanwhile, as we can see visibly how the Brewers have gotten worse, we can also see how the Cubs have gotten better. Milton Bradley is a Cub and he brings with him monstrous production. Mark DeRosa is gone and while it's a scary thing to some fans, Mike Fontenot brings a better balance to the Cubs lineup and can produce just as well. Not to mention there's the addition through subtraction. Jason Marquis and the butt-clenching terror that his pitching causes us is long gone. Bob Howry and his tendency to serve 7th inning batting practice to the opposition is a thing of the past.
In other words, the Cubs are actually a better team, at least on paper. Look closely at the other teams in the NL Central. Can you honestly say that any of them are better than they were last year? Really? If the Cubs were good enough to win 97 last year, and to enter the playoffs with a 7 game lead over the second place team, then they're good for way, way more than that in 2009. Book it. Done.
- The Dusty Purge is Complete. Go check the box score from yesterday's game. The Cubs drew 9 walks en route to their defeat of the Rockies. The game before that, they walked 10 times. That's 19 walks in 2 frickin' games! Dusty Baker is spinning in his grave and he's not even dead!
Do you know how amazing it is that the Cubs are a patient team with solid fundamentals? It only took a few years, but they are now a team more resembling the Yankees than the Barnum&Bailey's. Imagine the 2004 Cubs and all their potential had they been directed by Lou Piniella and his staff of qualified coaches. It's insanely depressing because they would have won the friggin' World Series FIVE YEARS AGO!!!
I ask you, how can the Cubs not win 110? How can they not blast their way through the World Series? They're practically a team of destiny!
- Three Times is the Charm. Okay, fantastic. I've convinced you the Cubs can actually win 110. (What, you're not convinced? Just work with me here, okay?) History has shown that while there are teams out there that remain hard luck losers no matter how well they play, the odds are in the favor of the Cubs. I'd even dare say they are in overwhelming favor of them.
After all, statistically speaking, the more something has the chance to occur, the more likely it is that it will occur. If a team plays a sport for, say, 100 years, and there are only between 20 and 30 teams playing that sport, then the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of everybody winning at least once. And more to the point, if a team reaches the playoffs consistently - and we all agree that actually winning in the playoffs is a total crapshoot - then the odds are in favor of them winning in the playoffs! It's a mathematical pseudo-certainty!
- Jim Hendry's Got the Horses. Imagine that it's June. The Cubs are playing well, but so are the Cardinals who've just acquired, oh, I dunno, Roy Halladay from the Jays for about half their minor league system. Jim Hendry will retaliate. Jim Hendry will improve the team if it means an improved likelihood of winning.
Maybe that improvement will be Jake Peavy. Maybe it'll be somebody else. Either way, the Cubs aren't afraid to get better -- and odds are, they will.
I say to you again. The Cubs will win, and win big in 2009. If they aren't the favorites to win the NLCS then there isn't a favorite to win the NLCS. They are a team with the experience, the balance, and the drive to go all the way. And so I say to you, without a shred of reluctance or doubt ... this is the year. Enjoy it if you're a Cub fan, and despair if you're not. This is the year. Yes They Can.