That is the win/loss record for the Chicago Cubs for each of the 10 quarter-seasons since Theo Epstein’s regime took over (I put the last two games of each season in the final quarter, which is why those groups have 42 games). Nine quarters of bad, with the last two of those producing the worst records, and then suddenly an over-.500 quarter. It’s taken a while for anyone to notice the improvement.
This is probably because a .500 record just means the team stopped sinking. Staying at 10-14 games under doesn’t feel like progress, and the difference between horrific and average is almost imperceptible at the micro level. Consider this: the team achieved their record in the first quarter-season by going 2-4 in every 6 games (basically); they achieved their second-quarter record by going 3-3 in every 6 games. Do we really feel one extra win a week? A recent hot streak (7-3 in their last 10 after today) starts to make people notice that this team isn’t the same team that was giving away wins in the late innings and finding a way to be on the short side of every one-run game. What’s more, this isn’t the hopeless squads the Cubs trotted out in 2012 and 2013. So now that we’ve noticed, how is this happening?
The least impressive-sounding reason is that they’ve gotten luckier. That’s not cynicism, it’s an observation. A team’s success derives from many specific skills, but there are other ways that all teams are subject to random variation. Team records in extra-inning games and one-run games tend in this direction. Good teams can perform badly in these areas, and terrible teams can do well. Having a good, or bad, bullpen can tilt things a little, but these types of games are not much more than coin flips.
A few current examples illustrate the point:
Tampa Bay has the second worst record in the American League, but the second best AL record in one-run games.
San Diego is 9 games under .500, but at 8 over .500 in one-run games.
The worst extra inning records in the National League belong to the Dodgers and Nationals – both teams on pace to go to the playoffs.
During the first quarter of the season, the Cubs were 2-9 in one-run games. In the second quarter, they went 5-4. Did they get better? Well, the bullpen stabilized during that time, which might help, but it would also seem they reverted to the mean. Does that seem too simple? They also went 1-5 in extra-inning games in the first quarter, but 2-1 in the second quarter. These are all really small sample sizes, but that’s the point: given time, these numbers usually level out. The Cubs really weren’t as bad as their record in the first quarter – they just got few, if any, random breaks to go their way.
Another way to see this is in the team’s run differentials this season. A team’s job is to win games, and the way to win games is to score more runs than your opponent. During the first quarter the Cubs scored 159 runs, and allowed 167 runs. Pythagorean win calculators suggest that with those results the Cubs could have expected to have gone 19-21 during those games; they were actually 5 wins worse than that! So how did the next quarter go? 144 runs scored and150 runs allowed – which also produces an expected record of 19-21. Which is to say that the second-quarter Cubs were actually a little lucky, if not enough to compensate for their very unlucky first quarter. Even though the team’s win totals from one quarter to the next were very inconsistent, their actual performance at scoring runs and preventing runs was very consistent. This is where luck, or random variation, shows up. And since their horrible start, the Cubs luck has been evening out.
Another place of improvement for this year’s team is the starting pitching. Of course, since I starting writing this, the team traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel for the top prospects in Oakland’s farm system. For some Cub fans, this move will trigger an autonomic twitch and recollections of the last two seasons, when the pitching staff became completely uncompetitive after the most tradable starters were shipped off for prospects. Maybe I’ll write another post after this one telling you why I think this year won’t be quite so bad. But for now, let’s talk about the starting pitching up to this point.
Through July 4 (the day the Samardzija Era ended), the Cub starters were second in the Major Leagues in WAR, to only the Detroit Tigers:
1. Tigers: 9.7
2. Cubs: 9.0
3. Nationals: 8.6
They were also 12th in ERA, 2nd in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), and 8th in xFIP. If you prefer traditional stats, the starters have nearly posted a .500 record (28-31)!
When you look at the individual performances, it becomes evident that this wasn’t just Samardzija and Hammel carrying the others. Again using WAR from fangraphs.com, the Cub starting pitchers are currently ranked as follows among all of their MLB peers:
18. Jake Arrieta: 2.4 WAR
23. Jeff Samardzija: 2.1
26. Jason Hammel: 2.1
Let me stop here for a moment. Remember that there are 30 teams; even distribution of talent would put one pitcher from each team in the top 30. Instead, the Cubs have 3 such pitchers, which no other team can say (well, now that two of those pitchers are on the A’s, the A’s have that claim instead of the Cubs, but you see the point).
73. Travis Wood: 1.0 WAR
76. Edwin Jackson: 1.0 WAR
So, if you were doing a pitcher draft, 76 picks would mean you had gone through the league just over two and a half times. However, all 5 Cub starters – even Edwin Jackson, who drives most Cub fans crazy – are in the top 76 starters this year. We have no way yet of knowing how the new pitchers in the rotation will do, but we know that the 3 pitchers who remain are not worse than what most teams throw out there. They are, in fact, better. While everyone was complaining that the Cubs haven’t been drafting stud pitchers, and that the Cubs keep trading away their pitchers for prospects, the Cubs have been quietly keeping pitchers who fit with their plans (again, a topic for another post). For the first time since the Epstein regime began, there is depth in the AAA rotation, with both organizational soldiers and prospects. So fear not, Cub fan. This year probably won’t look like the last two.
The final reason I want to suggest to you for why this team is better than the teams that have been haunting your dreams in recent years is that the bullpen is better, deeper, and more flexible. Of course, at the start of the year, the pen performed terribly, as pitchers like Jose Veras, James Russell, and Brian Schlitter looked like the same kind of dreck that the team trotted out last year. But then, pitchers started arriving from Iowa and other parts unknown – 12 different pitchers threw relief innings just in the month of April, as the brain trust tried to figure out who they could trust and who they couldn’t. 5 of those pitchers put up negative WAR, and 3 more put up 0 WAR. But in May, things got a little better: 11 pitchers again, but only one had negative WAR (James Russell, with -0.1), and 6 gave positive contributions. And in June, only 8 pitchers, with only one negative (Justin Grimm, -0.3).
Notice the three ways I said the pen was improved:
Better: This year’s bullpen has accumulated 1.6 WAR so far, compared to -0.2 WAR for the bullpen in the first half of 2013.
Deeper: 7 different pitchers have made positive contributions this year, and only one pitcher has been given meaningful innings while posting negative WAR (Justin Grimm, -0.1). Last year in the first half, there were actually 8 pitchers who made positive contributions, but three of the 5 highest inning pitchers were significantly negative (Hector Rondon, Carlos Marmol, Shawn Camp); in fact, those three had -2.0 WAR, which wiped out the 2.0 WAR put up by the 8 positive pitchers.
More Flexible: The failures of Rondon, Marmol, and Camp last year overwhelmed the rest of the pen, and management kept sending them out for more abuse. This year, Ricky Renteria has moved far more quickly to shuttle out those who are struggling and give opportunities to new players. 8 relievers have logged 20 IP or more, and only Justin Grimm among them hasn’t righted the ship in some measure. Compare that to last year, when 5 relievers shouldered most of the load for the first half, including the three busts we’ve mentioned. This year, Jose Veras was given an opportunity, DLed to work out his problems, and then given another chance. When he couldn’t figure things out, he was cut loose. This more rapid response to poor pitching, and willingness to give significant innings to newcomers, has been a strength of this year’s team.
I’ve not said anything about the offense, and that’s because this team is better this year in spite of the offense, not because of it. It is true that Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro have returned to form and taken big steps forward, but only Luis Valbuena is helping them regularly. The offense is still waiting for the cavalry to arrive from Iowa and West Tenn. But the evidence of a real plan on the pitching side of the game is the earliest reason to start to hope that the team has started to turn the corner toward success.