Does it count as a one-and-done if you also play a Game 163? Either way, the end of the season for the Chicago Cubs was a major disappointment. The Cubs lost out on the National League Central Division in the tiebreaking game against the Milwaukee Brewers and then lost the NL Wild Card Game to the Colorado Rockies.
There is something to be said about the MLB playoff format and how a team with 95 wins, or, in the case of the Yankees and Athletics 100 wins and 97 wins, respectively, is only guaranteed one playoff game. The Cubs won more games than any NL division champion…except the Brewers. And that was that. The Cubs played 163 regular season games to last one playoff game.
Let’s be honest. It was kind of amazing that the Cubs won 95 games. Jon Lester spent the entire season teetering on the brink of regression. Jose Quintana had the lowest FanGraphs WAR mark of his career. Yu Darvish made eight uninspiring starts. Tyler Chatwood looked like a sunken cost already in the first year of his three-year, $38 million deal.
Sure, Javier Baez had a career year at the dish at the right time and Ben Zobrist bounced back in a big way, but Kris Bryant went from a .399 wOBA and a 146 wRC+ to a .359 wOBA and a 125 wRC+ while playing only 102 games. Anthony Rizzo dropped from a .380 wOBA and a 134 wRC+ to a .359 wOBA and a 125 wRC+. Willson Contreras went from a 122 wRC+ to being exactly league average with a 100 wRC+.
That’s the scary part about projecting the Cubs. They won 95 games and a bunch of things went wrong. On the other hand, a lot went right. Cole Hamels was outstanding in his 12 starts and he is still under contract this season. Kyle Hendricks had a terrific second half. Mike Montgomery proved to be an extremely valuable swingman.
The down year, at least by Bryant’s standards, saved the Cubs some coin in arbitration, as Bryant went from an arbitration record at $10.85 million to a second-year contract of just $12.9 million. Not that money is an issue for the Cubs or most MLB teams, but that’s some money that could be used at the Trade Deadline. Then again, according to ownership in February, money is an issue.
The reason why this intro is different from some of the others is that the Cubs don’t have some dramatic story to tell. They finished within one game of their Pythagorean Win-Loss record. They did overachieve a little bit per BaseRuns. They were 26-25 in one-run games and padded their record against bad teams.
We go into this season knowing that the Cubs will be a solid team. How good the Cubs will be is the primary question that we have to answer. This is a team with the talent to make an October run, but the division is a bear and the pitching staff could have some rather big bumps in the road.
Season Win Total Odds
2018 Standings Data
Actual Record: 95-68
Run Differential: +116
Pythagorean W/L: 94-69
BaseRuns Record: 91-72
BaseRuns Run Differential: +90 (4.66/4.10)
3rd Order Win% Record: 91.8-71.2
Record in One-Run Games: 26-25
Additions: Daniel Descalso, Brad Brach, Xavier Cedeno, Kendall Graveman, Francisco Arcia, Rafelin Lorenzo, Phillip Evans, Johnny Field, Evan Marzilli, Jim Adduci, Zach Borenstein, Colin Rea, Ian Clarkin, Rowan Wick, George Kontos, Junichi Tazawa, Jerry Vasto, Mike Zagurski, Rob Scahill, Matt Carasiti, Conor Lillis-White, Cristhian Adames, Christian Bergman, Tony Barnette
Losses: Bobby Wilson, Daniel Murphy, Jesse Chavez, Jorge de la Rosa, Jaime Garcia, Justin Wilson, Drew Smyly, Tommy La Stella
It was not a good offseason for the Cubs. In one of the most team-friendly free agent markets we’ve ever seen, the Cubs were a bystander. Then they lied to everybody as Spring Training started by saying that they had no money. That was on the heels of a collection of racist emails sent by Joe Ricketts that leaked. This was also while everybody was freaking out about the PECOTA projections for the Cubs.
Oh, yeah, and Joe Maddon kept digging the hole deeper and deeper regarding Addison Russell and his alleged domestic abuse.
The Cubs really could have used a big signing to distract everybody from the trainwreck of an offseason that it has been. Brad Brach doesn’t really qualify. He’ll be a useful piece for the pen and Xavier Cedeno is a nice pickup, but the Cubs didn’t make an impact move.
Did they need to? Is gambling on this pitching staff the right move? Can the offense carry the team? This will be one of the most talked about teams of the 2019 season. A lot of ink, both in print and online, has been spilled about this team already for a lot of non-baseball reasons.
What will those headlines and ledes look like as the season goes along?
BA: .258 (4th)
OBP: .333 (4th)
SLG: .410 (13th)
wOBA: .321 (10th)
wRC+: 100 (12th)
BABIP: .313 (2nd)
K%: 21.8% (11th)
BB%: 9.0% (8th)
Based on the projections, the Cubs better hit. To a degree, they hit last season, but finishing 13th in slugging percentage and 12th in wRC+ is not a good look for a team with this kind of talent. The Cubs got on base a lot, but there were some concerning developments. For starters, free swinger Javier Baez was the only Cub to hit 30 homers. Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo hit 26 and 25, respectively, but nobody else hit 20.
In fairness, Kris Bryant was limited to 457 plate appearances, but still. Willson Contreras’s power tool never showed up. Ian Happ only hit 15 home runs, though, to be fair, he walked or struck out in over half of his plate appearances. The Cubs had six guys with 20 dongs in 2017, including Happ, Contreras, and Bryant. Something was missing from this team most of the season and that power element was it.
The Cubs were a hard team to figure out most of the season. It did feel like the offense greatly underachieved while the pitching staff overachieved. Somehow it all balanced out, based on the team’s actual record and also the alternate standings metrics, but there were clear disconnects across the board. The Cubs were second in BABIP, but 12th in average exit velocity. Javier Baez had 56 of the team’s 271 barreled balls. Kyle Schwarber was second with 37. Anthony Rizzo had 32, but had a Barrel Rate (Barrels/PA%) under five percent.
In a lot of ways, this offense wasn’t really as good as some of the metrics would indicate, but also wasn’t as bad as some of the metrics would indicate. It is a really hard thing to figure out and this is the most perplexed I have been by a team in my years of doing this for BangTheBook.com.
Perhaps the most concerning part is that guys like Happ and Bryant underachieved while carrying BABIP marks of .362 and .342. Ben Zobrist had a bounce back season on the coattails of a .331 BABIP. That was 80 points higher than the previous season and 31 points higher than 2016, when Zobrist posted a .360 wOBA. He had a .355 wOBA last season.
The only addition is Daniel Descalso. Most of the prospects have graduated to the big league level. Do you bank on track record? Do you bank on positive regression? Is negative regression coming? While these players are all pretty big names and seem like safe bets, there are certainly reasons for skepticism.
ERA: 3.65 (3rd)
FIP: 4.14 (18th)
xFIP: 4.29 (22nd)
K%: 21.3% (20th)
BB%: 9.9% (28th)
LOB%: 76.2% (3rd)
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. The PECOTA projection. This is a big reason why. The offense is what it is and there are clear paths for the Cubs to be a top-10 offense. This group is downright scary. Finishing third in ERA and third in LOB% while sitting 18th in FIP and 22nd in xFIP is how you get a PECOTA projection around .500.
Projections aren’t everything. They should be taken with an entire shaker of salt. Admittedly, PECOTA is not my favorite projection system. But, it’s not hard to see the Cubs allowing 100 more runs this season. PECOTA projects the Cubs to allow 744 runs. They allowed 645 runs last season. PECOTA’s chief operating principle is run prevention. That’s why fielding, where the Cubs, namely Contreras, grade poorly, is such a big part of the equation.
The Cubs allowed 3.96 runs per game last season. They are projected to allow 4.26 runs per game per FanGraphs’s Depth Charts projections, which would be 690, so that projection system is a little friendlier than PECOTA. By BaseRuns, the Cubs should have allowed 4.10 runs per game in 2018. That would have been an increase of 19 runs overall, which is why the Cubs had a four-game difference between their BaseRuns record and their actual record.
Why the pessimistic outlook? There are a lot of reasons. Let’s start with Yu Darvish, who managed just 40 innings last season and wasn’t overly effective. While Darvish’s projections are fine across Steamer, Depth Charts, ZiPS, and THE BAT, he’s only projected for around 140 innings. Thirty-five-year-old left-hander Jon Lester just posted a 3.32 ERA with a 4.39 FIP and a 4.43 xFIP. He carried an 80.3 percent LOB%, which is not sustainable for a guy with his strikeout rate. Jose Quintana has posted back-to-back ERAs over 4.00 and posted a career-worst 4.43 FIP.
Kyle Hendricks will never be viewed in a bright light by systems and sabermetricians because he doesn’t miss bats. The more volatility in the profile, the more cloudy the outlook. He did post a 3.44 ERA with a 3.78 FIP and a 3.87 xFIP, which does imply regression. Cole Hamels was bad in 2017 and bad for the Rangers in 2018 before posting a 2.36 ERA and a 3.59 xFIP in 12 starts covering 76.1 innings for the Cubs. Hamels also cut his HR/FB% nearly in half with Chicago.
It’s entirely possible that there is a disconnect between how PECOTA comes to its conclusions and what these pitchers are projected to do. It is hard to overlook the fact that PECOTA projects the Cubs to be tied for the fourth-highest DRA (Deserved Run Average) in the National League. It is also disingenuous to ignore that everybody that made at least eight starts for the Cubs had a higher xFIP than ERA and that their LOB% marks ranged from 72.8 percent to 82.3 percent. This is not a good sign long-term, especially when that group has very little margin for error from a strikeout standpoint.
Factored into this equation is Chicago’s defense. The Cubs rode their defense hard in 2016, as they led the league in just about every advanced defensive metric. Things fell off in 2017 and that trend continued in some areas in 2018. Only the Phillies and Reds are projected to be worse in Fielding Runs Above Average per PECOTA. Most of that has to do with Willson Contreras, who was the second-worst pitch framer in baseball last season per Baseball Prospectus. Pitch framing is an enormous component of PECOTA’s projections, which is a big reason why the Indians are pegged for 96 wins. The system adores Roberto Perez. Even though Contreras graded average in Blocking Runs and Throwing Runs, he was such a bad pitch framer that it hurts the Cubs here.
The bullpen isn’t really inspiring much confidence for people or projection systems either. Like the rotation, most of the returning relievers come in with ERA marks that well were below FIP or xFIP marks. Carl Edwards Jr. led the relievers in fWAR, but had a 4.11 xFIP to go with his 2.60 ERA. His 3.8 percent HR/FB% with a 28.9 percent GB% is a big reason why. Jesse Chavez was second with 1.0 fWAR and he’s gone. Pedro Strop had a 2.26 ERA with a 3.43 FIP and a 4.08 xFIP. Brandon Morrow is likely broken after shoulder surgery. Brandon Kintzler doesn’t miss bats and Brad Brach had a 3.59 ERA with a 4.22 xFIP last season.
I’ve gone a bit longer in this section than I have with other teams, but you have to understand what we’re looking at here. The rule of thumb from an analytics standpoint is that ERA regresses towards FIP or xFIP. Just about the entire Cubs pitching staff posted an ERA that was better than the FIP or xFIP. Projection systems are going to expect regression. Humans that study baseball from a sabermetric point of view are going to expect regression. It is entirely possible that the Cubs bottom out this season. Any defensive drop-off could have a severe impact on this staff and this season.
This isn’t bias against the Cubs. This is a fundamental understanding of sabermetrics and how projection systems work. That’s not to say that I agree in every facet, but to say that the Cubs are likely to take a step back is not a thin limb to crawl out on. In fact, that limb is rather thick.
Positives & Negatives
Another thing driving the skepticism about the Cubs is that the Cardinals and Brewers both look very solid and there are a lot of believers in the Pirates and the Reds. It isn’t impossible to view the Cubs as the team that falls off this season in the Central. I outlined many of the reasons why. All we know is that the 76 head-to-head division games will be a challenge for all of the teams involved and that the Cubs will not be immune to that this season. There are no easy games anymore like there have been in past years.
The optics of the 2019 season for the Cubs are rather weird. A lot of people are rooting against Chicago for a variety of reasons, the Russell and Ricketts situations chief among them. On the other hand, internally, the PECOTA projections and the negative noise from the outside seem to have given the team something of a rallying cry. We don’t see a lot of “soap opera” situations in MLB like we do in the NBA, but this can be mentioned in that same breath. This is a very polarizing team this season. Many people, Cubs fans excepted, are rooting for this team to fail. Sometimes that’s good for a team. Sometimes extra pressure is not beneficial.
Pick: Under 88.5
In all of my years studying baseball and doing so from a gambling perspective, I cannot remember many times when a team’s win total has been this far removed from its PECOTA projection. In a lot of ways, PECOTA helps define the season win total betting odds. A lot of times, those numbers move towards the projections. I happen to like going against the grain more often than not, but in this instance, there are a lot of reasons to believe the Cubs will fall off.
Here’s the thing, though. By “fall off”, I’m not seeing a 79-83 team. It’s certainly plausible, as PECOTA suggests, but let’s keep in mind that this team won 95 games last season. Going under 88.5 would hardly be a surprise. The pitching staff has the chance to be an abomination by Cubs standards. The Cubs haven’t allowed over 700 runs in a season since 2014 and have only done that once since 2012. The offense fell by 61 runs last season and is projected to fall again.
I think this is a good team. I do not think this is a great team. For me to take an over in the 90 range, I think you have to be great or have a strong case to be great. I don’t see it with the Cubs. I think they fall in the mid-80s and have some soul searching to do for the future. They are behind the Brewers and the Cardinals and a perfect storm from the Pirates would have the chance to push them in front of the Cubs as well.
I don’t think the latter happens, but the Cubs look to be the third-best team in the division and this is way too balanced of a division to see three teams with 89 or more wins.