Radically Young, Cubs Hope to Break Mold of Playoff Mix

The Cubs gave 25 plate appearances to players 25 years old or younger during Tuesday night’s win over the Mets. That leaves them with 683 PA by players in that age range this season—exactly 500 more than the Yankees gave to players that young all of last season. Add together last year’s Yankees and Athletics, and you’re still not up to the Cubs’ current number. Entering Tuesday, the Rangers, Yankees, Rockies, Pirates, and Indians had scarcely managed to send more young hitters to the plate than the Cubs had by themselves.

That’s the fun-fact version of my premise. The more scientific one is: the Cubs had given 55.1 percent of all their plate appearances to players 25 or younger, entering Tuesday. That number will rise, and rise considerably, by the end of the season, but if it merely stood still, it would be the 31st-highest share of playing time any team has doled out to young hitters since 1969, and if you bring the cut line to this side of the strike-shortened 1981 season, it becomes the ninth-highest share. Here are the eight teams with higher percentages over that span:

Highest Percentages of Total Team Plate Appearances Taken by Players 25 or Younger, 1982-2014

Year Team Percentage Final Record
1984 Twins 61.8 81-81
2000 Expos 60.4 67-95
1992 Expos 59.8 87-75
1998 Marlins 58.8 54-108
1999 Royals 58.4 64-97
2014 Astros 57.8 70-92
2012 Mariners 57.3 75-87
1984 Dodgers 56.6 79-83

You might notice that a number of these teams, unlike the Cubs, were making no effort whatsoever to compete during the season in question. The 2000 Expos, the Marlins, and the Astros all clearly fit that mold. The Dodgers and Mariners teams listed there could best be described as directionless, caught between a sincere rebuild and a weak attempt to contend. Only the 1984 Twins (who were breaking in Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Kirby Puckett and Tom Brunansky, among others) and the 1992 Expos (the outfield for whom consisted of Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom, and Larry Walker, all 25) were truly on the precipice of winning.

What that tells us is that the Cubs are trying to do something nearly unprecedented, in modern baseball. Their reliance on young hitters while vying for a playoff spot is not merely unusual; it’s unique. To find a 90-win team with a stronger youth movement than Chicago’s, you have to go back to the 1979 Expos (featuring Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Larry Parrish, and Ellis Valentine), who went 95-65. Going back to that sample of 30 youth-powered teams since 1969, the only winning records belong to those two Expos clubs; the 1969 Red Sox; and the 1973 Giants.

Let’s look at the 30 teams (again, since 1969, by which time the draft was in effect; offense was normal again after the outage of the previous half-decade; the league had expanded to 24 teams; and divisional play began) right behind the Cubs on the list. There’s not much more to encourage Cubs fans there, though. That list has only eight winning records and four 90-win teams. Way, way down on the list, five from the bottom, one can find the playoff team most committed to young talent: the 1975 Red Sox. They gave scarcely over half of their playing time to guys at or under 25, though, and only three other playoff teams over the span we’re looking at cleared that 50-percent bar.

Highest Percentage of PA Going to Players 25 and Under, Playoff Teams, Since 1969

Year Team Percentage
1975 Red Sox 50.8
1971 Giants 50.7
1969 Mets 50.6
2007 Diamondbacks 50.6
1972 Pirates 49.3

In a way, then, the Cubs need to blaze a brand-new trail in order to reach the playoffs. No team built the way this one is has won more than 87 games since the 1970s. To be fair, PECOTA doesn’t say that the Cubs will, either. It does, however, believe they will win 85 or 86 games, and it gives them better than a coin flip’s chance of at least playing in the coin-flip game. History tells us the likelihood that the Cubs even win more than they lose is 20 percent, if that.

Projection systems never project anyone to shatter a record. We get a little out of breath if PECOTA even comes within a fistful of forecasting a 100-win or 100-loss team. Yet, that’s the kind of prediction putting the Cubs in the playoffs is. If our rest-of-season playing-time projections come perfectly to fruition, the Cubs will give 57.8 percent of their remaining plate appearances to guys no older than 25. They’ll finish the season having given at least 10 percent more plate appearances to players in that age bracket than any modern playoff team ever has. That PECOTA isn’t shying away from the young players the Cubs have isn’t an accident, though. These are some singular cases. Starlin Castro is a five-year veteran and three-time All-Star. Anthony Rizzo has one elite season under his belt already. Kris Bryant dominated the minor leagues as few players (at least, few his age) ever have, giving the system plenty of data with which to work before he ever set foot inside a big-league batter’s box. Jorge Soler and Addison Russell have battled injuries, but never ineffectiveness, in their journeys to the show. Without even seeing that scouting evaluations matched the numbers, PECOTA has been able to capture some of what sets each of those players apart from a typical young guy, even a young guy who earns significant playing time at the highest level.

The 1975 Red Sox seem far removed from the Cubs. That club had Fred Lynn, Jim Rice, Dwight Evans, and Cecil Cooper, all under 25, for most of the season. Asking Rizzo, Castro, Bryant, Soler, and Russell to turn into three fringe Hall of Fame candidates and a five-time All-Star seems a bit much. Certainly, though, the Red Sox had no stronger a supporting cast for those young stars than the Cubs have now. Carlton Fisk was a superstar no one on either team can match, but Carl Yastrzemski and Rico Petrocelli were well past their prime, and offered little help. Second baseman Doug Griffin was sub-replacement level. The pitching staff was quite good, given the home park in which they operated, but they mostly got by thanks to the good fortune of good health. No starter had an ERA under 3.95, but since Bill Lee, Luis Tiant, and Rick Wise combined to pitch over 750 innings, it didn’t matter much. The Sox only used 12 pitchers all year.

They won 95 games, but their Pythagorean record was 88-72. The 1975 World Series has lionized them a bit in our memories; they were a team with warts. They just had a bunch of young sluggers who helped them torch the league after a slow start. The Red Sox were 15-15 through their first 30 games, having scored 126 runs but let in 134. From then on, they scored 670 runs, allowed 575, and went 80-50.

The Cubs probably aren’t going to go 80-50. However, it’s worth noting that they started 15-15, behind a 127-136 run differential, before taking these two games from New York. It’s worth noting, too, that the Cubs have an almost unmatched capacity to improve during trade season, with several positional prospects having excellent starts even as the big-league lineup crystallizes, leaving very few areas of need for the farm to fill organically. The 1975 Red Sox got 1.3 WARP out of half a season of Denny Doyle, removing the scar of Griffin from their lineup. The Cubs have a chance to land half a season of Cole Hamels, Jeff Samardzija, or Johnny Cueto. (According to DRA, Cueto has been worth 1.0 WARP already this year.)

I picked Chicago to win the NL Central at the beginning of the season, behind an elite offense and just enough run prevention. A month and a half in, I have newfound knowledge about just how crazy a prediction that was, but I feel no less confident about it. If the Lynn/Rice Red Sox had played to their run differential, they would have lost the AL East to the Orioles, who won 90 games, and missed the playoffs. If the Rizzo/Bryant Cubs post the same differential, though, and play to it, they’ll be nearly assured of a playoff berth (if only the probationary one that is a Wild Card Game entry).

Sahadev Sharma wrote a good piece at the dawn of this season, about the importance the Cubs placed on starting strong. They didn’t define their terms all that closely, but I’m betting this wasn’t really what they meant. While they now sit at 17-15, the road to this place has been rocky. The Cubs allowed at least five runs in eight straight games from May 2-9. That tied the Astros, Rockies, Twins, and Mariners for the longest such streak in MLB since July 2012. The bullpen has looked shaky. The back of the rotation has been terrible. Perhaps they’re relieved to have survived, but they can’t be counting this as good.

That’s okay, though. I never really bought into the idea that the way this team started would dictate anything. They have bundles of offensive talent, maybe as much as any other NL team. Because of that extreme youth, though, it’s not hard to see how it might take a while for that talent to really shine through. Russell’s power and ball-striking have been impressive, but he looks overmatched in many at-bats. His .250/.280/.431 batting line and 31-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio reflect that. He’s whiffed in 18 of his first 19 career games. Right now, his line is reminiscent of Manny Machado’s rookie campaign, when Machado came up in August, making a position change in the process, and hit .262/.294/.445 in his first 51 MLB contests. Or take Jonathan Schoop, whose .209/.244/.354 line the Orioles accepted for over 450 plate appearances last year because of his excellent defense at second base.

Consider Soler, whose discomfort in the cold weather the Cubs encountered in April became as apparent in his stat line as it was in his on-field dress choices. He’s putting up solid numbers, but they stem only from some good fortune and a lot of very hard contact. He’s striking out nearly 34 percent of the time. That number will come back into the lower atmosphere, just as Russell’s strikeout rate will. It takes only time, patience, and enough big-league innings soaked in.

No, I think the Cubs’ path to a place in the postseason is the same now as it always was: Stick around, stay relevant, and reel off an insane month later in the season. The 2014 Royals went 24-6 over one stretch, 65-67 around it, and ended up 90 feet from a 10th inning in Game 7 of the World Series. The Orioles went 44-24 in the second half. The 2013 Indians needed a 21-6 September to reach the Wild Card Game. That’s the kind of tear the Cubs will need, because they will be inconsistent for much of the season, as the young hitters find their groove and the pitching staff awaits reinforcement. They’re more than capable of it, though, and the thing is, they’re more likely to have it happen later in the year, for the aforementioned reasons. PECOTA sees something special in the Cubs, whether it’s aware of that or not. Teams this young aren’t supposed to win, but the Cubs seem well-positioned to challenge that idea.

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