Half an Inch of Water, and You Think You’re Gonna Drown: Surviving a Season When the Cubs are Good

Many of you may have noticed that the Cubs just won six of their last seven games, including a four-game road sweep of the Brewers. This has left most fans feeling cautiously optimistic about the 2015 season and the team’s chances of making the playoffs. However, just one week ago, the Cubs were coming off a three-game series in which they were swept by baseball’s worst team, the running joke that is the 2015 Philadelphia Phillies. Responses from fans, even some who normally could be identified as rational, were extreme. Many declared the Cubs’ playoff chances dead in the water, and suggested the team should become trade market sellers (instead of the buyers they had previously been presumed to be). Others simply fed the narrative that this team had never been ready to compete—that they were too young, too inexperienced, and too inherently flawed to make a real run this season. I’m not going to say, outright, that either opinion is incorrect, but I’ll be very clear in saying I don’t agree with either one, and I especially do not agree with the reasoning.

Past history can’t always show us precisely what will happen next in baseball, because this is a uniquely difficult sport to project. What history can show us, though, is the range of possibilities that exist for modern baseball teams. It can remind us why small samples should not lure us into knee-jerk reactions, and why it’s so important not to let our opinions hinge on each and every game, but rather the mounting accumulation of those games, and moreover, what we generally know to be true about the team’s abilities from scouting, statistics, and confident and thorough analysis. I want to explore overreaction through two winning Cubs seasons: 2003 and 2007. Both can be mined for instructive commentary on the state of the 2015 Cubs and where they might go and why we, as fans and pundits, should not perpetuate narratives based on three especially bad games, nor three especially good ones.

2003 Cubs

Preseason PECOTA Projection: 83-79

Record After 104 Games: 52-52

Actual Final Record: 88-74

This Cubs team always appeared poised to win, but to what extent they would achieve that potential was unknown. PECOTA, in its first year as a BP staple, projected the Cubs to finish third in the NL Central, which seemed reasonable. The rotation had real potential, if Mark Prior could be everything he was hyped up to be; if Kerry Wood could remain healthy; if Carlos Zambrano could emerge; and if Matt Clement could even come close to his 2002 production. That was a lot of “ifs” for the team, but they mostly came to fruition. Prior became everything the Cubs and the fan base dreamed of, pitching 211 1/3 innings over 30 starts, and dominating to the tune of a 2.43 FIP and 2.97 xFIP. He became a leading Cy Young candidate in his first full season as a major-league starting pitcher. Kerry Wood surpassed 200 innings pitched for the second and last time in his career, while Carlos Zambrano broke out in his age-22 season, tossing 214 innings with a 3.47 FIP. Matt Clement saw some serious regression, but still provided a workmanlike 201 2/3 innings of 4.14-FIP baseball. The team somehow got fair production from an outfield corps consisting of aged, diminished versions of Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou; a great first half from Corey Patterson (who, alas, went down for the year with a knee injury in early July); and trade-deadline acquisition Kenny Lofton. The infield was uninspiring, save for a young third baseman who came over with Lofton in the trade with the Pirates named Aramis Ramirez. (OK, Mark Grudzielanek’s .314 batting average wasn’t half bad, either. He got MVP votes!) 

This team was, similarly to the 2015 Cubs, one with a great pitching staff that operated with seriously limited offensive support, worse even than the 2015 Cubs have been at the plate. The team generally hovered right around .500 (or just above it), finishing August with a 69-66 record. There were ups and downs, same as with the ‘15 Cubs, including a brutal summer stretch in which they went 24-29 in June and July. The ‘03 Cubs had to finish on an 18-8 streak in order to achieve the record that won them the division, allowing them to reach the playoffs and cruelly break the hearts of Cubs fans in a series of events that you don’t honestly, probably, need or want me to repeat in detail.

Yes, the team did have to make a major trade, acquiring Lofton and Ramirez, but that team had more deficiencies than this one, and those they did have were more glaring. This season’s Cubs are more well-rounded, but are playing in baseball’s toughest division. However, the 2003 Cubs show that baseball can be very random, and often has confusing sequencing. Even if the ‘15 Cubs lose four or five games in a row, they can just as easily win twice that many during a late-season winning streak. You just simply can never know.

2007 Cubs

Preseason PECOTA Projection: 85-77

Record After 104 Games: 55-49

Actual Final Record: 85-77

PECOTA made a perfect projection for this team, the first time the system had ever done so for the Cubs. The front office, seeking to regain some of the glory of 2003 following a 66-win 2006 season, handed out $74 million worth of contracts to the trio of Mark DeRosa, Ted Lilly, and Jason Marquis. Not content to just add this veteran trio, and possibly urged by Sam Zell’s aggressive push to sell Tribune Co. assets, Jim Hendry signed Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year, $136-million contract, then the largest in the franchise’s history. Soriano paid off in spades in 2007, collecting a .291 TAv and 5.5 WARP, while DeRosa became a surprisingly useful utility man who slashed .293/.371/.420. Lilly and Marquis, meanwhile, posted 4.16 and 4.99 FIPs respectively. Marquis was flat-out disappointing, while Lilly was good, but depressing in that he rated as the Cubs’ top starting pitcher in ‘07 by nearly every meaningful metric. Acquired on July 16th, an aging Jason Kendall helped to stabilize the Cubs’ catching situation until top prospect Geovany Soto was ready to come up in September. Soto was a revelation during the aforementioned call-up, as he slashed .389/.433/.667 in 18 games. Derrek Lee provided the type of steady consistency that made him a fan favorite with a slash-line of .317/.400/.513, while Ramirez once again was an All-Star-caliber third baseman. The Cubs received marginal value from a collection of flotsam featuring Jacque Jones, Cliff Floyd, Matt Murton, Ryan Theriot, and Mike Fontenot.

This team was actually pretty middling in most every way, outside of the middle of the lineup that featured Ramirez, Lee, and DeRosa, with Soriano as a frequent leadoff hitter. Those four players provided most of the offensive value throughout the season, akin to the way Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Chris Coghlan have had outsized value to the 2015 Cubs’ lineup. Where the ‘07 team diverged was in its pitching staff, which had no one starter with a FIP below 4.00. (Yes, offensive levels were higher then, but that’s still not good.) That was horrifically bad for a division winner, and truly should make you appreciate what the Cubs have done in assembling a rotation through free agency and trade (and Chris Bosio’s tendency to get the most out of certain starters). The 2007 team went through an awful start to the season, going 22-29 through the end of May. They then posted three winning months over the final four (with August the outlier, at 12-16) to finish off an improbable first-place finish in a very mediocre NL Central.

Yes, this team was very much aided by its bloated contracts to veteran players, but Soriano went downhill quickly, and Lilly and Marquis never became more than mid-rotation starters for the Cubs. Many fans have wanted the Cubs to make splashy moves, either through free agency or trade, but this team and its iterations beyond 2008 became a cautionary tale of sorts for that type of win-now, win-at-all-costs mentality. Soriano’s contract would hamstring the team until he was unloaded in 2013 (in return for Yankees pitching prospect Corey Black). The Cubs have, however, shown that they’ll make the necessary moves to be able to compete—just not at the expense of a stable future. The ‘07 team and its successors remind us that this is quite an intelligent thought process. The ‘15 Cubs added Jon Lester, Miguel Montero, Dexter Fowler, Jason Hammel, and now Dan Haren and Tommy Hunter, all without emptying the upper-tier prospect talent, and all without limiting the financial flexibility of the franchise in 2016 and beyond.

Both the ‘03 and ‘07 Cubs went through sustained periods of losing and sustained periods of winning. They both were interesting teams in their roster constructions and the way they balanced the needs of the present roster with that of the organization’s future. The important thing to remember about the 2015 Cubs, especially in relation to these two teams, is that the ‘15 team has not yet had a single losing month. By this time in the season, both the ‘03 and ‘07 teams had battled through a two-month stretch of losing baseball. It says something about the consistency, depth, and construction of the 2015 Cubs that they’ve been able to absorb the usual injuries and ineffectiveness without facing any lengthy struggles (yet). The moral of this story is that, the next time you find yourself overreacting to several particularly depressing Cubs losses (or thrilling wins for that matter), you should remind yourself that the season is not yet over—and that a team’s worth is not contained in small samples of a few games, or even in a full month’s worth of games.

Related Articles

Leave a comment

Use your Baseball Prospectus username