MLB: NLDS-Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals

Cubs Embracing New Expectations Even as October Thrills

Look to your left. Now look to your right. One of you failed to predict that the Chicago Cubs would win 97 games in 2015. Reasonable expectations had the club right around .500, with 90 wins a possibility if the kids held up down the stretch. Nobody predicted this—the Cubs on the doorstep of the NLCS, seeking their 101st win of the season on October 13th—back in April.

But now, fans have gotten greedy. I’ve seen folks on Twitter picking 95 as a baseline expectation for next year, and that just doesn’t seem fair. This team is good, yes, and young, yes, but they’ve also benefited from one of the best seasons in baseball history from Jake Arrieta and a dominant bullpen for most of the year. While it’s way too early to write either off for 2016, expecting next year’s club to win 95 games seemed a little unfair to me.

Yeah, I know there’s still baseball to be played in 2015. Trust me, I’m right there with you. But as the Cubs reflected pregame on the season they’ve had so far, I saw an opportunity to slow expectations down a little bit, and ask the men upstairs—Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer—where they felt the team could be in 2016, based on its performance this year.

“Yeah, I mean, 97 was pretty amazing,” Hoyer told me. “I feel like that run differential probably doesn’t support a 97-win team. The National League was a little bit stratified this year, and as a result you got some monstrous win totals [in the Central Division]. The six worst records in baseball, if I’m not mistaken, were also in the National League.”

He’s not wrong about the run differential. BP’s first-order winning percentage—which strips out everything except runs scored and runs allowed—pegged the Cubs at just 90 wins this year. Sure, that’s better than all but four other teams (including the recently-eliminated Pirates), but it’s also a fair mark off where the Cubs ended up. An important point, though: run differential might not be the end of the story. BP’s third-order winning percentage, which looks only at the most essential components of team performance, had the Cubs at a 96-win clip, behind only Toronto, Houston, and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Could the Cubs shoot for the division next year, with the Central as tough as it is? Hoyer thinks so.

“I mean, listen, I think given what we went through in Pittsburgh to get to this series, it definitely reinforces how valuable it is to win the division so that’s got to be the goal,” Hoyer said. “Whether that’s 90 or 93 or 97, who knows. But I think that’s got to be the goal. Like, even with all the veteran talent we had in Boston, we never went into the season thinking we were going to win 97. It’s a hard thing to shoot for.”

I talked to Epstein a few minutes later about the same issue, and he agreed wholeheartedly with his top lieutenant, acknowledging the evaluation work that lies ahead for his staff.

“Yeah, we’ll have to make a conscious decision about that [building for the division] going forward,” Epstein said. “I mean, in Boston we always shot for 95 because we knew that would get us in the playoffs. We didn’t care if the Yankees wanted to go win 100, because the Wild Card was good enough. We kind of always shot for 90, here, figuring that’s a decent shot at the division and a sure thing for the Wild Card. But you know, again with the standard raised a little bit, we might have to recalibrate.”

And is Epstein worried about a raised standard setting expectations too high? Not at all.

“I don’t worry about that,” Epstein said. “if people are gonna set a new standard that’s at a pretty high altitude, I think that’s a good problem to deal with.”

It’s hard to disagree with that assessment. But here’s the thing: these Cubs didn’t really play like a .500 team the whole year—just since August. For the final 60 games of the season, they went 42-18, which is a 113-win pace. Prior to that? Just 55-47, which would have landed them right around 87 wins. Was there a turning point for the club that stood out? Epstein pointed not to a team moment, but to the accretion of a bunch of little moments for his young club.

I feel like each of our young players has gone through a mini-slump,” Epstein pointed out. “Which is atypical, because usually for rookies and young players it can be a slump that requires an offseason to address, and so I think that’s been sort of a, not a specific, but more of a general turning point [for the team].

“When Russell came up and for three weeks wasn’t quite himself, and then found his comfort zone; when Bryant went through that one tough spot with his July, Schwarber went through his little brief period. Everyone’s come through stronger on the other side of that adversity, and our team has followed that same path as well, coming together the last two months of the season when it’s typically the dog days, they were at their best.”

Hoyer agreed with his boss, and added a few thoughts of his own into the mix.

“I actually felt like right after the All-Star Break, we played really badly and won like three games we had no right winning,” Hoyer said. “It just felt like, you know, we went 3-6 instead of 0-9.”

That’s not atypical, of course, but Hoyer was impressed with how his team handled the moment. 

“We kind of got through it and stayed alive and then right after that we ticked up again,” Hoyer said. “We swept the Brewers, and then we had a two-game series in Pittsburgh, split those, then played great against the Giants. It just felt like we survived that potential nine-game losing streak by kind of stealing a few games.”

As you enjoy this postseason moment, remember that the tide of rising expectations can bring with it greater disappointments if failure rears its ugly head. The 2015 Cubs are a good team—they’re proving that every day on the field—but that doesn’t mean expecting the world for the 2016 club is reasonable or fair. Sustained success means success around a high mean, and that’s what you’ll get from these Cubs. 

Lead photo courtesy Jeff Curry-USA Today Sports.

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