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Simply The Best: How the 2016 Cubs Stack Up Against 1984 and Company

Imagine, just for a moment, that you’re a New York Yankees fan. You feel pride every time you put on that iconic hat, the same one worn by Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, Rivera, and countless other current (or future) Cooperstown residents. The same type of hat that has been drenched by post–World Series champagne some 27 times.  

And so if someone were to ask you “What’s the best Yankees team of your lifetime?” you might actually be stumped.

You’d mull it for a while, but you’d probably settle on the 1998 squad, which won—holy moly—114 games, and then swept the overmatched San Diego Padres in the World Series.

But if you’re reading these words, you’re probably not a Yankees fan.

You’re a Cubs fan.

So you grit your teeth and don the blue hat worn by Bryan Bogusevic, Brian Schlitter, and All-Star Bryan LaHair. And those World Series troph… well, you see where that’s going. The point is, the Cubs’ history is fun, but doesn’t exactly teem with success.

Things are different this year, though. This 2016 team could actually be good. Really good. World Series good. And for Cubs fans, this is unfamiliar terrain.

We don’t know know quite what to do with this feeling, because it’s been so rare for the Cubs to be good. So let’s do this: Let’s look back and forward. Let’s try to answer this often-asked question: Is this the best Cubs team of recent memory? (Because sorry, but there ain’t no way I’m digging up numbers on the 1945 team.)

Below, I break down some of the better teams of recent memory (1984, 1989, 2008) by their hitting, their pitching, their fielding, and their managing. Then I do the same for the the 2016 squad based on Baseball Prospectus’s projections.* I’ll compare stats within discipline, and assign points for each stat between the four teams (4 points for 1st, 3 points for 2nd, etc.), on which basis we can divine a “winner” within each area

Then I’ll assign 1–4 points to the teams for their performance in each are, taken as a whole, and we’ll get a final, and highly-unscientific total. Reminder: this is just for fun, so sorry if the 2003 team was your favorite, or if you think I should be using different stats. Also please note that I’m not including the 2015 team simply because the 2016 team is largely similar, with the exception of the major additions. 

My guess before running the numbers: The 2016 team will come out on top. But we’ll find out, won’t we?


1984 Cubs (96-65)

This team didn’t look destined for the playoffs going into the season—indeed, Sports Illustrated picked them to finish last in the division. And here’s a good trivia question: Who was the opening day starter that year? Answer: Dick Ruthven. But then this game happened, and the tenor of the season suddenly changed (although as Ken Schultz notes, Sandberg was already having a good season). Several Cubs started playing out of their minds, and in one of the biggest moves in Cubs history, GM Jim Frey traded for Rick Sutcliffe. The Red Baron went 16-1 in the second half, and the team won the division by six games. You know the rest. (Damn you and your absurdly hairy arms, Steve Garvey.) 

1989 Cubs (93-69)

This was a group of vets and young players McGyver’d together with chewing gum and paper clips, yet somehow it all clicked. Jerome Walton and Dwight “The Crooner” Smith finished 1-2 in the NL ROY race, despite stats that weren’t exactly jaw-dropping. The stars—Ryne Sandberg, Greg Maddux, Rick Sutcliffe—played like stars. Somebody named “Mike Bielecki” won 18 games. And yet…. well, you know the rest. (Curse you and your jerk self, Will Clark.)

2008 Cubs (97-64)

It was no surprise this team posted the best record in the National League: they had eight (8!) All-Stars. Great hitting and pitching. The NL ROY (Geovany Soto.) Lou Piniella still gave a damn. And yet… well, you know the rest. (Here’s my memory of watching Ryan Dempster try to find the plate in Game 1 of the NLDS.)

sideshow bob

2016 Cubs (TBD)

The team has power from the left side (Rizzo, Heyward, Schwarber) and right side (Bryant, Soler), savvy veterans (Ben Zobrist, David Ross [hey, we didn’t necessarily say they were good offensively]), strong pitching (Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey), and the dreamiest blue eyes we’ve ever seen (you know who). Add a zen-like, custom-van driving, groovy-ass manager and a front office that can seemingly do no wrong, and lo—we’ve got a World Series contender. So, let’s break this down.


1984 Cubs (13 points)

There wasn’t one big slugger who dominated this team; surprisingly, eventual NL MVP Ryne Sandberg didn’t lead the team in homers or RBIs. (That honor went to Ron “The Penguin” Cey, who had 25 homers and 97 RBIs.) But everything seemed to click, as even players who were decent at-best had career years: Gary “Sarge” Matthews had 103 walks and led the league in OBP by reaching base at a stellar .410 clip.

OBP OPS HRs Hits RBIs Runs
Mark .331 .727 136 1,415 703 762
Points 2 2 2 2 2 3

1989 Cubs (8 points)

It was a funky collection of stats this team Cubs put together—only three players had double-digit homers, and one of them was Mark Grace with a whopping 13. (Sandberg and Andre Dawson were the other two.) And the player with the highest RBI total was Grace, with an underwhelming 79.

OBP OPS HRs Hits RBIs Runs
Mark .319 .707 124 1,438 653 702
Points 1 1 1 3 1 1

2008 Cubs (23 points)

Unlike the ’89 team, the ‘08 team had plenty of boppers: seven players had double-digit homers, and the lowest OBP among position starting position players was .344 (Alfonso Soriano, if you’re looking to point fingers). Interestingly, wee Mike Fontenot was tied (with Soto) for team lead in WAR (3.3) among all position players.

OBP OPS HRs Hits RBIs Runs
Mark .354 .797 184 1,552 811 855
Points 4 4 3 4 4 4

2016 Cubs (16 points)

The PECOTA gods look favorably upon the Cubs’ offense this season… except when it comes to hits. There, the team is ranked 11th out of 15, and just seven hits ahead of the hapless Milwaukee Brewers. Come on, PECOTA! The Crew has exactly three players with a 1.5 WARP or higher—by comparison, the Cubs have seven. That’s crazy.

(All Proj.) OBP OPS HRs Hits RBIs Runs
Mark .334 .765 202 1,303 713 727
Points 3 3 4 1 3 2

Winner: 2008 Cubs

No surprise: they scored 855 runs—that’s 5.3 friggin’ runs a game (compared to 4.5 for the projected ’16 team). Even with PECOTA picking the Cubs to lead the NL in almost every major offensive category, the ’08 team would still outscore them by 18 percent. The ’08 Cubs were also higher in OBP, hits, RBIs, and runs.


1984 Cubs (2 points)

Funny how the memory is so fallible—I remember this team as being decent in the field, but clearly that’s not the case. Half of the starting fielders had a negative range total, and just think of the molasses-like “speed” of the corner outfielders, Matthews and Keith Moreland. Sandberg’s range was good but not great (he posted a RF/9 of 5.7, just a little above the league average of 5.4), but he was worth 11 runs defensively — well above the league average of zero.

Defensive Efficiency FRAA
Mark 69% -42.0
Points 1 1

1989 Cubs (7 points)

Sandberg was typically solid at second base, and Grace was coming into his own at first. Shortstop Shawon Dunston (17 errors) had a cannon for his arm, but his lack of accuracy had fans along the left-field line ducking for cover every throw. Rightfielder Andre Dawson also had a great arm, but the confetti that made up his knees gave him pretty limited range—he had four assists that year, compared to 12 just two years before.

Defensive Efficiency FRAA
Mark 71% 28
Points 3 4

2008 Cubs (4 points)

First baseman Derrek Lee was solid but a few years away from his first Gold Glove. Soriano had pretty unimpressive range (RF/9 of 1.9, exactly the league average) that weird little hop before he made a catch, and a funky sidearm throw. But his unorthodox motion emboldened foolish would-be runners, and he notched an impressive 12 assists.

Defensive Efficiency FRAA
Mark 70% -2
Points 2 2

2016 Cubs (6 points)

The team takes a huge step forward defensively with Jason Heyward replacing Jorge Soler as the everyday right fielder. Heyward’s defense with the Cardinals last year was nothing short of astonishing, as he saved an incredible 22 runs over the season in right. (For perspective, the league average was 3 runs.) And then there’s future Gold Glover Addison Russell at shortstop, who saved 25 runs in 61 games. But let’s remember Kyle Schwarber is patrolling left field, and while he’ll undoubtedly improve over his unfortunate NLCS showing, he’ll never be Barry Bonds.

(All proj.) Defensive Efficiency FRAA
Mark 71% 11
Points 3 3

The winner: 1989 Cubs

The ‘89 Cubs boasted few defensive standouts, but were solid enough to eke out a win here. Personally, I think Russell’s defense is undervalued—BP projects him for a FRAA of -3, which gets an F- on the eye test, but the numbers are what they are. 


1984 Cubs (5 points)

The big story was Cy Young winner Rick Sutcliffe, but… well, we wanted to say that other Cub hurlers had great years, but that would be wrong. Steve Trout and Dennis Eckersley had remarkably similar middling seasons, posting respective ERAs of 3.41 and 3.03, FIPs of 3.36 and 3.40, and equal strikeout marks of 81 (bleh).

Mark 3.75 879 1.33 5.6
Points 2 1 1 1

1989 Cubs (10 points)

Before the season, the rotation looked to be Maddux, Sutcliffe, and We’ll See What Happens. But the previously unheralded Bielecki put together a shocking season, going 18-7 and striking out 148 while posting a WAR of 3.7 that nearly doubled Andre Dawson’s 2.0. And Sutcliffe—while not exactly discovering the fountain of youth—went 16-11 with a 3.66 ERA and 1.18 WHIP.

Mark 3.43 918 1.30 5.7
Points 4 2 2 2

2008 Cubs (10 points)

In addition to great hitting, this team had killer pitching: 5 of the top 7 Cubs in WAR were pitchers. Ryan Dempster was a workhorse with an ERA under 3 and 187 strikeouts in 207 innings, and 27-year-old Carlos Zambrano was an All-Star and won the Silver Slugger for pitchers. And let’s not forget Rich Harden, who went 5-1 with 89 strikeouts in 71 innings. (But would we take Josh Donaldson back for him? Umm… yes.)

Mark 3.87 1,264 1.29 7.8
Points 1 3 3 3

2016 Cubs (15 points)

We all know about Jake Arrieta, and innings-eater John Lackey is a great addition at the third spot in the rotation. But don’t sleep on Kyle Hendricks, the Dartmouth grad who is projected for a 2.7 WARP, good enough for 32nd in the majors. Not bad for a fourth starter. (And I’m counting on a solid full season from Jason Hammel, but that’s just me.)

(All proj.) ERA SO WHIP K/9
Mark 3.60 1,354 1.22 8.4
Points 3 4 4 4

The winner: 2016 Cubs

This wasn’t even close, which is kind of surprising: I think conventional wisdom holds that the 2016 team will be amazing offensively, and good-to-very-good pitching-wise. Apparently that’s not the case, though, as the ’16 team nearly sweeps the pitching categories here. I’ll take it.


(Caveat: It’s not easy to judge a manager, and I can’t give a Pythagorean record for 2016 since it requires the team to have actually, you know, played the games. So we’ll use Maddon’s record for 2015 — and yes, I know it was an especially lucky year for the team. But hey, I’m just as God made me.)

1984 Cubs (Jim Frey)

On the one hand, the Cubs improved by 25 games over the 1983 team, and as previously mentioned, hopes weren’t exactly sky-high for this underwhelming group. Then again, there were several key additions, including Sutcliffe, Eckersley, Bobby Dernier, Matthews, and more. Considering the pitching Frey had to work with—which was 10th in the NL in ERA—it’s pretty impressive that the team got a few innings from the World Series (grumble grumble).

Pythag. Record Actual Record Differential
Mark 91-70 96-65 5 games
Points - - 3

1989 Cubs (Don Zimmer)

No one ever mistook Zimmer for Connie Mack. But like Frey, Zimmer was saddled with a mid-level pitching staff—the Cubs were 6th in NL ERA, 9th in NL WHIP, and 8th in NL K/9. So maybe there was only so much he could do. But there was just a feeling that Popeye was pulling hunches out of a hat and they just happened to work. Until they didn’t.

Pythag. Record Actual Record Differential
Mark 90-72 93-69 3 games
Points - - 2

2008 Cubs (Lou Piniella)

Piniella had World Series experience when he arrived, but he didn’t deflect any of the tension that came with the team’s success. His curmudgeonly grumpy uncle bit was charming, but his team is the only one here with a negative Pythagorean record. And given how stacked those ’07 and ’08 teams were, it seems almost unbelievable that he couldn’t even eke out one win in the playoffs.

Pythag. Record Actual Record Differential
Mark 98-63 97-64 -1 games
Points - - 1

2015 Cubs (Joe Maddon)

Maddon is kind of a unicorn—he combines the strong analytical knowledge of Theo Epstein’s regime with the hang-loose wisdom of Phil Jackson (without the “I-invented-this-game” sanctimony). Come on, could any Cubs manager other than Maddon say something half this insightful? “The process is fearless. If you want to always live your life just based on the outcome, you’re going to be fearful a lot. And when you’re doing that, you’re really not living in a particular moment.” Then he probably set up a beach chair and a kiddee pool for Pedro Strop.

(2015 data) Pythag. Record Actual Record Differential
Mark 90-72 97-65 7 games
Points - - 4

The winner: Joe Maddon

The combination of smarts, analytical knowledge, patience, and humor gives Maddon an easy win here. He never lets the “pressure exceed the pleasure,” and I can only imagine what he’s going to do with a full season of Heyward, Zobrist, and Javier Baez. It’ll be tough to top 97 wins, but don’t be shocked this team does just that.


Overall points (4 points awarded for lead in a category, 1 points for last place, etc.):

1984 Cubs:  7

1989 Cubs: 10

2008 Cubs: 10

2016 Cubs: 14

So there you have it: The 2016 Cubs are indeed, on-paper, by one quasi-scientific method, the best Cubs’ team of recent memory. And with that, you’d think there could be a lot of pressure. But remember what Maddon says about pressure. So bring on the games, and let’s see what happens.

*Yes, we know we’re comparing different decades, injuries could riddle this team, Bryant could be the next Dave Kingman. Go away, fun-crusher.

Lead photo courtesy Jake Roth—USA Today Sports.

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16 comments on “Simply The Best: How the 2016 Cubs Stack Up Against 1984 and Company”


Any reason you didn’t look at the 2003 Cubs? Was that team statistically not up to par even though they were close to the World Series?

Thanks for reading — yeah, I debated long and hard about including the ’03 team, but they just didn’t make the cut, statistically.


This was fun. It’s always interesting how memory skews how good or not good a team was. I’ll always love that 2003 team, but it’s easy to forget they were a middling team most of the year.

Yes, the ’03 season was great until… well, we all know how it ended. Still kind of hard to believe, isn’t it? Le sigh.


Did you normalize the comparisons to reflect their eras? 84 was still low offense, 08 the backside of the peak, and 16 back to a lower scoring environment. Also, Bielecki’s 148 Ks in ’89 were decent at the time but today might be criticised for not missing enough bats with higher K rates the norm.

Good question. No, I didn’t — I know they are different eras, but this was an admittedly imperfect method and I didn’t want to muddy it with too many caveats. Maybe in a few years I can do that when I compare the ’16 World Series winners to the ’17 and ’18 WS-winning teams.

Jared Wyllys

I look forward to reading that one.


I will say that giving equal weight to pitching and hitting probably evens it the different eras quite a bit…at least enough to be acceptable in an ‘inexact science’ type of comparison


Any reason why 2015 wasn’t included? Sorta confused on that considering it’s different than this year’s squad and was arguably the most fun team of all time

I didn’t include the ’15 team because this team is going to be largely identical (with a few notable upgrades, I realize). But between that and the fact that it would make categorizing the manager’s role much more difficult, I felt like it didn’t quite fit.


As crushing as 2003 was, I sometimes feel 2004 was actually more disappointing. The expectations carried over after how the previous season ended, and you were taking that team with its young pitching studs and adding Derrek Lee, bringing Maddux home, plus ultimately trading for Nomar. It was a very exciting team on paper, and watching the season unfold the way it did was a much longer, more drawn out process than the 2003 collapse. In many ways, 2004 is probably a better parallel to 2016 than any of these other seasons.

That’s a really good point. It’s hard to believe how badly they fell apart in ’04. Do you remember when they traded for Garciaparra? Weren’t you euphoric? I was like, Wait — the Cubs don’t get players like this. And then to see them just fritter it away, like that friggin’ Victor Diaz homer off Hawkins… so painful.

However, that was more of a slow burn — Game 6 (and Game 7 may have been even worse) of the ’03 NLCS was just so painful in one moment.

But hey, enough of that! The sun is shining (not in Chicago, but surely somewhere), birds are singing, kittens are playing with yarn… let’s smile!


LOVE IT. Fun read, Joel. Thanks for putting this together!

And Dave Kingman was my childhood hero! Sure, you got a HR or a K, but man, did his HR’s fly a long ways!

Good work, buddy! Your science is dangerous! I’ll take it!

Thanks, Tommy! Check your Paypal account later for the money we agreed on.


HA! Thanks for your payment!

Keep up the good work, man!

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