It’s a good time to be a Cubs fan. It’s a good time to be a baseball fan of any sort, for that matter. It’s fun to live in a world where this is possible, “this” of course being the Cubs’s insane, nearly unprecedented, 25-8 start, which they’ve accomplished via a terrifying offense, outstanding starting pitching, and generally incredible performance across the board. Of course, this start is even more fun if you’re intimately acquainted with the demons of past Cubs teams–playoff heartbreak, poorly timed fan interference, a stretch of terrible seasons, curses–and are waving goodbye to them as the exorcism begun in 2015 is redoubled into 2016. This is good, is the point.
It’s also not going to last, probably, or at least not like this. Were the Cubs to win at this pace for a full season, they’d end the year with roughly 123 wins, or seven more than the modern record set by the 2001 Mariners. That’s almost certainly not going to happen. (If it does, we’ll be in the middle of something truly extraordinary, so you should have better things to do than rubbing this column in my face.) The Cubs have definitely been lucky so far, and that luck will eventually fade, probably.
To be fair, I don’t mean lucky in the way it’s often used, to describe a team that gets the perfect distribution of hits–walk, single, home run instead of home run, single, walk, for example–or runs scored and allowed, and ends up with a better record than its performance deserves. That’s not the 2016 Cubs. Baseball Prospectus tracks first-, second-, and third-order win percentage, all three of which are meant to strip out the influence of luck on a team’s record. After Tuesday’s win over the Padres, the Cubs were an astonishing 25-6, good for an .806 winning percentage, but their first-, second-, and third-order win percentages were all higher. Only slightly, at .810, .837, and .830, respectively, but still! Most of the time, when a team’s record looks this good, it’s at least partially the result of weak opponents or sequencing luck, but if you take those into account, the Cubs’s record should be even better.
That’s certainly not what I mean when I say the Cubs have been lucky. These wins are based on real, outstanding performances, but the Cubs have gotten lucky in that nearly all of their players are performing as well or better than they ever have before. For some, that represents a sustainable step forward; for others, it’s more likely to be temporary. Guys will eventually slump. There will be multiple games–perhaps even a week!–in which an accurate description of the Cubs will be “struggling.” What will it look like when that happens?
The starting rotation, like literally every other part of the Cubs, has been great thus far, but it’s been based on some results that are perhaps better than the process behind them. First, this might be borderline blasphemous (please don’t fire me, Rian), but Jake Arrieta is probably not as good as his 1.66 ERA over 277 IP between 2015 and 2016, the best mark among qualified starters over that span. His 3.55 DRA for 2016 is still quite good, but it’s 31st to this point in the season, indicating Arrieta might be something other than the demigod that he’s looked like, and his last start looked positively pedestrian by his extremely lofty standards. His run prevention’s outstripping of his peripherals probably also has something to do with the Cubs’s defense (which has also been outstanding thus far), and there’s no real reason to think that will change. But there will probably be a start or series of starts this year where Arietta gives up some runs.
It’s not just Arietta who’s outperformed his peripherals, though. Jason Hammel is currently sitting on a 1.85 ERA to go with his 4.69 DRA, and PECOTA projects him for a 3.70 ERA going forward. Again, good defense helps, but Hammel’s HR/FB percentage sits at 11.1 percent for his career, compared to a minuscule 3.0 percent in 2016. Jon Lester’s split isn’t quite as dramatic, but his 3.71 DRA also doesn’t live up to his gaudy 1.96 ERA. Don’t get me wrong; this rotation still projects to be great, just probably not as great as they’ve looked in the first six weeks. There are also reasons to think the Cubs are better prepared to withstand any potential downturns, as well. On a lesser team, a starter missing a few starts due to struggles with injuries or mechanical issues would mean a substantial drop-off in performance, but the Cubs’s backup starters are Adam Warren (PECOTA rest of season projected ERA of 3.83) and Travis Wood (3.75), both of whom would likely crack the starting five on many teams.
Like the starters above, there’s plenty to be happy about here, even if we admit the bullpen’s dominance likely won’t continue at quite this pace. Hector Rondon entered the season with a PECOTA projection of a 3.49 ERA/3.91 DRA; through 13 innings, he’s at 0.69 and 2.13 instead. PECOTA doesn’t believe he’ll keep that up all season, and you probably shouldn’t either, but it does think he’s substantially better, projecting him for a 3.15 rest-of-season ERA going forward. I was going to include Pedro Strop in this article, and note that his strikeout and walk numbers were better than they’d ever been and therefore unlikely to stay there, but then he got shelled in game one of yesterday’s doubleheader, walking two and giving up three runs without retiring a batter. It’s still plausible to think he’s taken a real step forward from his previous seasons, but some of those runs and walks were a little overdue.
Still, like the starters, there are real reasons for optimism as well as moderation of expectations. Some players are probably due for some positive regression; Adam Warren, as mentioned above, is a good pitcher who is also currently sitting on a 5.00 ERA; he seems like a safe bet to improve upon his season-to-date stats. More broadly, the Cubs just have a ton of solid bullpen choices for Joe Maddon to choose from, like Justin Grimm or Neil Ramirez. As the season goes on, and the front of the bullpen falls back to a more reasonable level of performance, that depth will be very valuable.
This is probably the area where the Cubs organization has been the luckiest, as several position players are vastly outstripping their projected performances. Dexter Fowler has been among the best players in baseball, as has been ably documented, despite preseason expectations far below that. Matt Szczur – the Matt Szczur whose perceived upside before this season was somewhere in the range of “decent fourth outfielder”–is somehow outhitting Fowler, as measured by his .377 TAv, and his .375 BABIP and rest-of-season PECOTA projection of a .236 make that seem unlikely to last.
It’s possible that both these players have made a real step forward, but even if they have, their true-talent is probably not quite at this level. You can think Dexter Fowler is better than he has been to this point in his career, and also not think he’ll carry a .372 TAv for the rest of the season. (Interestingly, PECOTA puts him at .272, nearly unchanged from its preseason mark of .268).
The Cubs have also gotten surprisingly potent performances from players who almost certainly haven’t changed their underlying abilities. I can believe that a 26-year-old has finaly unlocked his potential; it’s a much harder task to convince me that David Ross is anything other than what he seems on the surface, which is a 39-year-old backup catcher. His TAv was at .277 entering last night’s game, but PECOTA projects him for a .200 going forward, and I think it’s probably right to assume that Ross hasn’t suddenly leveled up his offensive game.
Even here, however, there are reasons to think the future might hold nearly as much positive regression as it does negative for this outstanding Cubs roster. Jason Heyward is currently sitting on a .278 BABIP, despite a career-best line drive rate of 24.4 percent, and PECOTA thinks his .216 TAv is unlikely to continue, projecting him for a .277 going forward. If and when he returns to classic Jason Heyward form, this lineup will gain another incredibly formidable weapon, making any negative regression from the guys listed above much more palatable.
The Cubs are also currently starting Tim Federowicz for more games than they’d probably like, due to Miguel Montero’s back issues. It’s not positive regression per se, but it’s current production from the catcher’s spot of a .194 TAv, versus a rest-of-season projection for Montero of .262. Montero just started a rehab assignment at Triple-A Iowa, and his return to the lineup will be another way this great team becomes even better.
In other words, your gut reaction of excitement and joy to this team is the right one. They’ve definitely encountered some luck and surprising performances en route to their 25-8 start. What will truly be terrifying for the rest of the league is when they stop getting lucky, and start to deal with the bumps and slumps that every team faces over the course of a season, and remain outstanding. This Cubs team has looked nearly unstoppable, and it hasn’t been a fluke.
Lead photo courtesy Kamil Krzaczynski—USA Today Sports.