“I think the 100 thing, at some point in my career, would be cool to be part of, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to win the World Series. I’d rather us just play good baseball, and at the end of the year if we win 100, we win 100. Great. But if we don’t win the World Series, that’s where it really matters. If we win 90 and win the World Series? Great.” — David Ross
We’ve heard the discussions before. Whether they be in the offseason about the massively overhauled Padres and White Sox, or the mid-season chatter of Yoenis Cespedes turning thing around for the Mets in the second half, or simply the bullish fans of the North Siders putting all their chips in on the “look good on paper” 2016 Cubs.
This discourse all falls under the category of “World Series favorites” talk.
Entering the season, the conversation was buzzing more than ever about the 2016 Cubs and their odds of finally breaking the curse. “You see some of the stuff written about us in the winter, some of the World Series odds and things like that, [it’s a lot] for a team that is a defending third-place team and hasn’t done anything yet,” Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein said. And with the hot start that the Cubs have gotten off to, the talks of October and beyond haven’t cooled off and likely won’t any time soon.
The Cubs have been off to a scorching start in 2016, and finished April with a winning percentage of .773, something that hasn’t been accomplished in a very, very long time. This team is currently 27-10 (entering play on Wednesday), and only just now beginning to feel a few bruises of reality, coming off their second two-game losing streak of the season within the last week.
When a team already comes into the season as the apple of everyone in baseball’s eye and then suddenly hits the ground sprinting the way the Cubs have, the minds of baseball people and fans alike become flooded with questions they didn’t think they’d have just six weeks into the season. I myself, was one of those people.
A team being off to a start like this is certainly unsustainable for an entire season, and things do happen. We’ve already seen Kyle Schwarber go down just two games into the start of 2016, so the Cubs have seen what randomness the game unfurls within the blink of an eye.
So with that in mind, how likely are the Cubs to keep playing this well, and what are the odds of them making the World Series? What are the odds that they could even suffer the unthinkable and fall below .500 around the All-Star Break? Would there still be a chance for them to make the playoffs?
Baseball analysis has advanced over the last couple of decades, and rapidly. So, instead of tinkering with our words trying to figure out what the chances are the that the Cubs go from World Series favorites to World Series winners, let’s tinker with some numbers and see what the chances really are, historically.
The first thing I asked was how many teams in the last 15 years have finished April with a winning percentage as good as the 2016 Cubs? Since the answer was none, so I changed the winning percentage to teams the finished April at .600 or above over the last 15 years. My request returned 92 teams from 2000-2015. From there, I had a few more questions, and here’s what I found out. Remember, none of these are strictly predictive—but they do provide an indication of what has happened before, and thus gives us a sense of whether we should be surprised or not if certain events transpire.
What are the chances that the Cubs will still be playing above .500 at the All-Star break? What are the chances that they won’t be?
Considering that the Cubs have generated such a large lead in the majors, and currently own a winning percentage through the middle of May of .730, it seems unlikely that they’d fall below .500. But stranger things have happened.
Per the data, an overwhelming 90.2 percent of teams that played .600 and over through April in the last 15 years have stayed above .500 at the All-Star Break, and even a whopping 51 percent of these teams continued to play above .600. So the odds are looking quite favorable for the Cubs.
(It’s also worth noting that the last time a team played over .600 in April and fell below .500 at the break was the 2011 Colorado Rockies, so it’s been a while since something this drastic has happened.)
Of the 92 teams in the data set, only 9 of them fell below .500 at the break after their hot April starts, and only one team, the 2008 Arizona Diamondbacks, had a comparable winning percentage to this Cubs team through April (.714). The Cubs have given themselves a hefty lead, making it less and less likely that they’ll suffer some sort of catastrophic losing streak. None of the nine teams who fell below .500 recovered and made the postseason, and it’s safe to assume that for these teams, their hot April starts were more of a fluke, which is something the sample size confirms as well.
If the Cubs stay above .500 at the All-Star break, what are the chances that they make it to the postseason?
Of the 83 teams that stayed above .500 at the break, only about 54.2 percent of them made their way to the postseason. So, it’s not completely a shoo-in for the Cubs to make October if they’re still playing well in July. What this data is showing us is that the first half of the season is a good time to gain ground, and that if teams have a strong April it’s quite likely they can stay alive through mid-season, but the postseason is not guaranteed. However, the larger ground the Cubs gain early on, the more cushion they’ll have to sustain a particularly bad stretch without it ruining their playoff odds.
Mid-season is when teams begin to wear out. Starting pitchers are logging nearly 150 innings, injuries have likely occurred, and if teams haven’t properly utilized their bench options during the easy, breezy days of summer, some of their starters are likely to be feeling those plate appearances and tumbles into the center field wall a bit. This is when teams tend to misstep, and begin to scuffle.
However, we know that Joe Maddon is empathetic to this part of the game with his approach. He’s vocalized his concern about saving starters innings for the latter half of the season, we’ve seen a flexible lineup card most nights, and also reasonably good usage of the bullpen. It’s all about balance and flexibility, and that’s something the Cubs have.
If the Cubs make it to the postseason, what are the chances that they make it to the World Series and are they likely to win it?
This is where the data gets interesting. As the numbers begin to slowly descend, we’re now seeing quite the large drop off. Of the 45 teams that make it to the postseason after playing a >.600 April and staying at or above .500 at the break, only 20 percent of these teams advance to the World Series. October can be a cruel month.
But how many of the teams who made it to the World Series, actually won once they got to the final stage? 77 percent.
What does this indicate? Well, besides the information confirming that the postseason is almost entirely a giant ball of chaotic randomness that really depends on what teams do once they’ve begun playing in October, it implies that the LCS—as the Cubs learned last year—is the hardest series to make it out of. Once a team get to the World Series, their chances of leaving a winner increase drastically. (Obviously, part of this is because in the LCS teams are facing more opponents, lowering their chances entering the series, opposed to the World Series in which teams automatically enter with an approximately 50 percent chance of winning.)
The only teams in this data set that reached the World Series and lost were the 2003 New York Yankees, the 2006 Detroit Tigers, and the 2015 New York Mets.
Among the teams that won are the 2004 Boston Red Sox, the 2005 Chicago White Sox, the 2007 Boston Red Sox, the 2013 Boston Red Sox, the 2014 San Francisco Giants, and the 2015 Kansas City Royals.
The 2016 Cubs have drawn comparisons from a couple of these World Series winning teams. Let’s also be sure to take note that Theo Epstein’s curse-breaking 2004 Red Sox, and his most recent championship team, the 2007 Red Sox make the list, along with the even-year hype machine that was the 2014 Giants, and the revenge-seeking 2015 Royals. The things that I just mentioned may not be quantifiable in the form of data, but what these things to have in common is emotion, momentum and will to win—things that Joe Maddon understands well.
These elements, when met with hype, determination, and atmosphere, can be powerful motivations, and sometimes in October they make all the difference. The Cubs will have all of these things on their side in 2016, we’ve already seen and felt that just six weeks into the season.
So what can we take away from this data? Well, a few things. First, that if a ballclub starts off hot, the odds of them staying hot by mid-season are very high. We’ve also learned that as important as the first half of the season is, it’s simply the warm-up period for when things start to become increasingly important, and that what teams do in the second half after coming away from a strong first half is what will really make or break them. And most important kernel to take away is that October is isolated. Of course, coming into the postseason on the heels of a strong campaign is important, but the slate is virtually wiped clean come October.
The most enlightening note here is that once a team make it to the World Series alive, data suggests that they’ve got really good odds to win it. I think Joe Maddon has prepared this team well for momentum that October brings, and if anything, the hot start is just adding fuel to the fire for them. So let the good times roll, Cubs fans. This could be the real deal.
*The specific date requested for “the break” was 7/15. Thank you to Rob McQuown for help with this piece.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports.