Even While Losing, Only One Thing Matters

The Cubs have been losing baseball games. It’s the sad truth, they’re no longer good at baseball. That’s how this works, right? The Cubs were the best team ever when they started the season 25-6, on pace to win 130 games in the regular season. But since then, they’re 27-26—an 84 win pace—and barely hanging onto their nine-game lead in the NL Central.

I say this all very tongue in cheek, of course. The Cubs are still 8.5 games ahead of the closest of the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates in their division. They’ve had a recent bad stretch, but frankly every good team does. But what about losing games against good teams, Ryan?! You can’t win the World Series with a bad record against good teams, they screamed! And why can’t this team win one-run games?!

Let me tell you a secret: none of that matters. You must unlearn what you have learned. There really is only one major thing that correlates to having a good chance at winning the World Series, and that’s making it to the post-season. To prove my point, take a look at the last six World Series winners. Every single one made the postseason. But I kid. Let’s look at some real numbers.

First, let’s tackle the big myth about needing to have a good record against good teams. Fans and radio personalities alike have complained recently about the Cubs’ poor play against teams with a record above .500—they recently went a combined 1-10 against the Cardinals, New York Mets, and Miami Marlins. While you’d certainly like your favorite team to win games against the other good teams, it’s not a prerequisite.

The last six World Series champs—the Kansas City Royals, San Francisco Giants, Boston Red Sox, Giants again, Cardinals, and Giants yet again—had a combined 231-230 record against teams that were .500 or better. Not exactly inspiring. In fact, in 2015 the Royals were just 47-43 and the runner-up Mets were 28-38. The 2014 Giants were 27-31. The Cubs this season, by the way? 22-18 against teams .500 and better—an 89-win pace in games played against the Mets, Marlins, Giants, Cardinals, Pirates, Washington Nationals, and Los Angeles Dodgers.

But what about those pesky one-run games? Why can’t the Cubs win the close ones? Shouldn’t they have “learned” to win those games? They can’t just constantly rely on crushing their opponents! First of all, one-run games are not a skill to be learned—and there’s zero proof that being good at winning them translates to post-season success. Observe the previously listed World Series winners and their league rank in winning percentage in one-run games:

one-run games

How am I certain this isn’t a skill? The Cubs are just 10-13 in one-run games this season, which by all accounts is fairly mediocre—especially when considering their 42-18 record in games decided by two or more runs. But last season, with the same manager and a core that is notably similar, the Cubs were 34-21 and had the third-best record in baseball in one-run games. The only teams that were better? The 85-77 Los Angeles Angels and the Pirates—and we all remember what happened to the Pirates in the playoffs last season (hint: they lost the wild card game by four runs).

So if winning one-run games is a skill, then the Cubs seem to have forgotten how to do it. Also, it appears that sometime between 2012 and 2014 the Giants forgot how to do it too. But most importantly, even if winning one-run games is something a team can simply learn how to do, it doesn’t even seem to matter. The average World Series winner from the last six seasons finishes 10th-best in Major League Baseball in winning one-run games.

But forget all that, because the Cubs have been so bad lately. Like, soooo bad. Roseanne Barr singing the National Anthem bad. Bartolo Colon playing shortstop and trying to make a diving stop in the hole bad. In their last 16 games, the Cubs are just 5-11—including a 4-7 road trip. Our World Series winners never had to deal with a stretch like that, right? Well, except that they did:

bad records

I won’t tell fans not to be frustrated when their team goes into a funk. Go ahead, even be upset about it if you like. Just don’t tell me that the Cubs haven’t been good enough against good teams—they have—or that it matters. Don’t tell me that they need to learn to win one-run games, because it’s not a skill for teams to acquire and there’s no proof that it means anything in the end. And definitely don’t tell me that one bad stretch defines a team, when we’ve seen so many winners do the same thing.

The facts are the facts. There is nothing you can really do to “October proof” your roster. There is some evidence that suggests that teams that make a lot of contact at the plate have done well in the playoffs, but there’s as much a chance of that being a formula for success as it is just a thing that’s unique to the Giants and Royals—who happen to have won four of the last six Fall Classics.

The only real, proven method for having a good shot at winning the World Series is making the post-season. Since 2000, five of the 16 World Series winners made the postseason via the wild card. Two of those five wild card winners occurred since the advent of the wild card playoff game, and both were teams that wouldn’t have even made the playoffs under the previous format. Of the 15 teams that made the playoffs with 100 or more regular season victories, just one team actually won the World Series. That’s right, more teams with less than 90 regular season wins have won it all than teams with more than 100 wins.

If you just realized that the Cubs are on pace to win over 100 games and panicked a little bit, you’ve missed the point completely. The Cubs have a 99.5 percent chance of making it to the post-season this year, and a 97.3 percent chance of winning the NL Central. They’re going to be there, and whether they take off in the second half or limp to the finish, they’ll have just a good a chance as anyone of winning the World Series.

Lead photo courtesy Kevin Sousa—USA Today Sports.

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4 comments on “Even While Losing, Only One Thing Matters”

Ryan Davis

I don’t know what we’re yelling about.


I hate the losing stretches, but that’s baseball. As you mention, the number 1 thing is getting to the post-season. Once you are there, anything can happen.


If you had to choose a time for your team to struggle, not during the playoffs would be preferable. Mission accomplished!

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