One of the most bizarre aspects of being a Cub fan is that the better the team performs during the regular season, the more neurotic we get when we think about October. While the stereotype of Wrigley Field is that of a gigantic frat party, the reality is that postseason Cubs baseball is like watching a special edition of Animal House where you suddenly realize the movie has turned into Requiem For a Dream.
Of course, you might better know the latter film by its more common title: Any Random Daniel Murphy Plate Appearance.
With the NL Central all but clinched by mid-September, the 2016 Cubs have been a juggernaut like we’ve never seen before. Which means that as fans, we’re at the point where any discussion of their ultimate fate now includes a caveat like “Of course, the team with the best record almost never wins the World Series.”
And for that bit of neurosis, we can thank another recent Cubs team that looked like an eater of worlds only to soil themselves in three of the most ignominious playoff games in the history of the franchise. The specter of the 2008 Cubs hangs over this impending postseason like a cranky old man on his eighth pint of gin wandering Addison Street and yelling “Whaddaya want me to do?!”
Here’s the thing: the 2008 Cubs were great. And they found a horrible time to play their three worst games of the year. That’s what happens in the playoffs.
But given that undeniable fact, this piece is still a message of hope. Because while the 2008 Cubs were great, the 2016 Cubs are substantially better. And while there’s no such thing as playoff-proofing a roster, the front office has built them with even fewer areas of weakness that could get exposed in a short series like the 2008 edition was. Consider…
After suffering a stunning loss in Game 1 of the 2008 NLDS, the Wrigley Field public address system attempted to rally the Cubs by cranking the theme to Rocky for Game 2. And it worked. Insofar as it inspired the Cubs to play like Apollo Creed against Ivan Drago. In fact, if you crank the volume on the crowd mic when Manny Ramirez homers, you can learn the Spanish phrase for “If he dies, he dies.”
The lasting image of Game 2 was of the entire Cubs infield making errors in the same game. And they turned in this performance in support of that night’s starting pitcher: Carlos Zambrano. After the game, the 300 fans who hung around until the bitter end reported a bizarre phenomenon where Zambrano made eye contact with Ryan Theriot and an unidentified voice commanded: “FINISH HIM.”
As we know from entire season of watching Addison Russell and Javy Baez, the 2016 Cubs defense is historically brilliant. In less than a full season’s worth of games, Baez has already accumulated 11 Defensive Runs Saved at second base (and four more at shortstop and one at third). Not to be outdone, Russell has chipped in for 19 DRS at short.
Add in nine DRS from Anthony Rizzo and 2 DRS from Kris Bryant and it’s pretty safe to say the defensive embarrassment from 2008 will not repeat itself this year, although of course lightning could strike twice. The 2016 Cubs infield has been a big part of the pitching staff outperforming their FIP for the entire season. In fact, the Cubs are the only team for whom balls in play are less likely to lead to errors than to broadcasters committing an FCC violation.
Which means that come playoff time, the 2016 Cubs defense could help this be the last postseason Joe Buck ever broadcasts. So it is possible for them to accomplish something even greater than winning a World Series.
The 2008 Cubs dominated the regular season with a seemingly unmatched combination of patience and power only to wilt in a most frustrating manner once the NLDS rolled around. Unfortunately, there’s no way to completely safeguard against this in a five or seven game series. As last year’s NLCS again proved, sometimes a great offensive team runs into a hot pitching staff the end result is what happens when a madman simultaneously gains access to cloning technology and the DNA of Aaron Miles.
In the wake of the 2008 defeat, Lou Piniella pinned his team’s meltdown on the Cubs lineup being composed almost entirely of right handed hitters. While this sounded like excuse making, Piniella was backed up by the fact that the Dodgers’ pitching staff did not throw a single pitch with their left hands throughout the entire series.
And the 2008 Dodgers roster included a rookie named Clayton Kershaw. Which means that right handers were so effective against the ’08 Cubs that a future three-time Cy Young winner got as many appearances in the NLDS as that other Dodger left-hander named Tommy Lasorda.
The only left handed options the 2008 Cubs had were Jim Edmonds and Kosuke Fukudome. And the latter was getting benched by the end of the series after becoming the first player in MLB history whose t-shirt was the only part of his game that generated anything offensive.
Joe Maddon’s demands for line-up versatility already ensure that things are much different for the 2016 edition. The presence of Anthony Rizzo already gives them more of a left handed threat than the 2008 group ever had. Throw in switch hitters Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist and Bruce Bochy might end up covering more ground during the series than any of his outfielders.
This year, the Cubs splits against opposing pitchers break down thusly:
Vs RHP: .250/.335/.416
Vs LHP: .265/.355/.449
So while the Cubs do perform better against left handers, the abilities of Rizzo, Zobrist, and Fowler will be essential to make sure that opposing managers will have to work much harder to match up with the Cubs offense than Joe Torre did in 2008.
And as a bonus, this also means the Cubs won’t have to overcompensate for this perceived weakness by signing a sociopath next year. Although the bleacher fans will have to get used to not getting any souvenir balls tossed to them with two outs.
Even though the 2016 Cubs have even fewer weaknesses than the 97 win machine from 2008, that still guarantees nothing in October. When it comes to postseason short series baseball, randomness is the only thing in the postseason that’s guaranteed not to lose. It makes the Yankees look like they were managed by Bruce Kimm.
So the most important difference between the 2016 and 2008 Cubs is that the window of contention for the current team will be wide open for several more years. With Sam Zell cutting off the bottomless supply of pre-sale Tribune cash, 2008 was going to be as good as it got for that group. Going forward, the Cubs of that era would have to rely on Jim Hendry’s eye for value signings and prospect development.
This is why the most popular song about Cub hope was written by the man who sang “Jeremy.”
Of all the great numbers associated with this year’s Cubs, the best are these: Rizzo is 26. Bryant is 24. Baez is 23. And Russell is 22. This is a team built to make the postseason for several years to come. And they just have to get hot in one of those Octobers to make this entire enterprise worthwhile.
And in case all of that doesn’t convince you that the 2016 Cubs are in a better position, here’s the clincher:
|Crane Kenny’s Greek Priest||Kyle Schwarber|
It’s official. Even God likes the 2016 Cubs better.
Lead photo courtesy David Banks—USA Today Sports.