The Tenth Percentile Cubs

PECOTA currently projects the Cubs for 93 wins, 12 more than the 81-win Pirates, who are projected for second place in the NL Central. Rarely is a team so heavily favored in a division, but for a team in the Cubs’ position, it makes sense. Centerfield is the only position that projects below 2.5 WARP, and, even in that case, there is significant upside potential in Albert Almora.

Baseball is baseball, though, and as is well known, injuries can derail a team’s season at any time. When looking at how this team could fail to live up to expectations, the first place to look, as always, is the pitching rotation. Each of MLB’s 30 teams could easily fail if they have significant injuries in their rotation, and probably a few of them will fail because of that. And, I suppose, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo could both get hurt too, and the Cubs would suddenly be much less formidable.

But writing a column about how everyone could get injured isn’t particularly interesting, so I’ll take another tack here. A few weeks ago, Darius Austin wrote about the 90th percentile Cubs projections, and what the Cubs would look like if all their players performed up to that level. Today, I’ll look at the opposite: the 10th percentile projections. According to PECOTA, this is about as bad as things could go for the offense, assuming everyone remains fairly healthy:

Willson Contreras 464 48 97 19 2 13 36 100 0.233 0.302 0.382 0.247 C -8 0.2
Anthony Rizzo 615 78 132 28 2 27 60 110 0.243 0.33 0.449 0.275 1B 2 2
Ben Zobrist 604 70 122 27 3 12 67 87 0.232 0.319 0.363 0.249 2B -1, LF 0 1.4
Kris Bryant 560 75 118 22 2 27 58 160 0.243 0.334 0.465 0.282 3B 1, LF 1 3.1
Addison Russell 550 55 106 22 1 17 39 141 0.212 0.275 0.362 0.228 SS 4 0.5
Kyle Schwarber 541 73 100 16 2 24 59 157 0.213 0.304 0.41 0.252 LF -4 1
Jon Jay 389 35 78 13 1 4 24 73 0.227 0.29 0.306 0.222 CF 0 -0.4
Albert Almora 144 12 29 6 1 3 4 26 0.206 0.23 0.317 0.199 CF 1 -0.4
Jason Heyward 566 63 116 23 2 14 51 99 0.229 0.303 0.365 0.243 RF 14 1.7
Miguel Montero 104 9 17 3 0 2 10 25 0.193 0.279 0.302 0.216 C 5 0.4

Remember, each player here is expected by PECOTA to perform better than this 90 percent of the time, so the odds of every player playing down to this level simultaneously are slim to none. But, there are definitely things to notice, and maybe some truths to be gleaned from these almost-worst-case scenarios.

I’ll start at the top. Willson Contreras, even in this bad scenario, is expected to put up a .247 TAv and strikeout less than 20 percent of the time. This is encouraging and suggests that his offensive floor is high, especially for a catcher. On the other hand, this scenario shows how his defense, particularly his framing, could hold him back if his offense doesn’t keep pace.

The most encouraging truth that we can find here is this: Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant simply aren’t going to be bad. If they are healthy, we shouldn’t expect anything even moderately below average; Rizzo is projected for 2 WARP and Bryant for 3.1. Each have 27 homers. That these would be disappointing performances is a good sign for the Cubs in the corner infield spots.

Another thing that jumped out to me was Addison Russell’s extremely low offensive numbers. I would expect him to be better than this 99 percent of the time, not just 90. It’s a good reminder, though, that his expected offensive breakout still hasn’t fully manifested, and though he’s sure to be a solid defender, we’re still not assured the next step offensively.

Jason Heyward’s projection, on the other hand, seems too high. It stronly underlines just how much of an outlier his -0.2 WARP performance last year was, and suggests that he almost certainly cannot be that bad again, just by virtue of his defense. But it also seems overly optimistic to say that a .243 TAv is a tenth percentile outcome—some Cubs fans would probably be OK with that as a step back towards respectability.

We also see that the Cubs could potentially be very bad in centerfield. Neither Albert Almora nor Jon Jay is a sure thing offensively, and if both of them struggle, there isn’t an obvious replacement. Here, they combine for -0.8 WARP combined. This position is the biggest question mark on the Cubs’ roster, and the tenth percentile projections show how wrong it could go.

And finally, these offensive projections remind us of the defensive value of Miguel Montero. PECOTA suggests that even if he puts up a .193 batting average and a .216 TAv, he will still be above replacement level by virtue of his excellent pitch framing. This with his clubhouse presence, and it makes sense that the Cubs are happy to pay him $14 million dollars this year even in a backup role.

In this unlikely scenario, the Cubs position players combine for 9.5 WARP. This probably underestimates the worst-case, because if some of these players were struggling this much, they wouldn’t get as many plate appearances as they are afforded here—others would step in and likely play better. Adding this amount of WARP would get the Cubs up from the low 50s in wins (the amount expected of a team of replacement level players) to the low 60s. Now, let’s see how the pitchers look:

Jon Lester 29 29 185.7 188 63 198 33 0.311 1.35 5.46 0.5
Jake Arrieta 30 30 183.6 169 77 192 26 0.292 1.34 5.14 1.2
John Lackey 29 29 176.6 183 65 167 31 0.305 1.41 5.66 0
Kyle Hendricks 29 29 148.4 154 50 136 24 0.306 1.37 5.39 0.5
Mike Montgomery 36 19 100.2 114 46 84 15 0.324 1.6 5.96 -0.5
Wade Davis 50 0 38 37 18 48 6 0.329 1.44 4.96 0.2
Pedro Strop 42 0 29.1 28 14 36 5 0.313 1.46 5.67 -0.2
Carl Edwards Jr. 46 0 32.6 30 19 37 4 0.304 1.48 5.36 -0.1
Hector Rondon 50 0 37.1 42 14 39 7 0.326 1.5 5.79 -0.3
Justin Grimm 46 0 34 36 18 39 5 0.338 1.59 5.36 -0.1

Despite its excellence for two years now, these projections remind us of the downside of the Cubs rotation, and, probably more truthfully, all pitchers in general. There are question marks throughout the Cubs rotation, and as always, this is the part of the team that one can more easily imagine falling apart. There is only a handful of pitchers that one cannot imagine having a 5+ DRA in a near worst-case scenario.

The main thing these projections remind me of is the age of the Cubs’ rotation. Jon Lester, despite being stellar for three consecutive years, is 33 now. He’s seen very limited velocity loss, but, of course, as pitchers move further into their 30s, the risk gets greater every year. The same is true of John Lackey in what will be his age 38 season. PECOTA sees his tenth percentile projection as being exactly replacement level, which seems about right.

Jake Arrieta still has a volatile delivery that can lead to a loss of command from time to time, so despite his excellence, it’s not hard to imagine him falling back down to earth in his contract year. His 77 walks are the highest of any Cubs pitcher in these projections, and if his BABIP drops, he could struggle a bit.

Despite now having a career ERA of under 3 in over 450 MLB innings, Kyle Hendricks still doesn’t have the peripherals to be properly appreciated by projections. His fiftieth percentile projection only gives him 2.5 WARP, which would more than halve his 5.1 WARP from 2016. New pitching metrics at BP go some way towards explaining Hendricks’ dominance, though, and this projection seems like the one that is most unrealistic—even as a tenth percentile.

Also, the back of the Cubs rotation could potentially be flat out bad if Mike Montgomery doesn’t adjust to the rotation and if Brett Anderson gets injured. Montogomery’s -0.5 WARP projection here speaks to that potential issue very clearly here. Still, though, I’d easily take the over on any of these.

And, finally, the most banal observation of all: the performance of the bullpen is not guaranteed. Each of the relievers here except Wade Davis are sub-replacement level in this scenario, which sounds about right ten percent of the time.

If Cubs were to play like these projections, they’d end up in the low-to-mid 60s for a win total. This seems impossible, and it nearly is, but it reminds us the volatility possible in any baseball club—even the seemingly unstoppable 2017 Cubs. Cubs fans know better than to take the 2017 regular season for granted, but it’s worth looking at a worst-case scenario so that we can truly appreciate the best-case, if and when it happens again.

Lead photo courtesy Adam Hunger—USA Today Sports

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