There was so much written about their 108 year wait for a World Series, but it was a largely ignored fact that the Cubs that won in 1908 had won in 1907 too. In fact they were the first team to win consecutive World Series Titles. No team has had repeat World Series success since the Yankees nearly twenty years ago, but such was the Cubs dominance last year in winning 103 games (8 games more than the next best team), and given that most projection systems have the Cubs to have the best record in 2017, people are wondering if they can go all the way again.
Despite not scooping the biggest prize of them all since 1908, the Cubs have been competitive at the times in the past. The last 20 years have been characterised by boom and bust, however, with greatly fluctuating form.
Cubs GM and uber-brain Theo Epstein is perhaps the most significant single reason that boom and bust is not likely to continue for the next few years at least. There is a sense of his building a dynasty that can compete for years to come. Epstein talked of getting the monkey off the organisation’s back when talking to the New York Times in February. “Winning it was really rewarding, a sense of relief, and almost liberating for a lot of us,” Epstein said. “We can just enjoy all the great things we have here — a young nucleus, having players with such great character, having the support of ownership, having amazing facilities, being in such a positive culture. We can really breathe that in. We all love coming to work each day without this weight hanging over us.”
That young nucleus is another key reason they are projected to be dominant again in 2017, and perhaps beyond. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and Javier Baez are hitting the prime of their careers and and whilst the pitching staff is less youthful as a whole, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks are still on 30 and 27 respectively.
This graphic is from a 2016 Hardball Times article by Jeff Zimmerman. Youth, energy and vitality are signature characteristics of the Cubs, and it is perhaps why they lost so few days to injury in 2016. The biggest challenge to the Cubs this year could come from the Dodgers, who had more than their fair share of bad luck in 2016 who are unlikely to be so plagued by injury in 2017. Divisional rivals the St. Louis Cardinals, dogged by injuries to pitchers last year have already lost starlet Alex Reyes (who managed to accumulate 2.1 WAR in just 5 starts) for the season, so maybe Cubbie good fortune in this area will continue this year.
It is churlish to put Cubs success down to good luck however. They were excellent by nearly all metrics, including one which was largely overlooked last year, because it is a contentious concept – clutch hitting. The Cubs have gradually improved their batting average with runners in scoring position over the last three seasons. Last year only four teams hit more home runs with runners in scoring position despite the Cubs being only hitting the 13th most home runs overall. Granted, their run differential was huge over the course of the season, but there were times, notably mid-season, when the cubs won games by pitching well and taking their chances to score. Is that sustainable going forwards? We will have to wait and see.
Joe Maddon has said the Cubs will only repeat World Series success if the Cubs’ defense improves this year, but this was the one area where they particularly dominant last season. Keen operators of defensive shifting and unorthodox infield fielding positions, their UZR of 37.3 was the fifth best in baseball and their DEF of 43.3 was only bettered by the Royals, Diamondbacks and Orioles.
In so many other areas, too – ERA, OPS+, wOBA, they were significantly higher than the league average, but BABIP is one area where they would benefit from improvement.
Last season was the first season since Epstein took over that their BABIP was higher than league average, and that was with some steady increase. The Cubs will have to long for hard contact, and well-hit line drives, especially at Wrigley on cold windy days that don’t favour power hitting.
Another thing I think Joe Maddon will be working on this Spring – even if he doesn’t admit it – is defending the basepaths.
Only the Mets allowed more stolen bases last season, and with SB attempts up on the previous year in 2016, I expect baserunning to become an even more important strategy in 2017. Jon Lester is famously reluctant to throw to first for pickoffs, but the whole Cubs battery were guilty of allowing far too many stolen bases which led to scoring opportunities.
I think the Cubs will struggle to replicate their pitching performance this season, and so do most projection systems. Hendricks (4.5), Lester (4.3) and Arrieta (3.8) combined for 12.6 WAR in 2016 and Steamer has them down for only a combined 11.5 WAR this time out with some regression to the mean notably for Arrieta and Hendricks. The loss of Aroldis Chapman should largely be cushioned by the incoming Wade Davis, but the Cubs will be wary that whilst Davis has been excellent over the last three years, he was worse in 2016 than in either 2014 or 2015 in terms of his walk rate, strikeout rate, ERA and FIP. I like the look of youngster Carl Edwards Jr and the bullpen is solid but overall I think the Cubs pitchers will win them fewer games this year compared to last.
In writing all this its been hard to come to a conclusion, partly because the central question – will the Cubs win the World Series in 2017? – is virtually impossible to answer. I don’t buy into historical precedents, and the fact that nobody has won consecutive titles for 20 years doesn’t put me off the Cubs. In a lot of ways I think they will be better in 2017 than in 2016, and it is hard to look past them for the whole show based on their improving hitting, even if they might struggle to replicate performance in pitching and defense. In short, I like the Cubs for 2017 and I think they will cruise into the postseason and come close, but I like the Dodgers more. Perhaps I’ll save that for another post…
One last thing, we heard a lot last year about how amazing the Cubs fans were, putting up with 108 years of hurt with good grace and patience. I heard it so much in fact (mostly by the home broadcast team, to be fair!) that I thought I’d look into it a bit. Below is a graph of their attendance overlaid with their winning record since 1996. I’ll let you decide for yourselves how loyal the fans are.