The phrase "wait ’til next year" is a popular one for fans of perennial losers, but no professional sports team shares a more lasting affiliation with the axiom than the Chicago Cubs; there’s even a movie about the team with that exact title. For the Cubs, winning has rarely been a this-year thing, and so the fan base has had to take solace in the future, even if that future has often brought just more losing. Well, Cubs fans, I have some good news, even if you’ve grown tired of hearing this; next year really might be your year.
Much has been written about the young talent coming up through Chicago’s farm system. Cuban sensation Jorge Soler is going to be the newest hyped prospect to reach the big leagues when he makes his debut today, when he’ll join Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez to form a trio of exciting young rookies. And these guys are just the first course, as even better prospects — third baseman/maybe outfielder Kris Bryant and shortstop/maybe second baseman Addison Russell are the cream of the Cubs crop — are not too far behind. The Cubs have so much young talent that people are actually stressing out over whether the team will actually have room for all of the youngsters on the roster at the same time.
Of course, prospect hype doesn’t guarantee major-league success, and Cubs fans have been burned by supposed waves of talent that didn’t pan out before. So what’s different this time? Well, for starters, this roster is a lot better than people might realize, even without factoring in all the prospects on the rise.
Yes, I’m talking about the roster of a team that is currently 59-72, good for last place in the NL Central. On the surface, this is just another terrible Cubs team in a long line of terrible Cubs teams, but once you dig a little bit deeper, you’ll find that this team has actually shown some real promise this year.
I’ve written here before about a model we host at FanGraphs called BaseRuns; it’s the same concept as pythagorean expected win-loss record, just with better inputs, stripping out more of a season’s randomness than just looking at run differential. By focusing solely on the value of positive (or negative) events a team incurs without regard for the order in which they occur, we can get a better sense of how a team performed than by looking at win-loss record or even run differential.
And here’s where Cubs fans should find optimism; by BaseRuns expected record, the Cubs have played like a .500 team this year. Their expected record is actually better than that of the first-place Kansas City Royals, in fact, and is not far off from what the teams contending for the NL wild cards are putting up. Here are the BaseRuns expected records for the NL teams in 2014 through Monday’s games:
NL expected records
This isn’t a great team, of course, but the only reason the Cubs are in the mix for a top pick again next summer is because they’re 28th in both clutch hitting and clutch pitching this season. They haven’t hit well when it mattered and their pitchers haven’t kept important runs from scoring, so despite average overall performance, they’ve lost eight more games than expected.
So why is this good news? Because clutch performance has basically no predictive value, and the historical record of teams that dramatically underperformed their BaseRuns expected record in one year shows that these teams often improve dramatically in the next year. Right now, the Cubs are 53 points of winning percentage below expectations; here are how the 11 most similar underperformers in recent history have done in the following season:
Next Year Winning%
2002 White Sox
2002 Red Sox
2009 Blue Jays
On average, these 11 teams underperformed their BaseRuns expectation by 53 points of winning percentage, the same mark as the Cubs are underperforming this year. Their overall winning percentage improved by 38 points in the next season, meaning that their record the next year came pretty close to their expected record in the prior season. Ten of the 11 teams improved their record in the next season. This is the kind of thing that is often referred to as regression toward the mean.
Of course, you might also notice that the 2013 Cubs are on that list because they did this last year, too. So I can understand some skepticism, given that the Cubs are now on Year 2 of the win-far-fewer-games-than-expected trick. It’s tough to see one team underperform for 162 games and think it won’t continue; it’s almost impossible to watch a team do it for 324 games and still believe that.
And yet, that’s what history shows. There are four teams, not including the current Cubs, that underperformed their expected winning percentage by a total of 100 points or more over two consecutive seasons since the start of 2002.
The 2004-2005 Tigers. They went 72-90 in 2004 and 71-91 in 2005, despite BaseRuns numbers that suggested they were roughly a .500 team in both years. In 2006, the Tigers went 95-67 and made it to the World Series.
The 2005-2006 Indians. While the Indians went 93-69 in 2005, they still managed to underperform their BaseRuns winning percentage by 47 points, and then they fell to 78-84 the next year despite an expected record of 89-73. The 2007 Indians went 96-66 and made it to the ALCS.
The 2009-2010 Nationals. The 2009 Nationals lost 103 games despite a BaseRuns record that indicated they were just bad instead of atrocious. And while they regressed up to their 2009 BaseRuns total the next year, they still underperformed their 2010 expected record by 38 points. In 2011, they jumped up to .500 ball by playing at their expected record, and they had the best winning percentage in baseball in 2012.
The 2009-2010 Diamondbacks. They lost 90+ games in both seasons, but their expected records suggested that they were not as terrible as their win-loss records suggested in either year. In 2011, they went 94-68 and won the NL West.
This is almost a complete list of the most "surprising" good teams in recent years, as two straight years of losing far more games than expected turned to winning almost overnight. In three of the four cases, the un-clutch teams immediately made the playoffs in the very next season; the fourth team made it in the second year afterwards. By wins and losses, these improvements are incredible; by BaseRuns, they’re entirely reasonable, because these teams were always better than their records made them look.
And so are the 2014 Cubs. It might not have shown up in the standings yet, but even without the wave of prospects that are on the way, this team has performed like a roughly average Major League team. Add in some expected production from a few of the young kids and likely a significant free agent addition or two, and the Cubs are going to be everyone’s sleeper pick next year. But it won’t just be prospect hype and a big name addition. This is a decent team that is a lot closer to winning than their current record suggests.