By virtually any measure, the Chicago Cubs have been the best team in the majors this season, and there are plenty of reasons to believe this will be the year the franchise finally wins its first World Series since 1908.
Unfortunately for the Cubs, baseball — particularly playoff baseball — is never that black and white. The best team doesn’t always (or even usually) win, and there’s just as much reason to believe Chicago’s season could be over by Monday night.
So I’m taking my Opening Day prediction, and I’m sticking with it: The Cubs won’t win the 2016 World Series, and here are six more reasons why:
Getty ImagesJim McIsaac
Their regular season won't matter in October
In the 21 years since the playoffs expanded to include the Divisional Series, there have been just four cases where the team with the league’s best regular-season record went on to win the World Series. In two of those cases (2007 and 2013), two teams tied for the most wins in the league and met in the playoffs (both times the Red Sox won the matchup and the World Series). In the other two instances (1998 and 2009), the Yankees — they of 27 titles — won it all.
In fact, since the league first moved to a three-tiered playoff format, no National League team has ever led the league in wins and gone on to win the World Series. The last time that happened was 1986, when the Mets won 108 games then beat the Red Sox in seven games for the title. To find an instance of a wins leader from the NL winning a championship without the unwitting assistance of Bill Buckner, you’d have to go back to the Reds’ title in 1976 — before anyone on the current Cubs roster was even born.
Getty ImagesStacy Revere
They might not even escape the NLDS
Dating back to 2006, six of those aforementioned teams that finished with the best record in the majors (or tied for it) have lost in the Divisional Series. And while we don’t yet know the Cubs’ NLDS opponent, either the Mets or the Giants could pose serious problems to Chicago’s championship hopes — at least if their recent history is any indication.
The worst stretch of the Cubs’ 2016 regular season was inarguably the final few weeks of the first half, a 20-game span before the All-Star break that saw Chicago go 5-15. During that slide, the Cubs had three separate losing streaks of at least four games, and one of them came exclusively at the hands of the Mets, who swept a series at Citi Field by a combined score of 32-11, including a 14-3 blowout that marked the most runs allowed by the Cubs in a game all year.
That alone doesn’t make New York a lock to upset Chicago should they meet — the Cubs took two of three at Wrigley when the Mets paid a visit after the All-Star break, after all — but there’s something to be said for New York being one of just two major-league teams (the Rockies being the other) to boast a winning record against the Cubs this season. There’s more than a little confidence to be gleaned from that if you’re New York, to say nothing of last year’s NLCS sweep.
The Cubs went 4-3 in seven games against the Giants this season, but they’ve also been dominated twice by Madison Bumgarner, who pitched 7 2/3 innings of shutout ball to beat Kyle Hendricks in May, then struck out 10 over six solid innings to beat Jake Arrieta in September. If there’s a bright side for Chicago, it’s that San Francisco will be using Bumgarner in Wednesday night’s NL Wild Card Game. But if Bruce Bochy rolls the dice and decides to pitch Bumgarner on short rest for Saturday’s Game 2, he could potentially go again in a deciding Game 5 next Thursday.
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY SportsCary Edmondson
They're missing the clutch gene
For all their offensive prowess, the Cubs have not been as stellar at the plate in high-pressure situations. Cubs batters hit just .219 this season with two outs and runners in scoring position, and Chicago led all of baseball in runners left on base. The Cubs also hit just .232 when playing from behind — that number jumped to .270 when playing with the lead — and hit .230 in “late and close” situations, which includes any instance where the team was up by one, tied or had the tying run on base, at bat or on deck in the seventh inning or later.
To be clear, batting average isn’t the be all and end all when it comes to evaluating hitting, but by FanGraphs’ measure, the Cubs’ “clutch” rating is 25th out of 30 major-league teams, and only the Mets rank lower among playoff-bound clubs. That said, this is a complex formula with a number of variables that may or may not impact play during these playoffs. But while the result is not necessarily damning, it’s also worth noting that the 2015 Royals, 2014 Giants, 2012 Giants and 2011 Cardinals all led the majors in the clutch category during the season, and each won the World Series.
Further, Chicago went 22-23 in one-run games this season. That accounts for only about a quarter of the team’s outings, but in the playoffs — when the Cubs will be facing some of the best pitching and best hitting the league has to offer — there’s an increased likelihood a one-run game could make or break the entire postseason run. (Last year’s Royals, for example, won a one-run game in Game 2 of the ALDS that ultimately kept them from being swept by the Astros; Kansas City also won one-run games to advance to the World Series and in Game 1 of the Fall Classic.)
TNS via Getty ImagesChicago Tribune
They can't count on Arrieta
The Cubs have a pair of lights-out starting pitchers in Hendricks and Jon Lester, either of whom would be a worthy candidate for the NL Cy Young Award. But the reigning Cy Young winner, Arrieta, has struggled with consistency throughout the second half of the season, and if he can’t get things on track soon, Chicago’s postseason run may be short-lived.
As of June 22, Arrieta was arguably the best pitcher in baseball at 11-2 with a 1.74 ERA. But in 16 starts since, the righty has posted a 4.44 ERA and seen his K:BB rate drop from 3:1 to 2:1, while the Cubs have gone 8-8 in those contests. Of course, Arrieta is no slouch, and he showed as much in his total domination of the Cardinals in his penultimate start of the season. But five days later, in his final regular season start against the Pirates, Arrieta gave up seven earned on 10 hits in five innings.
Nearly every team in the postseason field boasts two top-flight arms that could reasonably hang with — or even top — Lester or Hendricks on a given night. So for Chicago, Arrieta may be the difference-maker on the mound. And while perfection isn’t a requirement in the postseason, reliability will be. One untimely blow-up would put some serious pressure on the rest of the rotation and could be all it takes to send the Cubs sliding.
Getty ImagesJon Durr
They're the best, but only barely
Maybe this is an oversimplification of things, but there are nine other teams in the playoffs that are pretty good, too. That’s not meant to be a slight of Chicago, which clearly was the best team in baseball this season, but to simply assume victory on the basis that the Cubs were better over the past six months would be off-base.
For example, the Red Sox bested Chicago in basically every offensive category this season, and since Aug. 12, Boston has had the majors' best record (32-17). Over that span, the Red Sox have scored 269 runs to Chicago’s 240 and have allowed 166 runs to Chicago’s 177, and this October they’ll be riding the wave of emotion that comes with David Ortiz’s final postseason run. You mean to tell me that team couldn’t take four of seven from the Cubs if they were to meet in the World Series?
Similarly, in the NL, the Nationals, Mets, Giants and Dodgers each have team ERAs between 3.51 and 3.70, and the Dodgers and Nationals — Chicago’s two potential NLCS foes — struck out more opposing batters over the course of the season than any other team in baseball. Collectively, the Cubs struggled against so-called “power” pitchers (those in the top third of the league in strikeouts plus walks) posting a slash line of .229/.336/.381 in 1,461 such plate appearances this season. So why do we just assume they’ll light up whichever aces they end up facing in the latter rounds?
Then there’s the matter of “lesser” teams simply getting hot at the right time. Over the last week of the season, for example, the Giants gave up just 11 total runs. Further, five of the past 14 World Series have been won by a wild-card team — and as recently as 2014 we’ve seen two wild-card clubs meet for the title. So while there’s no questioning that the Cubs are the best of the best, that’s far from a guarantee that that’ll be enough to win it all, especially in the postseason, when the margin for error is smaller than ever and a bit of momentum can swing a whole series.
Getty ImagesStacy Revere
They're still cursed
Call it superstitious — or stupid — but I believe there’s something to be said for the curse that has kept the Cubs from winning the World Series for the past 108 years. A century’s worth of failure is a tough thing for a franchise to carry around, and as much as they don’t want to admit it, the Cubs’ past failings will weigh on this year’s team the further it gets into the playoffs.
As you’ll recall, the Cubs haven’t even played in a World Series since 1945, and while it’s easy to point to the Red Sox’s curse-busting win in 2004 as proof that jinxes can be broken, it’s worth noting that Boston had to lose World Series in 1946, 1967, 1975 and 1986 before it could finally get it right. Certainly, the Cubs had their chances in the teens, ‘20s and ‘30s, but at this point, it’s been so long since the city and the team have tasted that level of success that it’s hard to see them getting it right on the first try in the modern era.
Sure, there’s no way to prove any of this empirically, so I’ll just call it a hunch. Or, in other words: The Cubs will inevitably lose because that’s what the Cubs have always done.
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.