|year||5 back game||10 back game||at year end||through 4/30|
soak this in for a little bit. the cubs begin the day tied for first in the national league central and have run out to a 57-49 record -- some eight games over .500.
on june 2, this same ballclub was nine games under .500, tied with cincinnati for the fewest wins in the league.
what has transpired in between has been one of the great extended winning runs in all of cub history, and certainly of the last ten years.
there are a lot of people out there right now who see this result as the most likely thing to have happened, perhaps even about the only thing that could've happened. they've utterly forgotten what they wrote and thought in early june, pretending now with the "corrective" goggles of desperate self-affirmation that they never really doubted the success of this team nor ever had any reason to.
at this i have to laugh. one runs across such eager revisionism constantly in my line of work -- the ease with which people cast themselves as prophetic on the flimsiest of pretenses and the most selective of memories always manages to amaze me.
another aspect of this same revisionism is the backward-looking presumption of inevitability -- because it happened this way, it was likely to or perhaps even had to. some people, after all, really did think the cubs were always going to be where they are today, and want to call themselves sensible. many of them would imagine themselves and their reasonableness to have been borne out by what has happened, regardless of how weirdly they came to arrive at their forecast.
this aspect of human nature, which we all come across a lot, is the confusion of validation by results with validity of method. a great many lines of deeply and even obviously flawed thinking will inevitably be "proven" by being "right" as measured only by an end which is somewhat polar -- the club either wins or loses, and right now every idiot in cubdom who thought this club was a winner is trumpeting his or her chosen methodology (or lack thereof) as prescient.
but the simple truth of what has happened to the cubs is that it could not have happened without very liberal and rare doses of good luck. not only have the cubs outperformed their pythagorean expectation since june 2 (at 256 scored and 199 allowed, they should have won 32 of 53 but have actually won 35) -- they have further managed to hit with a babip of .318 and allow just .274, meaning that their runs scored and allowed have been again heavily distorted by good fortune on balls in play, much as they were in april. this is to be compared to the milwaukee brewers, who have over the same span gone 27-25 while scoring 267 on a normal .298 babip but allowing 240 on a disadvantaged .306 babip.
how long can this last? in fact it may already by over -- the cubs have, after all, gone 4-3 in their last seven, scoring 32 and allowing 28. longer term, there's no intrinsic reason to think it should continue -- as noted previously, babip extremes show no permanence from half to half, and as much is very probably true from month to month. good examples are provided this year from the new york mets, whose extraordinary early season pitching babip has reverted to league mean and upward in subsequent months, and the florida marlins, who experienced the same phenomena to a lesser degree on the batting side. this is the normal course, and should serve as stark relief to drive home just how fortunate these cubs have been.
but a lot of that can now frankly be put aside. regardless of how bizarre or improbable, the improbable and bizarre has happened -- and the cubs are very happily on even ground with the brewers and facing a fair fight over the final two months. their schedules are similarly difficult; their injury situations to date are comparable, with only the exception of ben sheets who figures to return for the brewers in something like two or three weeks' time.
how should one handicap this race? dame fortune is going to play the prima donna's role, but on balance i would still have to say milwaukee.
remember the conditions for a rational hope? see point four -- ryan braun has continued to wreck the national league, and yovani gallardo has made sheets' injury into almost an afterthought. that has kept the brewers on an even keel, in spite of the cooling (see point five) of j.j. hardy, prince fielder, claudio vargas and particularly francisco cordero, whose ninth-inning collapses have handed the cubs 4 of the 7.5 games they've made up on his club since june 2.
the cubs, for their part, have stayed wonderfully healthy and watched as sean marshall has continued to put it all together. he has been the cubs' gallardo.
the difference over the last two months has really boiled down to luck on balls in play. will it be over the next two? i don't think, regardless of how much we might hope, that we can expect that to continue -- and if it doesn't, the cubs are still essentially a .500 ballclub, one which both scores and allows about 4.6-4.7 runs/game. milwaukee, on the other hand, has gone through extended periods of this season (indeed, the whole season in aggregate) with a neutral fate of balls in play and gone 58-50, allowing 4.49 ra/g and scoring 4.81 rs/g.
that is not a huge difference, and it could easily be overcome with some more good fortune -- but that's the baseline expectation. contra reportage such as baseball prospectus' playoff odds reports, which focus on runs scored and allowed but make no adjustment for babip and so show the cubs a slight favorite, i'd suspect the balance of expectation still tipped in the opposite direction.
but there's much unaccounted for in such a forecast, and an inspection of the elo-adjusted report -- which tries to weigh momentum rather than run differential -- reflects that the cubs have rolled like a freight train over the last nine weeks.
does that change the calculus? if so, by how much? i don't know and can't say -- but i sure as hell hope so. i like being in first place. i really like it, regardless of how the club got here. and i have to say, regardless of my left brain's chatter, my right brain is feeling pretty good about my september tickets.