Saturday, May 06, 2006

what five back means

following last night's loss -- which saw the cubs extend their scoreless inning streak to mind-boggling 25, completed in extra frames the fourth shutout of the cub offense in six games and very well may be remembered as 'the freddie bynum game' -- the team is now ensconced in fifth place in the division at 14-14 and sits five back of leader cincinnati and four and a half back of wildcard leader houston. the cubs have lost four straight and six of the last seven.

first, a word of moderation -- the cubs just aren't this bad. they will score again. they will win games. and they may even continue to scoot along in fits and starts to a .500 record in the end. this club will have a winning streak of some kind before 162 games are up.

however, mediocre teams can get into bad runs -- and this team is worse than mediocre at the moment.

they were going to be mediocre presuming derrek lee, mark prior, glendon rusch and jerome williams working at career averages. and of course one had to assume injuries were coming down the pike, as they always are.

but with jerry hairston, sean marshall, rich hill and angel guzman, the cubs are simply bad -- perhaps even 90 losses bad, dutifully on schedule to maintain their every-third-year periodicity of that measure of total futility under andy macfail's "leadership". and this writer doesn't dare think firing hitting coach gene clines or getting jeff conine or kevin millar to fill in the hole created by lee is quite enough to right the ship. do those things, by all means -- but the deep and real problems this club has had real solutions in november and december when "patience" was for many the watchword.

this team is now reaping what patience has consistently sown under tribune management.

if anyone now doubts just how much trouble this club is in, let us for a moment concentrate on their position in the standings -- five back of leader cincinnati and four and a half back of wildcard leader houston.

many will note that there are many examples of teams that come back from five games down in a playoff race at some point to win -- notably the 2005 houston astros, who were 15-30 at one point only to become the national league pennant winners.

but there are an order of magnitude more examples of teams that don't. one has to remember that for every 2005 houston, there are a dozen 2005 pittsburghs -- one cannot discard the sample because it did nothing memorable. the hard truth is that the vast majority of teams that go five down in may are on their way to going 10, 20 or 30 down. and there's no good reason at this juncture to pretend that the cubs should be an urgent special case.

let us narrow the case to make it more easily researched. look now just at the may 3 standings in each of the three nl divisions from 1995 on (when the nl was split into three divisions with a wild card). that sample constitutes 170 team-years.

how many of these teams were five back by may 3? over the 11 years, of the 170 teams, 50 were five or more back in their division on may 3.

how many of those teams won their division? exactly zero -- none of them caught the division leader. 0-for-50, despite having five months to erase the deficit.

how many made the playoffs in any form (that is, the wildcard)? the 2005 astros, the 2003 marlins and the 2000 mets. 3-of-50 -- that 6%.

conversely, we can backtrack to say that 120 teams in that span were within five games of their division lead on may 3. as there were 44 total playoff spots available in the 11 years, 41 were awarded to these teams. that means being within five on may 3 has granted an empirical 34% chance of hitting the playoffs somehow.

looking at may 3 itself is of course a special case of the more general case of being back five games at any point. but one will find upon more robust inspection that the model nonetheless remains bleak for teams that find themselves five away. the cubs chances of making the playoffs in some manner are, at this point, some small fraction of what they might have been on april 3.

this is what being five back means. the cubs have already shown themselves to be a very long shot indeed to win either the central or the wildcard.

allow this page to make two observations as to why this should be so. first, most teams that manage to get behind early will later manage to get behind by more because they aren't as good as their competition. only those few which are playing anomalously should have much reason to hope for a change of fortune, for fortune is all that is keeping them from playing better. no one can say definitively which the cubs are -- unfortunate or simply not very good -- but the consensus on this page leans decidedly toward the latter. if anything, this page finds it more likely that the cubs are lucky to be 14-14 considering their abysmal offense, whose run of luck with runners in scoring position has officially ended.

second, even teams that have played anomalously well -- perhaps the pitching-shy reds, leading the division at 20-10 -- have nonetheless built a record that constitutes a significant cushion. they now need not play as well as the cubs for the remaining 132 games of their schedule in order to remain in front of them in the end. should cincinnati merely play even baseball from now on, they would end at 86-76 -- and the northsiders would have to go 73-61 to beat them.

moreover, like many teams which go five back so early in the year, the cubs are looking up at not one but four teams in their division. what are the odds that the cubs not only play better than the four teams in front of them in the central division -- or the five teams leading them in the wildcard -- but play so much better as to overtake them all in spite of their current deficit?

while it wishes not to dispel any and all hope -- for there is always room for hope, however small -- this page can but sadly conclude that those chances are quite remote.

the point of this dour exercize is to drive home the pragmatic point that this year's accidental youth movement should now become a youth movement in earnest. it is amazing, bewildering and pathetic all that the cubs should be in this position despite their considerable resources -- and nothing less that a capital indictment of this team's ownership and management at every level. pink slips are vastly better deserved than extensions, starting with macfail and excluding no one. but 2007 looks increasingly likely to be upon the cubs already despite what the calendar reads. this page would exhort the cubs to continue to use this year as they failed to last -- find out what solutions there are in house for 2007 and reject the chaff.

there's diminishingly little point in playing jerry hairston or neifi perez any longer. call up ryan theriot and plug him in at second. play ronny cedeno mercilessly until he proves what he is (and incidentally the opinions of this writer right or wrong). likewise, felix pie should pack a bag for chicago and keep it at the ready -- juan pierre is a nice player who has struggled early, but will be remarkable trade bait as july approaches. and spend as little time as possible kvetching over kerry wood and wade miller -- these aren't reliable pieces for any winning ballclub in any case, and starts would be more informatively expended on guzman, hill, jae kuk-ryu and les walrond.

No comments: