Friday, September 14, 2007

backing into october

the chicago cubs accomplished something i frankly didn't think at all likely this year when on august 1 they climbed back into a first place tie with the milwaukee brewers in the national league central. but in my view the tenuous crux of their situation remained then no different from what i had been saying virtually the entire year to that point.

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.

the cubs thereafter confirmed the weakness of their position by actually trading for the godawful steve trachsel at the end of august and consciously putting him in the rotation, misguidedly thinking he might be an improvement on sean marshall. he has since gone 1-2 with a 7.82 era, allowing 20 hits and 5 walks against 7 strikeouts in 14 innings, which is entirely unsurprising.

but the mean reversion had already begun for the club well before that, with 1060w calling the turning worm on august 15.

here we are, unfortunately, seeing that babip-related disaster unfold. as you can see form the shaded regions of the 12-day babip differential graph, whenever this team has experienced anything like even a balanced babip -- luck-neutral, as it were -- is has generally played .500 or worse. we're seeing that again now.

after one of the more amazingly lucky years on record, the pitching staff finally began to experience some normal luck on balls in play -- and the effect has been as singularly devastating as i've long expected it would be. august saw the cubs staff allowed a .300 babip, compounded the issue by allowing 121 walks in 246.2 innings, and watched as the staff runs allowed per game jumped to 4.89. september has been worse still, with a .307 babip against translating into 5.08 ra/g.

recall that, in the entire season prior to that point, the cubs staff had been one of the best in baseball on the strength of a fortuitously low babip -- any examination of the monthly splits makes the correlation obvious. failing that good fortune, the cubs staff has completely fallen apart and the team has been one of the worst in the nl again since august 1, going 17-22 (.436).

it's been another spot of unbelievable good fortune in this magical season that just beneath the cubs on that list lies the milwaukee brewers, 16-21 (.432) since the break of august. if the cubs have failed under the duress of merely ordinary fortune, the brewers have been absolutely hexed -- babip allowed figures in august and september to date of .349 and .337 illustrate the awful luck (and, for the cubs, exquisite timing) that has hit that team. the brewer pitching is not very different in underlying talent than the cubs, so that kind of misfortune is catastrophic. the brewers have allowed 6.05 runs per game since august 1, overwhelming a typically productive (5.05 rs/g) offense for the power-laden brewers behind devastating twin engines ryan braun and prince fielder, both of whom have torn it up most of the year.

it doesn't take a mathematician to deduce that, if the cubs are flailing with merely normal luck while the brewers are reduced to such a state only by honest-to-goodness acts of god, the cubs are at a disadvantage. this has been the story all season, as the northsiders have stayed with milwaukee -- and above .500 -- on the backs of a stunning differential in grace.

it has become a common meme in chicago sports media (not uncommon to hear on wgn, shockingly) that, looking at the nl central, it's clear the cubs are the most talented club and should therefore win the race. i see also even in the comments here that an adjunct meme -- that many of the cubs players are "underpeforming", thereby explaining the struggling -- is making the rounds.

folks, talented clubs don't struggle like the cubs have for the majority of this year. they were one of the worst clubs in baseball from opening day to june 2, and have been again since august 1. for four of six months, they've sucked. as to underperformance, on a team level i'm not sure where that can be found. even individually, if you're surprised that alfonso soriano hasn't hit 40 homers, i think your expectations are what's out of line -- his 290/329/518 line to date is squarely atop his 281/326/511 career numbers. aramis ramirez at 316/371/552 is likewise duplicating his prolific output of recent seasons. derrek lee at 312/398/495 is actually well ahead of his career output of 280/367/499. indeed, i can find nothing very disappointing in what the cubs have done offensively. at 4.59 rs/g, they've come in at the low end of preseason expectation in a down year in league scoring, placing 8th in the nl -- which is exactly where i would've guessed them in march. and can anyone find the stones to argue that pitching has somehow disappointed overall this year? as stated it's quite the opposite; they radically outperformed until august began.

in all sincerity, it seems to me that all that has separated this team from an outright disaster not far from 2006's magnitude has been a spate of extraordinary midseason luck. with a normal course of events, this club could well have lost 85 and possibly more.

what the cubs have is not the most talented team in the race but the most expensive. many commenters have little idea what the difference is, and are therefore befuddled at how the brewers have remained in the running. you, on the other hand, shouldn't be. the cubs aren't very good at all, and i myself overestimated them at the outset of the year by calling for 82 wins.

if they somehow manage to hold off milwaukee over these final sixteen, it will conclude what is easily the least probable playoff season in chicago cubs history, bar none. i don't expect them to -- but as i've said, over such short runs, luck is by far the greatest part of the result. following on the cardinals' promptly eliminating themselves on the heels of my last idea, i'm done trying to predict what could happen. it's downright embarrassing to ask the baseball gods for a bit more than the immense pile they've already granted this team in hopes of backing into an october series with either new york or arizona.

but i'm asking. please?

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