How the Cubs Stack Up Within Baseball History

Importantly, for the Cubs, this season isn’t over. Obviously, this season isn’t over — in a sense their real season hasn’t begun. We’ve known the Cubs would make the playoffs for something like five and a half months, and only now do they get to compete for the grand prize. Because there are games remaining, this might not seem like the best time to examine the 2016 Cubs through a historical lens.

I believe the opposite, though. At last, we have final, official regular-season statistics. Those are the stats that matter the most. And even though the Cubs are clearly Team No. 1 moving forward, the odds are still better that they don’t win the World Series. They’re probably going to lose, somewhere and somehow. And I don’t want to allow for playoff emotion to color the way people feel about this analysis. This season, the Cubs won eight more games than anyone else. The Cubs had a better run differential than anyone else, by a margin of 68. Clearly, they were really good. But how good, historically, when you’re talking about more than 100 years?

I’ve decided to analyze by three categories: winning percentage, run differential (per game), and OPS differential. I know it feels like only wins should matter, when the season’s complete, but you’ll never convince me that 162 games is sufficient to balance out the noise, hence the other two measures. Run differential is less noisy than win/loss record. OPS differential is less noisy still. And in order to conduct all this analysis, I went to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, which gave me information stretching back to 1913. I wound up with a sample of more than 2,200 individual team-seasons.

So to get right on with it: here are some Cubs rankings.

cubs-rankings

Out of everyone, the Cubs rank in the top three percent in winning. They rank in the top one percent in run differential, and in OPS differential. That’s why you could make the argument they were even a little unlucky. The best ranking here is OPS differential — in that specific category, the Cubs rank 12th.

I decided I wanted to go another step further. As much as I like those general statistics, an overall rank does nothing to capture performance against league spread. I feel like performance should be evaluated differently if it occurred in a season with very much or very little parity. So for every individual league-season, I calculated the standard deviation in each of the three stats. Then, for every team in every season, I calculated z-scores for each of the three stats. A z-scores just measures the number of standard deviations away from the average. Here are the new Cubs rankings, including a fourth bar, which just takes the average of the three z-scores:

cubs-rankings-z

The Cubs manage to shine even more. By winning, they’re just out of the top 10, but they’re now fifth by run differential, and second by OPS differential. The average of the three z-scores puts them in sixth. The five teams ahead of them:

  • 1984 Tigers (won World Series)
  • 1986 Mets (won World Series)
  • 1995 Indians (lost World Series)
  • 2001 Mariners (shut up)
  • 1944 Cardinals (won World Series)

There are a lot of ways to try to slice this, but you could convincingly argue this identifies the best teams ever (or at least since 1913). The Cubs would fit in pretty well with the group. This analysis loves those 1984 Tigers — they finished with eight more wins than anyone else, and across the three stats, they were an average of 2.63 standard deviations better than the mean. The Cubs show up at an average of 2.38 standard deviations better than the mean. That doesn’t make them the best team in baseball history, and I haven’t even made an attempt to adjust for the National League seemingly being worse than the American League, but the Cubs are around the best ever. They could hold their own in conversation.

One last thing. I had, for every team ever, the average of the three z-scores. So then, for every season since 1913, I figured out the difference between the average of the best team, and the average of the second-best team. Here’s what that plot looks like:

gap-best-second-best

The line shoots up there to the right, to meet the outstanding nature of the 2016 Cubs. By this measure, the Cubs are the best team, and the Red Sox are the second-best team, but the difference between their averages is 0.79. That’s the biggest difference between the best and second-best teams since 1995. It’s the 11th-biggest difference overall, out of a sample of 104. What this is saying: The Cubs were almost inarguably the best baseball team of 2016. I know some people believe the playoffs manage to crown the best of the best. I get it; I treasure the playoffs, too. But the playoffs are different. They measure something else. Some might say they measure very little at all. When teams are constructed, it’s with the regular season in mind, and the Cubs just steamrolled their way through from start to finish. Every regular season has a best team, but relatively few regular seasons have a best team as dominant as this year’s best team. You could say the Cubs were the most outstanding baseball team in two decades. Even in 2001, the Mariners weren’t that much better than the A’s. The Cubs left little question which team belonged at the top.

If the Cubs lose in the playoffs, this would be of little consolation. If the Cubs win in the playoffs, this could feel of little relevance. Which is why I wanted to get this in now, before anything begins. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the Cubs in the second season. In the first one — the long one, the real one — the Cubs were far better than anybody. Maybe it’s not quite mission accomplished, but, it really kind of is.

We hoped you liked reading How the Cubs Stack Up Within Baseball History by Jeff Sullivan!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

newest oldest most voted
vbjd1111
Member
Member
vbjd1111

I’m not sure how you can evaluate this issue accurately without considering (as Jeff mentions in passing) how stratified the NL is in 2016. Whatever method you use, there are roughly 9 horrible* teams in the NL, and 6 good ones. The context of the Cubs’ excellence is critical when your analysis is based on “league spread.”

*Horrible as in 9 of the bottom 11 teams in ELO, per 538, are NL teams.

rustyspatula
Member
rustyspatula

Isn’t that in part because ELO is zero-sum on a game-by-game basis? So as the AL keeps winning the vast majority of interleague games, they’re increasing the separation between the size of their pool of intraleague ELO points relative to that of the NL.

And then, since the AL has a bigger pool, their average ELO score is >1500, and the whole distribution is shifted to the right.

HamelinROY
Member
Member
HamelinROY

AL:
Average ELO Score: 1513
Standard Deviation: 28.5
AL teams above AL average: 9
AL teams above league average: 10

NL:
Average ELO Score: 1497
Standard Deviation: 38.5
NL teams above NL average: 6
NL teams above league average: 6

Also looked back at preseason, those starting values are largely the same. AL was 1511, NL was 1499

tramps like us
Member
tramps like us

I always thought the average ELO score headed straight downward after “A New World Record.” Hard to top that version of Do Ya, and Rockaria was awesome. But some people really liked Turn To Stone, so….

Jason B
Member
Member
Jason B

That’s some strange magic right there…

output gap
Member
Member
output gap

The Cubs went 15-5 against the AL with a run differential of +55. They had losing records against: NYM 2-5, COL 2-4. They lost more than 2 consecutive games one time outside their 3 weeks of stumbles pre-ASB. That one instance was a 3 game losing streak (@SF, @SF, @STL), followed by 6 wins. They lost multiple series to 2 teams: Colorado and Milwaukee.

There isn’t a case that “the league was weak” except insofar as the Cubs didn’t face the Cubs. But that’s the point of this article, it’s very rare to see a team that dominates so thoroughly as this one did.

jucojames
Member
jucojames

Cubs won 55%+ of their 56 games against .500+ record teams. They had over 60 games against REALLY bad teams. By comparison, the Red Sox won 53% of 103 games against .500+ teams and Rangers won 66% of 91 games. Cubs had over 60 games against very bad teams, so they are surely very good, but perhaps not to the degree suggested. As a side note, I question any “study” like the one in this column for best teams from 1913 that somehow doesn’t include the 1927 Yankees.

Jackie T.
Member
Member
Jackie T.

It does appear in the final chart that the 1927 Yankees and two teams in the late 1930s should have been included.

output gap
Member
Member
output gap

The reality is the AL had 10 teams with at least 81 wins, but only 2 teams between 70 and 80 wins. The NL had 6 teams with at least 81 wins, and 5 with between 70 and 80 wins. “.500 record” isn’t a great signal of true talent and ability of a team. The difference between the 78 win Pirates and the 84 win Yankees is 5 fWAR in the Yankees favor. The Pirates have a 3 fWAR lead on KC, despite 3 less wins.

The fulcrum point of your post is basically that Pittsburgh was a sub .500 team, since if you add in the 14-4-1 line CHC posted against Pittsburgh in the “.500+” designation, the Cubs end up 45-29-1, good for .607. Add Miami and it’s 49-32-1 (.604).

The Rangers obliterated the Mariners and the Astros (27-11) in division play, swept the Cardinals (3-0) and went 6-1 against KC who won 81 exactly. That’s all very good. They also went 35-36 among the sub .500 crowd, and finished with a +8 run differential.

jucojames
Member
jucojames

Your point about an arbitrary line is obviously a good one, but I would argue the issue with the Cubs and the NL is the degree of the gap. Between the Brewers, Reds, Phillies, Braves, Diamondbacks and Padres, the Cubs played 52 games against terrible teams – as another poster stated, 3 of which who one could argue tanked intentionally. The Red Sox played 37 such games and that includes 6 against a .457 team with Mike Trout. And as bad as those NL teams were, they got to play each other a lot as well. I am simply making the argument that the Cubs love affair may be a bit over done and that they are likely a very good team but think it wise to wait before we crown them as an all time great.

output gap
Member
Member
output gap

Wait for what? Presumably, the playoffs. Jeff’s point of this article is that this team put together one of the greatest league-adjusted regular seasons ever, regardless of playoff outcomes. They did put up a remarkable season, in spite of the fact that MLB is experiencing unprecedented parity.

The other point I think needs made here is that there isn’t great evidence that the American League would be definitively more difficult for the 2016 Cubs. They have a non pitcher wRC+ of 113 tied with the Red Sox, without a DH. Said another way, the Red Sox with David Ortiz and his 626 PA of 163 wRC+, put up the same rate stats as the 8 Cubs hitters fielded each game. Adding a DH would add to their ability to deploy their enviable depth. They put up a +55 run differential in 20 games vs. the AL. I think they would’ve done just fine.

Joeys Bat Flip
Member
Joeys Bat Flip

There sure are a lot of comments here showing how the Cubs are not historically good because they played against a weak field of opponents. Has anyone checked to see how weak the field was in historical seasons? I did!

The 1984 Tigers had their best records against the two worst teams: 11-2 against Milwaukee (who finished last in the AL East), and 10-2 against Texas (who finished last in the AL W). Their W% against teams with records above .500 was just .531.

The 1986 Mets were 17-1 against the Pirates (.395 W%), as well as 10-2 against SD (.457 W%), and 9-3 against the Dodgers (.451). Their W% against above-500 teams: .555.

The 1995 Indians were the only team in their division that finished above .500. They played 52 of their 144 games (strike-shortened season) against the rest of the division and had a 37-15 record (.685) against those teams. They also had a 37-8 (.822) record against the other sub-500 teams, meaning their record against above 500 teams was just 26-21 (.553).

The 2001 Mariners played in an environment similar to the 2016 Cubs: four AL teams finished with fewer than 70 wins (Seattle record vs those teams: 26-8, .765), and four finished with more than 90 wins (SEA record: 21-14, .600). That middle tier (70-90 wins) was also dominated 69-24 (.741). They didn’t lose a season series against any team, including short 3-game sets of interleague play. They were really good…why didn’t Brad Pitt play Pat Gillick in an Oscar movie?

The 1944 Cardinals had only 2 other teams that finished above .500, and their record against those teams was 24-20 (.546). Against the bottom 2 teams in the league (there were only 8 teams in the league) their record was 35-9 (.796).

Add it all up, and what do you get? The Cubs are no less historic due to these carefully-selected factoids than are the all-time greats (other than the 2001 M’s, who were stupid-good).

Oh, and for good measure:

The 1927 Yankees played 44 of their 154 games against the St Louis Browns and the Boston Red Sox, neither of which finished with a W% above .390. They destroyed each of those teams, finishing with a record of 39-5 (.886) against those two teams. If they’d only beaten them in 60% of their games, they would have won 13 fewer games, and wound up with only 97 wins, hardly historic.

Wu-Bacca
Member
Wu-Bacca

I think you officially ended the argument, Joeys Bat Flip – nice work. It’s a misconception that great teams achieve their greatness by beating good teams. Historically, most great teams play more or less to a draw against good teams, but OBLITERATE weaker teams. That is, beating up on also-rans is typically a sign of greatness, not a counterargument to it.

johnforthegiants
Member
johnforthegiants

That’s a good summary of the situation, Wu-Bacca, but It does depend on how you define greatness. If you define greatness in terms of regular season statistics, JBF’s argument looks convincing. On the other hand, if you define greatness in terms of postseason success, then if what you say is true (teams which are great in terms of their regular season statistics play good teams to a draw), the situation would be different, because presumably the teams defined as great on the basis of their regular season statistics would play other good teams in the playoffs and therefore win no more than 50% of the time (that is, play them to a draw, as you said), which isn’t particularly successful. It follows that greatness in terms of success in the postseason must be defined in some other way.

Wu-Bacca
Member
Wu-Bacca

I think you bring up a useful point, johnforthegiants. If you define greatness by success over the long haul, then a lopsided record against bad teams does not contraindicate greatness. But if you define greatness as winning in crunch time, “when it matters,” then yes, a team must beat other very good or even great teams to be considered great. I think both viewpoints are defensible, depending on what matters to you as a fan. And I think most people include a smattering of both views, which is why, say, the ’98 Yanks and the ’76 Reds are considered greater teams than, say, the ’01 Mariners or ’54 Indians. This seems to be the threshold the Cubs are at now – clearly a great team over the long haul, but will they reach that pantheon of truly great teams that are remembered for both winning often and winning momentously?

johnforthegiants
Member
johnforthegiants

The problem though (as I’m sure you know) is that the sample size in an individual postseason is so small that it is difficult to know whether the relative success of the ’98 Yankees and ’76 Reds as opposed to the ’01 Mariners or the ’54 Indians in the playoffs in those years was a matter of luck or a real measure of their ability/greatness. What would seem to make sense to me would be to come up with a certain set of parameters which are most strongly statistically correlated with postseason success. These parameters could include the statistics of individual players in the particular season or in their careers in general, whatever turns out to be most strongly statistically corrected to general postseason success. It may well be that the factors associated with general regular season success are not exactly the same as the factors associated with general postseason success. For example off the top of my head I might suggest that having a deep bullpen and 4 good starters would play a greater role in postseason success than in regular season success, so that for example rather than using overall OPS against a team’s pitchers as a measure of effectiveness (as is done in this article) one might give greater weight to the OPS of a team’s 4 top starters (greatest for the 1st, least for the 4th, because presumably the 1st would pitch more in the playoffs), more or less discarding the OPS of other starters, and greater weight to the OPS of a team’s top relievers and much less to the mop-up men.

johnforthegiants
Member
johnforthegiants

Great data, JBF! I think that the 1954 Cleveland Indians were in the same general category.

Dominikk85
Member
Dominikk85

I think the nl at the top is not really much weaker it is just that a third of the Nl is in full throttle tank mode.