The 2013 Cubs: Better Than We Think

This morning, the following tweet from Gordon Wittenmeyer showed up in my timeline.

I hadn’t noticed this specifically, but once he said it, I did start to wonder about the Cubs record. After all, they’re getting quality offensive production from the likes of David DeJesus, Anthony Rizzo, Nate Schierholtz, and Luis Valbuena. Jeff Samardzija continues to look like an ace. Scott Feldman is living up his billing as the bargain free agent starter of the winter. Travis Wood is having a lot of success, even if it’s not all sustainable. Even after their early bullpen problems, Kevin Gregg has revitalized his career and has yet to give up a run in 11 innings of work.

With so many things going right, how are the Cubs 18-27? And, as Wittenmeyer’s tweet notes, are they actually playing better than their record suggests?

To start with, I figured it’d be helpful to expand on Wittenmeyer’s thoughts and cover the differences between all plays, not just a few stats. To do this, I created a table with every team’s wOBA and their wOBA allowed, and then took the difference between those two columns in order to give us an idea of where the Cubs rank in terms of offensive production compared to offensive production of their opponents. That table is reproduced below, with winning percentage and run differential per game also included for reference.

Team wOBA wOBA Against Difference Win% RunDiff
Tigers 0.341 0.295 0.046 0.568 1.25
Rangers 0.335 0.298 0.037 0.638 1.02
Red Sox 0.336 0.308 0.028 0.596 0.81
Braves 0.324 0.297 0.027 0.609 0.96
Rockies 0.333 0.309 0.024 0.553 0.68
Indians 0.341 0.317 0.024 0.578 0.64
Cardinals 0.316 0.293 0.023 0.652 1.28
Reds 0.320 0.301 0.019 0.617 1.21
Pirates 0.308 0.293 0.015 0.609 0.46
Rays 0.330 0.315 0.015 0.522 0.24
Cubs 0.309 0.298 0.011 0.400 -0.11
Orioles 0.331 0.322 0.009 0.544 0.43
Diamondbacks 0.312 0.303 0.009 0.553 0.53
Giants 0.319 0.310 0.009 0.553 0.09
Athletics 0.317 0.309 0.008 0.521 0.19
Yankees 0.314 0.316 -0.002 0.609 0.50
White Sox 0.297 0.300 -0.003 0.467 -0.33
Dodgers 0.305 0.308 -0.003 0.422 -0.71
Royals 0.308 0.315 -0.007 0.488 0.35
Angels 0.322 0.329 -0.007 0.413 -0.43
Mariners 0.308 0.317 -0.009 0.426 -0.85
Brewers 0.317 0.326 -0.009 0.400 -0.80
Nationals 0.286 0.300 -0.014 0.511 -0.55
Phillies 0.300 0.317 -0.017 0.489 -0.66
Padres 0.307 0.325 -0.018 0.457 -0.43
Blue Jays 0.313 0.338 -0.025 0.413 -0.93
Mets 0.296 0.322 -0.026 0.386 -0.82
Twins 0.306 0.342 -0.036 0.419 -0.49
Marlins 0.266 0.321 -0.055 0.277 -1.62
Astros 0.305 0.372 -0.067 0.298 -1.89

Not only is Wittenmeyer correct, his tweet actually undersells the point; the Cubs have the 11th best wOBA differential of any team in baseball. In terms of just counting and valuing the individual plays in a context neutral setting, the Cubs have performed better than the Orioles, Giants, Diamondbacks, and Yankees, among other teams who are off to much stronger starts from a win-loss perspective. The Cubs are the only team to have a higher wOBA than wOBA allowed and a losing record at the same time. In fact, if you take the Cubs out of the picture, the worst record from any team that has a positive wOBA differential is the A’s, who are 25-23.

Even if we just look at the teams in the same general wOBA differential range as the Cubs — in this case, that would be the Giants, A’s, Diamondbacks, and Orioles — we find that those teams have combined to go 102-86, good for a .543 winning percentage. And, actually, all four of those teams have a slightly worse wOBA differential than Chicago does.

Because wOBA is a well designed stat that does a good job of putting values on all of the individual events, the correlation between wOBA difference and run differential per game is very high, at 0.914, which is an r^2 of .84. You can explain almost a great majority of a team’s success through their wOBA differential. The rest is almost entirely due to the sequencing of events, and how well tables were able to cluster their hits and runs together.

As you’re probably aware, the things that drive sequencing have been shown to be almost entirely random. A team that is very good at hitting with men on base in the early part of the season may not very good at it over the rest of the season. A team that is scoring just enough to win a bunch of games by one run won’t continue to have their runs distributed at just the right times to maximize wins from those runs. For the most part, all a team can really control is how many hits and runs they get or allow, and not so much when those hits and runs occur.

The Cubs have actually played pretty good baseball when sequencing is not considered. By wOBA differential, they’ve been a well above average team. Their record is almost entirely a reflection of the power of the timing of various events.

In our Win Probability section, we track a stat called “Clutch”, which basically looks at the wins a team has gained or lost due to the leverage of the game when their positive or negative events occurred. The Cubs are 28th in clutch hitting and 30th in clutch pitching. When you combine their clutch scores from both sides of the ball, you can see just how far removed they are from the rest of the teams in baseball in season-to-date “clutch” performance.

Team ClutchBat ClutchPitch Clutch
Cardinals 3.2 0.8 4.0
Pirates 0.4 2.6 3.0
Nationals 1.0 1.4 2.5
Giants 2.3 (0.5) 1.8
Yankees (0.8) 2.4 1.6
Indians (0.9) 2.4 1.6
Royals 0.7 0.5 1.3
Reds (0.5) 1.7 1.2
Athletics (0.6) 1.6 1.1
Rangers (2.0) 3.0 1.0
Red Sox 1.0 (0.1) 1.0
Orioles 1.9 (1.2) 0.7
Rays 2.5 (1.9) 0.6
Marlins (0.9) 1.4 0.5
Phillies 1.1 (0.7) 0.4
Mariners (1.2) 1.4 0.2
Braves (0.2) 0.4 0.2
Diamondbacks 1.0 (0.9) 0.1
Twins (0.0) (0.4) (0.4)
Rockies (1.0) 0.3 (0.7)
White Sox (1.0) (0.1) (1.1)
Blue Jays (0.0) (1.4) (1.5)
Angels (2.7) 1.1 (1.6)
Mets 0.3 (2.0) (1.8)
Astros (0.9) (1.0) (1.9)
Dodgers (1.0) (1.0) (2.1)
Padres (1.6) (0.5) (2.1)
Brewers 0.3 (2.5) (2.2)
Tigers (0.4) (2.5) (2.9)
Cubs (1.8) (2.5) (4.3)

At -4.3 clutch wins, no one is even close to the Cubs in terms of underperformance by leverage. It’s not even just that they haven’t converted hits into runs, but that when they’ve scored those runs, they haven’t occurred at the right time to translate into wins.

So, as we approach Memorial Day, the Cubs stand at 18-27, and even if we just did a basic pythagorean adjustment to account for their run differential, we’d only upgrade that “expected” record to 22-23. But, when you look at the full accounting of all of their plays, the Cubs context neutral performance suggests something more like a 24-21 record. And that’s with Matt Garza spending basically the entire season on the DL.

The Cubs are in a ridiculously difficult division, and this isn’t their year to try and make a run for it, but the pieces that the team added over the off-season have made them a competitive team. Even if they end up selling off veterans for prospects at the trade deadline, don’t be surprised if the Cubs start winning more games over the next four months of the season. Based on their first 45 games, there are reasons to believe that this team is actually decent.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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10 years ago

I hope this start assures them a top 10 draft pick, juuuuust in case they want to sign a guy who receives a qualifying offer this offseason.