The Cubs And The Best Start Ever

History is amazing in that it matters tremendously and it matters not at all. This is an article about the Cubs so you know that history is a thing for them. On one hand they are the Cubs, baseball’s current definition of mediocrity and failure. Since 1946, the Cubs have no World Series appearances and in fact they’ve only finished in first place five times in that span. That’s five times in 70 years. And that’s only first place in their division. They are historical ineptitude. That’s the backdrop to the 2016 season. It’s also why 2016 could be so important, because, according to our projections, the Cubs have a mean expected win total of 96 games.

Only one other team in baseball is projected to win even 90 games (the Dodgers, at 93 wins). The Cubs are projected by 11 games better than the Cardinals and 12 games better the Pirates, their nearest division rivals. Should these projections pan out, the Cubs would be the best team in baseball by a good amount and the favorite to get to and win the World Series. To sum up, we think Cubs will be very very good and, to bring it back to history, that’s quite weird.

Perhaps the best team of my childhood is the 1984 Detroit Tigers. The Tigers won 104 games during the regular season, then went 7-1 in the playoffs en route to winning the World Series. According to Baseball Reference, the Tigers also lost 58 times that season, but I don’t remember them losing even once so I assume that’s a misprint. The Tigers had the best record in baseball in 1984 season and won the World Series, but that’s not why they are interesting. Every season a team has the best record in baseball and every season a team wins the World Series. Neither is unique. What is unique and interesting though is what the Tigers did at the beginning of the 1984 season. They began the season by going 35-5 in their first 40 games. Their start was so good that second place Toronto went 27-14 during the same span and found themselves 8.5 games back before May had ended. The start wasn’t just good though. It was the best start to any season by any team ever (as long as ever means since 1885).

No team in the last 130 seasons has been better through 40 games than the 1984 Tigers. That’s something. But the Cubs are supposed to be really good. And truthfully, gun to my head, I wouldn’t be shocked if they won more than 96. Projections are often and wisely conservative. There are often outliers. The Cubs have the look of one, at least from where I sit now.

If you haven’t guessed the focus of this article yet, I’m sorry. I probably should have mentioned it earlier but until someone invents a backspace button we’ll all just have to live with overly long opening paragraphs. The question I’m curious about is are the Cubs as good as the Tigers? More specifically, can the Cubs equal or even beat Detroit’s three-decades-plus old record?

The answer is of course, yes, sure they can. Any team could win 35 of their first 40 games. The Cubs are a team and the Cubs play baseball so the Cubs could do it. We don’t need to run any numbers to know it’s not very likely though. Take the ’84 Tigers, for example. The outcome of one run games are typically thought to be some larger fraction of luck than a typical game. This makes intuitive sense. During their amazing 35-5 run, the ’84 Tigers played 10 one-run games. They went 9-1 in those games. The Tigers were really good, but they were also a bit lucky. To win 35 of their first 40 the Cubs would probably need to be better than the projections think they are, maybe better than we think they are, and then probably a bit lucky too. That’s a tough get. Like one-out-of-3,200-some-odd-baseball-team-seasons tough.

But let’s try to figure this out. The Cubs, should they equal our projections and win 96 games, would have a winning percentage of .593. That means they would be expected to go 24-16 in their first 40 games. To equal the Tigers, the Cubs would have to win 11 more games than we would normally expect them to do based on their projected record. So if we assume the Cubs, a team that wins 59.3% of their games, have the same 59.3% chance to win each game, we could then run some numbers. After messing around for a bit, I came upon binomial distribution. This is a way to math that shows how likely a specific event is to occur in a given number of chances and given a certain percentage chance for each occurrence. In this case, we have that specific event occurring (the Cubs winning) in a given number of chances (35 out of 40 games) and given a certain percentage chance for each occurrence (.593). I should note that binomial probabilities assume that individual trials are independent of each other. That’s not the case with baseball games, but this is numbers and numbers are different than baseball so sometimes that’s just the way it goes.

I did the math and if I’ve mathed correctly, the Cubs have a 0.01% chance to win at least 35 out of 40 with a 59.3% chance of winning each game. You might think that’s a relatively sizable chance considering the feat. Well imagine if the doctor came to you and said, “Bobby, there’s a 0.01% chance we can make you stop smelling like axe body spray.” You would probably break down and cry. “Why!” you’d probably shout, “Why am I destined to spend the rest of my life hearing, ‘oh [gags] that smells like axe body spray’ when I walk into a room?” So you see that it is, you will agree, a very small chance. That makes sense considering we’re talking about tying the very best start by a baseball team in the modern era. And no I’m not counting the 1884 St. Louis Maroons who started their season 36-4 and featured Buttercup Dickerson and no less than six players who have, according to Baseball Reference, a question mark in their last name.

So we agree the Cubs don’t look very likely to do it. We could adjust the numbers a bit — what if the Cubs are really a 98 win team instead of a 96 win team! — but it’s not going to alter the basic point by much. Doing something that is almost never done is inherently very unlikely.

But the ’84 Tigers did it. How unlikely was it for them? A fair question, me. Sadly we don’t have pre-season projections for the ’84 Tigers so I can’t go back and look at what we thought they’d be before they became one of the most dominant teams in in recent decades. I can tell you that the 1983 Tigers won 92 games and finished second in the AL East, six games behind the Orioles. I can also tell you that the ’83 Tigers were a young team that made a few minor additions following the season that might have led one to think they could be a tad bit better. But it’s difficult to imagine a projection system at that time projecting the Tigers for more wins than the 96 that we are projecting this year’s Cubs to win. In fact 96 seems like a reasonable if high guess for the ’84 Tigers without, you know, looking at their record. And that leads us right back to the same 0.01% chance.

So screw it. Suppose we knew or thought we knew before the season that the 1984 Tigers were a mallet-to-the-crotch world-beating baseball team about to win 104 games. How much do those eight extra ‘projected’ wins mean in terms of the Tigers chances to do what they did? To the maths!



That is much bigger number, more than nine times bigger! And it’s still way small. Very very small. Even the team that created this crazy record didn’t have much of a chance to do it. It occurs to me that last year we were in roughly the same spot. The Washington Nationals bandwagon was full up, with some projection systems guessing at 100 win seasons. Had I written this article a year ago, I’d have given the Nationals a better chance to best the Tigers than the Cubs have received in the above paragraphs.

And yet the Nationals went 23-17. So close. Going 35-5 out of the box is spectacularly unlikely, even for a team as good as the Cubs project to be. Of course, it was spectacularly unlikely for the Tigers too, and they still did it. Which I suppose is the point of amazing records that stand the test of history like this and like the Cubs themselves. If they were easy to create, who would care?

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The Dude of NY
7 years ago

“I did the math and if I’ve mathed correctly…”

Screw it, just turn math into a verb. Love it!