The Cubs Look Like a Perfect Baseball Team

On Thursday, the Nationals arrived on the north side of Chicago to begin a four game series that was billed as a potential NLCS preview. The 20-6 Cubs were squaring off with the 19-8 Nationals in a match-up of two of the best teams in baseball, and while it’s still early, the series was supposed to serve as something of a test for a Cubs team that spent April beating up on a lot of weak opponents.

Test passed. Javier Baez’s 13th inning homer yesterday gave the Cubs a four game sweep over Washington, which followed their three game sweep in Pittsburgh, so the boys from Chicago’s north side have now have a seven game winning streak, with all seven games coming against legitimate contenders. Questions about early season strength of schedule can now be put away, and with the way the Cubs are not only winning games but crushing their opponents, it’s pretty clear that this Cubs team is currently in a class of their own.

It’s not just the 24-6 record; it’s that they’re playing like a 24-6 team. This isn’t one of those scenarios where a team gets on a hot streak by winning a bunch of close games and having the ball bounce their way for a while. By BaseRuns, which strips out sequencing of events in order to try and judge how a team has performed in a context-neutral sense, the Cubs have a .789 expected winning percentage, which translates out the same 24-6 record that they’ve actually put up thus far; The next best team — the Mets — is at a .670 expected record, so no one else is even close.

Of course, the Cubs aren’t actually going to win 80% of their games this year. Like any team playing this well, there are plenty of things to look at and say “well, that won’t last.” Dexter Fowler is playing at a +10 WAR season pace, so there’s a lot of room for decline there. Tommy La Stella has a 187 wRC+ and Matt Szczur is at 177; you could reasonably expect both to have their rest-of-season numbers be half of their current marks. Jason Hammel has a 1.85 ERA with a 4.34 xFIP. Jon Lester has a 96% LOB%.

But even with the overperformers taking an expected step backwards, this Cubs team still looks to be essentially as complete a roster as you could expect to build. This is a team that not only has no real weaknesses, but is among the best in the game at absolutely everything. Here are their to-date performances and ranks in the metrics that cover the different facets of the game.

The Cubs are Great at Everything
Hitters Performance Rank
wRC+ 115 2nd
wRAA +36 1st
BsR +11 1st
UZR +15 2nd
DRS +17 2nd
OFF +34 1st
DEF +24 1st
WAR +11 1st
Pitchers Performance Rank
K-BB% 17% 5th
HR/9 0.66 3rd
BABIP 0.251 1st
ERA- 60 1st
FIP- 78 2nd
xFIP- 84 3rd
WAR +5.6 3rd
RA9-WAR +8.8 1st

So far, the Cubs position players have hit better than almost anyone else in baseball, have been the best baserunners in the game, and by both UZR and DRS, the team has graded out as the second best group of defenders so far.

Heading into spring training, the outfield defense looked like it could be a real weakness, but the re-signing and re-positioning of Dexter Fowler combined with Kyle Schwarber’s knee injury have allowed the team to run significantly better defensive units out there, and since La Stella, Szczur, and Baez have all hit well, they haven’t lost anything on offense either. The Cubs line-up is remarkably deep, and was always going to put up runs, but the defensive performance has been one of the big game changers for the Cubs thus far.

And it’s not like the pitching staff really needs the help. This isn’t the Royals model, where great defense covers for lousy starting pitching; this is great defense supporting one of the best pitching staffs in baseball too. The aces at the front of the rotation have been fantastic, as expected, but the underrated back-end trio of John Lackey, Kyle Hendricks, and Jason Hammel are all also proving their worth. And down in the bullpen, Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop have been virtually unhittable on the rare occasion the team has had to protect a save situation; they’ve been winning by such large margins that the late-game innings have often been low leverage affairs, rendering those two unnecessary, and keeping their workloads down, which could help later in the season.

If we wanted to pick nits, we could point out that the Cubs middle relievers haven’t been very good, especially the starter-conversion trio of Clayton Richard, Travis Wood, and Trevor Cahill. But that’s basically where we are with the Cubs now; the worst thing we can say about them is that their 5th, 6th, and 7th best relievers aren’t performing that well.

As you can imagine, it’s pretty rare for a team to be so good across the board. For context, here’s the full list of teams that, over the last 30 years, have managed to be good at everything.

No Weakness Teams, 1986-2015
Team wRC+ BsR Def ERA- FIP- Wins
2001 Mariners 116 16 85 82 95 116
1998 Yankees 116 3 7 84 91 114
1998 Astros 113 9 45 87 95 102
2011 Rangers 112 21 17 88 95 96
2011 Yankees 113 7 6 89 92 97
2005 Indians 110 4 20 84 93 93
1988 Mets 111 4 8 88 83 100
1994 White Sox* 112 4 86 92 96
>= 110 wRC+, >0 BsR and DEF, <95 FIP-
*1994 was a strike-shortened year; White Sox win% extrapolated to 162 games.

As you’d expect, teams that are good at everything win a lot of games. And it’s not out of the question that this Cubs team makes a run at the top two teams on that list, who put up the winningest seasons in baseball history. The Cubs don’t have the defense of the 2001 Mariners, but their pitching is better, at least as long as they can keep their starters healthy. They probably won’t keep hitting as well as the 1998 Yankees, but this is a better running-and-fielding team than that was.

Given their 24-6 start, it’s probably likely that this Cubs team ends up north of 100 wins now; we have them finishing at 102-60 on our current Playoff Odds page. To get from 102 to 114-116 is going to take some good fortune, but there’s nothing to point to that suggests that the Cubs have an exploitable hole that teams are going to take advantage of as the summer wears on. As long as Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester stay healthy, this team should run away with the NL Central, and they might end making a run at the 1998 Yankees or the 2001 Mariners.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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7 years ago

This story is all well and good, but the series was played in Wrigley. You are welcome to make some minor changes and delete this comment.

7 years ago
Reply to  jwbiii

Eh, changes. made. No delete option.

7 years ago
Reply to  jwbiii

Nationals record starting the series needs to change as well.

Ozzie Albies
7 years ago
Reply to  jwbiii

This story is all these months Shipshape film is set in Wrigley. You are invited to make some small changes and delete comments.

Jason Bmember
7 years ago
Reply to  Ozzie Albies

Remember, just a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough…we may be engorging on Serbian these days 🙂

7 years ago
Reply to  jwbiii

*after sweeping the pirates in Pittsburgh.