The Cubs’ Road Woes Threaten Their Playoff Perch

With three losses in a row against the Nationals at Wrigley Field this past weekend, the Cubs (69-61) slipped out of first place in the NL Central. They’re now three games behind the Cardinals (72-58), the furthest they’ve been from first since May 1, and just one game ahead of the Phillies (68-62) and two games ahead of the Mets (67-63) in the race for the second NL Wild Card spot. They’ll face the latter in an important three-game series starting today, but the bad news for them is that they’ve had to pack their suitcases to head to Citi Field. At 25-39, the Cubs own the major’s eighth-lowest winning percentage on the road (.391), and the lowest of any contender by 44 points (the Mets are 30-39 at .435 on the road).

In a race for a playoff spot, that’s quite a handicap, of course. In fact, in the Wild Card era, no team has ever won less than 40% of its games away from home and still reached the playoffs. Just a small handful of teams has won less than 45% and done so. Here’s the bottom 10:

Lowest Road Winning Percentages of Playoff Teams Since 1995
Rk Team Year W L W% Postseason
1 Astros 2015 33 48 .407 Won AL WC, Lost ALDS
2 Cardinals 2006 34 47 .420 Won NL Central, Won WS
3T White Sox 2008 35 46 .432 Won AL Central, Lost ALDS
3T Braves 2010 35 46 .432 NL WC, Lost NLDS
5T Dodgers 2008 36 45 .444 Won NL West, Lost NLCS
5T Astros 2005 36 45 .444 WC, Lost WS
5T Padres 2005 36 45 .444 Won NL West, Lost NLDS
8T Braves 2005 37 44 .457 Won NL East, Lost NLDS
8T Pirates 2014 37 44 .457 Lost NL WC
8T Dodgers 2015 37 44 .457 Won NL West, Lost NLDS
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Of the 10 teams above, the 2006 Cardinals, who won the World Series despite finishing with just an 83-78 record — the low-water mark for any World Series champ — and the 2005 Astros at least made it to the big dance, but aside from the 2015 Astros winning the AL Wild Card game, the 2008 Dodgers were the only other team from the above group to advance in the postseason.

I limited that list to 10 because beyond that, the rankings get pretty bunched up, with three teams at .458 (from the strike-shortened 1995 season), six at .469, 11 at .481, and so on. In all, 43 of the period’s 206 postseason teams (20.9%) had sub-.500 records on the road; if you’re a stickler for a full 162-game schedule, it’s 40 out of 198 (20.2%). Just 10 of those teams won a pennant, and only three — the aforementioned 2006 Cardinals, and the 1997 and 2003 Marlins, because of course — won the World Series. It’s not a particularly viable route to dog-piles and champagne showers.

The Cubs have remained in contention by winning two-thirds of their 66 games at Wrigley, even including the Nationals’ recent sweep. Playoffs or no, their is one of the widest home-road winning percentage differentials of the Wild Card era:

Largest Positive Home-Road Win% Differentials Since 1995
Rk Team Year Home W-L Home W% Road W-L Road W% Dif
1 Rockies 1996 55-26 .679 28-53 .346 .333
2 Rockies 2014 45-36 .556 21-60 .259 .297
3T Marlins 1996 52-29 .642 28-53 .346 .296
3T Rockies 2003 49-32 .605 25-56 .309 .296
5T Tigers 2010 52-29 .642 29-52 .358 .284
5T Pirates 2010 40-41 .494 17-64 .210 .284
7 Cubs 2019 44-22 .667 25-39 .391 .276
8 Brewers 2006 48-33 .593 27-54 .333 .260
9T Expos 2003 52-29 .642 31-50 .383 .259
9T Devil Rays 2006 41-40 .506 20-61 .247 .259
9T Rockies 2010 52-29 .642 31-50 .383 .259
9T Rockies 2002 47-34 .580 26-55 .321 .259
9T Braves* 2010 56-25 .691 35-46 .432 .259
14T Astros* 2015 53-28 .654 33-48 .407 .247
14T Rays 2009 52-29 .642 32-49 .395 .247
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* = made playoffs

You’ll recognize the 2010 Braves and ’15 Astros from the previous table. Here they are in the context of the largest such splits from among Wild Card-era playoff teams:

Largest Home-Road Win% Differentials of Playoff Teams Since 1995
Rk Team Year Home W-L Home W% Road W-L Road W% Dif
1 Braves 2010 56-25 .691 35-46 .432 .259
2 Astros 2015 53-28 .654 33-48 .407 .247
3 White Sox 2008 54-28 .659 35-46 .432 .227
4T Athletics 2003 57-24 .704 39-42 .481 .223
4T Brewers 2011 57-24 .704 39-42 .481 .223
6 Dodgers 2015 55-26 .679 37-44 .457 .222
7T Astros* 2005 53-28 .654 36-45 .444 .210
7T Red Sox 2008 56-25 .691 39-42 .481 .210
7T Rays* 2008 57-24 .704 40-41 .494 .210
7T Red Sox 2009 56-25 .691 39-42 .481 .210
11T Braves 2005 53-28 .654 37-44 .457 .198
11T Braves* 1996 56-25 .691 40-41 .494 .198
11T Braves 2013 56-25 .691 40-41 .494 .198
14 Cardinals** 2006 49-31 .613 34-47 .420 .193
15T Marlins** 2003 53-28 .654 38-43 .469 .185
15T Dodgers 2016 53-28 .654 38-43 .469 .185
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* = won pennant. ** = won World Series

Note that this year’s top two teams in terms of home winning percentage, the Astros (49-16, .754) and Dodgers 52-18 (.743), would make this list. The former has a .217 differential based on their 36-31, .537 road record, while the latter is at .194 based on their 34-29, .548 road record. Incidentally, both teams have shots at the 1998 Yankees’ home record (62-19, .765) for the best of the Wild Card era, though the Dodgers have little margin for error after losing two out of three to the Yanks at home this past weekend.

That the Astros have such a large split tilted towards their home record is notable in part because they had a 136-point split tilted in the other direction just last year, one of the largest for the Wild Card era:

Largest Negative Home-Road Win% Differentials Since 1995
Rk Team Year Home W-L Home W% Road W-L Road W% Dif
1 Royals 1998 29-51 .363 43-38 .531 -.168
2 Reds 2001 27-54 .333 39-42 .481 -.148
3 Astros* 2018 46-35 .568 57-24 .704 -.136
4 Cardinals 2016 38-43 .469 48-33 .593 -.123
5 Brewers 1999 32-48 .400 42-39 .519 -.119
6T Red Sox 2002 42-39 .519 51-30 .630 -.111
6T Mets 2011 34-47 .420 43-38 .531 -.111
6T Padres 2001 35-46 .432 44-37 .543 -.111
9 Rays 2019 34-31 .523 42-25 .627 -.104
10T Mets 2013 33-48 .407 41-40 .506 -.099
10T Braves* 2001 40-41 .494 48-33 .593 -.099
12 Marlins 2011 31-47 .397 41-43 .488 -.091
13T White Sox 2011 36-45 .444 43-38 .531 -.086
13T Indians 2005 43-38 .531 50-31 .617 -.086
15 Reds 1999 45-37 .549 51-30 .630 -.081
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* = made playoffs

Those Astros were one of two teams at that extreme to make the playoffs, while some of the others from the above table were notable near-misses due to troubles at home. The 1999 Reds lost a play-in to the Mets for the Wild Card spot (at home, even!), the 2016 Cardinals missed a Wild Card berth by one game, and the 2005 Indians missed the Wild Card by two games. That a team should swing from one extreme to the other from year to year illustrates that there’s some randomness at work; for the 1996-2018 period (excluding the shortened strike season and this incomplete one), teams’ year-to-year home records had a .41 correlation, with a .42 correlation for road records and a .51 correlation for overall records. In other words, the splits are less predictive when it comes to next year.

Getting back to this year’s Cubs, one of the strange aspects of this split is that both their home and road records represent sizable discrepancies relative to their Pythagorean records, based upon runs scored and allowed. Underlying their .667 home winning percentage is just a .601 Pythagorean winning percentage, while underlying their .391 road record is a .493 Pythagorean winning percentage. The 102-point gap for the latter is big, but merely ninth for the Wild Card era, with a 137-point spread by the 2008 Braves (.495 Pyth, .358 actual) “leading” the way. It happens.

As to why all of this is happening for these Cubs, they’ve been better on both sides of the ball at Wrigley Field. Their pitchers have posted a 3.56 ERA and 4.02 FIP at home, with a 4.75 ERA and 4.68 FIP on the road, while their hitters have a 104 wRC+ at home and a 95 mark on the road. Sizable gaps, but not particularly remarkable. The Yankees’ pitchers, for example, have allowed a 3.76 ERA and 4.24 FIP at home, but a 5.24 ERA and 5.01 FIP on the road, and while at home they have a .710 winning percentage and .635 Pythagorean winning percentage, on the road they’re at .571 and .566, respectively — right on target.

There’s a bit more to unravel with regards to the Cubs’ home-road unraveling. A cursory look at our splits leaderboard shows that in high-leverage situations — ones that can have an outsized impact on won-loss records — on the road, their batters have produced just a .283 wOBA, the majors’ seventh-worst mark, while at home, they have the second-best mark at .399 wOBA; in terms of wRC+, that’s a 71 and 146, respectively, a massive gap. On the pitching side, their .259 wOBA allowed in high-leverage situations at home is the fourth-best in the majors, while on the road, their .325 mark in such situations is merely 13th-best.

All of which is to say that the Cubs’ problems away from home owe a great deal to high-leverage shortcomings by both their pitchers and hitters, but the problem is particularly acute on the offensive side. Even so, pointing fingers at individual players for those deficiencies is misguided, as the sample sizes for those splits are small. Javier Báez leads the team with 23 road high-leverage plate appearances, and has a a -5 wRC+ (.143/.174/.286) with Anthony Rizzo (21 PA, 17 wRC+), Kyle Schwarber (21 PA, 92 wRC+), and Kris Bryant (20 PA, 75 wRC+) the only other Cubs with at least 20 PA under those conditions. Those same players’ wRC+ at home: Baez 190, Rizzo 206, Schwarber 50, Bryant 254, all in sample sizes ranging from 17 to 29 PA.

These things happened, yes, and they’ve had an impact on the Cubs’ current, precarious situation, but that doesn’t mean they’re predictive, or evidence of character strengths or flaws. Whatever conclusions that should be drawn about this team and all others are best based upon their overall performances, whether you’re talking about Schwarber’s mediocre season (103 wRC+, 0.9 WAR) or the standout ones of Baez (112 wRC+ and team-high 4.2 WAR) and Rizzo (a team-high 141 wRC+ and 3.7 WAR), et cetera. Regardless of how they arrived here, those guys, and the rest of the squad, will need to come through in similar situations for the Cubs to play onward beyond game 162.

We hoped you liked reading The Cubs’ Road Woes Threaten Their Playoff Perch by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Michaer
Member
Michaer

Hello, it me Cubs fan.

I do not like road games.