The Cubs won 103 games in 2016, their first 100-win season in 81 years. That alone ought to tell you how hard it is to repeat as a 100-game winner.
They’ll have most of the core coming back and those players are, for the most part, young and could still have better years ahead. But winning 100 games is really, really hard. David Schoenfield of ESPN.com wrote an article recently basically saying the Cubs wouldn’t repeat as 100-game winners, reasoning thus:
Since 2000, 15 teams besides the 2016 Cubs won at least 100 games. Only one of those 15 teams improved the following season. The 2001 Oakland A's won 102 games, and then won 103 in 2002. Two of the 15 teams matched their win total: The 2002-03 Atlanta Braves and 2003-04 Yankees both won 101 games in back-to-back years. The average decline was minus-7.9 wins. So based on simple historic precedent, the Cubs should be pretty good again, just not quite as good. Years ago, Bill James coined this the Plexiglas Principle.
This idea of regression isn't just limited to 100-win teams. Seven teams won 90 games in 2015; all except the Cubs won fewer games in 2016. Six teams won 90 games in 2014; only one improved in 2015. Ten teams won 90 games in 2013; only one improved the following season, and the collective decline averaged 11 fewer wins. If anything, it's even harder now to win 100 in consecutive seasons than it was in the early part of the century.
Schoenfield’s article has a chart showing each of the previous 100-game winners since 2000, how they performed vs. their Pythagorean projection, and what they did in the succeeding year. Something that stood out to me in the chart was that the Cubs were one of only three such teams that underperformed against the Pythagorean — the 2016 Cubs projected to 107 wins. The others both regressed, significantly: the 2011 Phillies underperformed by one win, 102 to 103, and won just 81 the following year. But that was an old team near the end of a cycle of contention.
A better comparison might be the 2001 Athletics, who underperformed by two wins (102 to 104), and won 103 games the following year. Schoenfield acknowledges that:
If you go back to the chart, only the 2001 A's had a position player core as young as the Cubs'. That's an obvious reason for optimism. Starting in 2000, that A's team won 91, 102, 103, 96, 91, 88 and 93 games -- without the financial resources the Cubs will have to reload as necessary.
I could see the Cubs having a seven-year run like that, perhaps winning a few more games than the A’s did toward the end of the span. As Schoenfield noted, the A’s did that on a small-market budged. The Cubs don’t have that issue and when they (presumably) get their big local TV money, they’ll have even more financial resources to “reload.” Oakland missed the playoffs the years they won 91 and 88 games toward the end of that run, then made it again in 2006, so five postseasons in seven years.
Most of the teams that slipped after their 100-win seasons did so because they allowed a lot more runs than they had in that triple-digit victory year. This will be something important for Theo & Co. to address, keeping the pitching staff as good as it was in 2016. Schoenfield also mentions the Cubs’ excellent defense as a strong factor in winning 103 games, something I’m sure you’ll concur with. The signing of Jon Jay, an excellent defensive player, continues the team down this road.
I could easily see next year’s Cubs “declining” to, say, 95 wins, which is still really good! They’d probably win the N.L. Central with a record like that. A 95-win season in 2016 would have won the division by nine games. The 17-game margin of victory the Cubs had this past season is nearly unprecedented in franchise history — only the 1906 Cubs did better — and only a handful of teams have won division titles by more than that in the divisional play era.
Which brings me to a couple more fascinating facts about 100-win teams. The Cubs in 2016 became just the second team in major-league history to have a 100-win season four years (or fewer) after having a 100-loss season. The only other club to accomplish this was the 1969 Mets, who won 100 games two years after they lost 101 (1967).
And, as noted above: Winning 100 games is really, really hard. There have been just 99 100-win seasons in all of major-league history. The vast majority of those belong to the 16 “original” franchises — 91 of them, including 19 by the Yankees. Just one other team has as many as 10: the A’s. The Cardinals have the most in the N.L., nine. The Cubs have six.
100-win seasons in major-league history
6: Cubs, Dodgers
5: Orioles, Tigers
3: Red Sox, Phillies, Mets
2: Indians, Pirates
1: White Sox, Twins, Royals, Angels, Astros, Diamondbacks
0: Blue Jays, Rangers, Rays, Rockies, Nationals, Padres, Marlins, Brewers
It would be nice, and a bit poetic, if the 100th 100-win season in major-league history could be accomplished by the 2017 Cubs. But that same history tells us that will be really, really hard to do.