The Cubs are one game under .500 with 99 games remaining. They stand 1½ games out of first place in a division where no one has taken charge yet.
And yet if you believe some, this season’s over, look to 2018, the Cubs are awful...
Well, the last point there is close, at least. The Cubs haven’t been awful, but neither have they been the postseason contender that we all expected them to be.
So let me tell you about the 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that dug themselves out of an even bigger hole than the Cubs currently find themselves in.
After winning the N.L. West in 2009, the Dodgers had a couple of down seasons and then went 86-76 in 2012. Expectations were high for them to contend and possibly be a postseason team again in 2013.
And then they fell flat on their collective faces. On June 21 they lost to the Padres 5-2 and were 30-42, 12 games under .500 and 9½ games out of first place. That start included a six-game losing streak and an eight-game losing streak. They had the second-worst record in baseball and had scored the second-fewest runs, just 255 in 72 games — just 3.5 runs per game.
Then the Dodgers started winning. And winning. And winning some more. They won six straight right after that June 21 loss, then lost one, then won four more in a row, then after alternating wins and losses for four games, won five more consecutive games... overall, they went 42-12 in July and August. They had a losing September, but that amazing two-month run was enough for them to win 92 games. They won the N.L. West by 11 games — that’s a 20½-game swing!
How did they do this?
They scored 394 runs in the season’s remaining 90 games — 4.38 per game, almost a run per game better than they had been scoring. That total of 394 was good for third-best in the National League behind the Cardinals and Nationals.
Two players were primarily responsible for the offensive increase. Hanley Ramirez, who had missed most of the first two months of 2013, came back in early June and started hitting right around the time the Dodgers started winning. From June 19 to the end of the season Ramirez hit .355/.414/.659 with 19 home runs in 273 at-bats. That’s a great full season for some and Ramirez did it in just about half a year.
Yasiel Puig also made his major-league debut around this time (a bit earlier, to be exact, on June 3). But his .319/.391/.534 performance with 19 home runs in 382 at-bats remains his best big-league season.
The Dodgers’ pitching also allowed the fewest runs in the major leagues from June 22 through the end of the season, just 276 in 90 games — 3.07 per game.
Zack Greinke had a 4.22 ERA going into his start on June 22. From then to the end of the season he posted a 2.03 ERA in 19 starts.
Clayton Kershaw had a good 2013 throughout the season, but even so he improved during the Dodgers’ run. He had a 2.08 ERA in 17 starts through the end of June and lowered that to 1.57 in his remaining 16 starts.
And perhaps most importantly, the Dodgers removed Brandon League from their closer spot just about this time. League had 14 saves up to late June, but had also blown four saves and had a 6.00 ERA at just about the time manager Don Mattingly installed Kenley Jansen as closer. From June 11 through season’s end Jansen had 26 saves in 29 opportunities and allowed just seven runs in 43 appearances (1.41 ERA), with 67 strikeouts in 44⅔ innings.
The Dodgers were 7-11 in one-run games before this switch, 18-10 in one-run affairs after (and three one-run losses at the end of the season came after they had clinched the division title).
What can we learn from all this?
It’s really just a matter of players who have talent playing up to their level. Only Kris Bryant has really played the way he can over the season’s first 63 games. Offensively, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Ben Zobrist and Willson Contreras are below their previous levels, some of them far below. All the Cubs’ starting pitchers have performed worse than their career norms. The bullpen’s been pretty good overall and Wade Davis has been exactly as advertised as closer, but the pen simply hasn’t been given many leads to protect.
Conclusion: The Cubs do have the talent to be a postseason contender and even a division winner, even with the changes made since last year’s World Series win. Do I expect them to play .689 ball as the Dodgers did (62-28)? No, although the Cubs did play .689 ball over two different stretches in 2016.
With the N.L. Central being as weak as it appears to be this year, playing .596 ball (59-40) for the rest of the year would give them 90 wins and probably a division title. This team has the talent to do that.
As the old slogan says: #LetsGo