SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — It seems every spring, the confidence of many BCB readers about the offensive prowess of the Cubs is such that some predict they’ll score 900 runs in the upcoming season or even 1,000 runs.
Let’s put it this way. I’ll never say anything is completely, utterly impossible, because it seems every year I see something in baseball that I’ve rarely seen previously, or even never seen before.
But I think I can predict with a fair degree of certainty that when the 2018 season is in the books, the Chicago Cubs will have scored fewer than 900 runs.
Now, let me back that contention up with some numbers.
First, I’m going to eliminate pre-1900 Cubs teams from this discussion, because the game was simply played so much differently then. The pre-1900 franchise record for runs is 1,056, set in 1894. That’s a lot of runs! But... that 1894 Chicago N.L. team allowed 1,080 runs and finished eighth in the 12-team National League with a 57-75 record. The league average for runs scored in 1894 was 983, so... that was a very different type of baseball.
So let’s limit this run-scoring look to the so-called “modern era” Cubs, post-1900. Twice in this era, Cubs teams have come very close to 1,000 runs: in 1929, when they scored 982 runs and won the N.L. pennant, and in 1930, when they scored a modern franchise record 998 runs and nearly repeated as N.L. champions, finishing just two games out of first place.
Now what is it about those two seasons that stands out? Oh, yes... offense. The Cubs scored 982 runs, but three other teams scored at least 897 runs. 897 runs would have led the N.L. in 2017 by a significant margin. The 1929 Cubs also allowed 759 runs, which would have been about league average in 2017.
1930, though... that was the year that Hack Wilson set the major-league record for RBI, 191, a record that’s likely going to stand forever. The 56 home runs he hit that year remained the N.L. record until Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire both shattered it... 68 years later. The entire National League hit .303 in 1930. That’s nearly 50 points higher than the N.L. BA in 2017 (.254).
That era was high-offense, the late 1920s up to the late 1930s. 27 different teams scored 900 or more runs from 1927 through 1939. It was an era of lousy pitching and power hitting, and huge differences between very good teams (Cubs, Tigers, Athletics. Yankees, Giants primarily) and really bad ones (Phillies, Red Sox, Braves, Browns, for the most part).
All right, you’re saying, but haven’t some teams scored 900 or 1,000 runs since then?
The answer is yes, but... not many.
Since 1940, 36 teams have scored 900 or more runs in a season. Just two have scored 1,000. That’s a lot less. And it’s even lower if we limit it to National League teams. The institution of the DH in 1973 has, in general, made A.L. teams higher-scoring. Among the 36 teams that scored 900 or more runs in a season since 1940, just nine of them have been N.L. teams, and of those nine, just four were not named “Rockies.”
Those four are the 2000 Astros (938), 2000 Giants (925), 1999 Diamondbacks (908) and 2003 Braves (907). Three of those four teams won their division; the 2000 Astros are the outlier, because they had a horrific pitching staff that allowed 944 runs, which is the most by any N.L. team not named “Rockies” since the legendary 1962 Mets allowed 948 (while scoring 617, which is a pretty good feat, being outscored by 331 runs).
Now what do those four teams have in common? That’s right, those teams are part of the so-called “Steroid Era,” when offenses in general were juiced. I am not making any accusations against those teams nor any individual on them, but (for example) the league average of runs scored in the N.L. in 2000 was 811. In 2017, the N.L.’s league average for team runs was 743. We simply are playing in a lower-offense era than existed 15-20 years ago. Some of that is the end of the “Steroid Era,” some of it, in my view, is the constant parade of pitchers who throw 95-plus, and the corresponding vastly larger number of strikeouts (the average N.L. team struck out 1,084 times in 2000; in 2017, that number had increased to 1,354, a 25.6 percent increase).
So I believe in general, it’s true in 2018 baseball that no team can score 1,000 runs. 900? Maybe, for an American League team, with the DH. The Astros scored 896 last year; the Red Sox led the A.L. in 2016 with 878 runs and the Blue Jays got close in 2015 with 891. But an N.L. team? I don’t think so. Over the last 10 seasons the average A.L. team has scored 730 runs; the average N.L. team 692.
Since 1940, Cubs teams have scored 800 or more runs five times — that’s right, just five 800-run seasons in 78 tries. (Comparison point: The Braves, who have had some pretty good teams over that time, have done it eight times, as have the Giants, in that 78-season span.) Those five years: 2008 (855), 1998 (831), 2017 (822), 2016 (808) and 1970 (806). The 855 runs the Cubs scored in 2008 is the most for any N.L. team over that span — 11 A.L. teams scored more than that in that time frame.
So scoring even 800 runs, for a National League team, is a difficult task, unless you’re the Rockies, who have done it 13 times in their 25-season history. The reasons for that should be obvious.
Thus, as I stated at the beginning of this article, the Cubs scoring 1,000 runs this year, or even 900, is very close to impossible.
This offense, though, could very well challenge the 855 runs the 2008 team scored, which stands as the most since 1930. And if this pitching staff is as good as it appears to be, they could hold their runs-allowed total under 600 again (last year, it was 695, compared to 556 in 2016, the latter their best in a non-labor dispute season since 1945) — and if they do that, another 100-win season might, just might, be possible.