The provocative headline “Did The Cubs Miss Their Chance To Be A Dynasty?” appeared recently on the FiveThirtyEight website.
It got you to click, right? It did for me, and as is the case for FiveThirtyEight, their analysis is strictly by the numbers, and reaches this conclusion:
How is it possible that the Cubs went from dynasty in the making in 2016 to a team struggling to stay atop its own division in less than three years? The answer lies in part with the team’s declining core and team president Theo Epstein’s inability to supplement it with effective reinforcements from the outside — particularly when it comes to pitching.
First, I’m going to quibble with writer Neil Paine’s characterization of the Cubs as “struggling.” A team that wins 95 games despite having nearly everything go wrong in 2018 isn’t “struggling.” I’d call that “unlucky” more than any single other word, and as I have written here before, if the Cubs had won one more game before October 1, or won the game October 1, they’d have had at least one playoff round and after that... who knows? The Cubs didn’t blow the division title — they went 16-13 after September 1 — the Brewers won it by going 20-7. 2018 wasn’t a 1969-style collapse, far from it.
Anyway, Paine notes, correctly, that the Cubs’ net Wins Above Replacement increased steadily from the bottom in 2012, peaked in 2016, and then declined:
The outlier there is obviously the 2016 championship season, a 103-win campaign. The other three postseason years in that list are all in the same general, uh, ballpark, and even 2018, when quite a number of players had down years, wasn’t too bad as far as net WAR (defined by Paine as previous WAR + arrivals - departures + holdovers).
What I think Paine is missing here is how many Cubs players performed well below their capabilities in 2018, for various reasons.
Kris Bryant averaged 6.6 bWAR over his first three major league seasons. Due primarily to injuries last year, he posted 1.9 bWAR. You don’t think Bryant would have had another 6 WAR season if he hadn’t been injured? Right there, tack on 4 WAR to the 2018 total. This doesn’t indicate “declining” to me, as Paine claims.
Yu Darvish averaged 3.7 bWAR over his first five major league seasons. Again, due to injury, he made only eight starts in 2018 and posted negative bWAR (-0.1). I have confidence that Darvish should be able to post at least a 3 WAR season in 2019, perhaps better.
Even the steady presence of Anthony Rizzo didn’t produce as many bWAR in 2018 as previously. From 2012-17 Rizzo averaged 4.4 bWAR; in 2018, he had a 2.7 bWAR season. I believe he’ll be able to return to his previous level in 2019.
Granted that Javier Baez jumped from his previous level of about 3 bWAR per season to 6.3 last year, but I think Baez has established a new level of performance and can be in that range again in 2019.
Thus I don’t think the Cubs will perform any worse in 2019 than they did in 2018, and they could add WAR from players who underperformed in 2018. They’ve also added a full season of Cole Hamels, who produced 1.9 bWAR in only 12 starts last year, and who has a career (pre-2018) bWAR average of 4.3.
In conclusion, I think 2018 was an outlier season for the Cubs in terms of WAR, and that’s why it appears to Neil Paine that they are declining. To me, it looks like a natural fluctuation due to injury, and though it’s unlikely the Cubs get back to that 56.8 net bWAR level they had in 2016, they could easily post more in 2019. I don’t see another 95-win season as being impossible, and if they do that, they’re probably N.L. Central champions again.
In the end, I’ll agree with this conclusion drawn by Paine:
The good news for Chicago, though, is that the potential still exists for an exciting summer at Wrigley Field. Even if 2016 was an outlier, a team as talented as the 2017 and 2018 Cubs — which was, after all, good enough for an average of 93.5 wins per season — remains a contender.