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A Cubsmas Advent Calendar: 83 wins exceeded expectations

Is it a foundation for building for 2024 or a fluke?

Nico Hoerner and Seiya Suzuki celebrate a win in September
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

This is Day Two of a Cubsmas Advent Calendar. You can read the explanation for the project and Day One here.

One of the most surprising results of the 2023 season is just how much the Cubs overperformed compared to pretty much every projection system in baseball. Now, I can already hear a few of you — likely including Al — who believed in the group Jed Hoyer assembled a lot more than PECOTA or ZiPS. The 83-win season wasn’t a surprise to y’all, but it was a surprise to many, so on Day Two of Cubsmas Advent I wanted to take a look back at what went right for this 2023 Cubs team. More importantly I wanted to take a look at whether it was sustainable or not.

Every year in March I take a look at the early projection systems. Some of you are familiar with these pieces, but for those of you who are not, their are two main projection systems that release data in the preseason and adjust those win/loss expectations throughout the season. In that sense, projections are dynamic. When the Cubs trade for Jeimer Candelario the system updates to account for that, when the team gets off to a hot start, or slumps a bit, they adjust for that too. Baseball Prospectus uses the PECOTA system to generate their projections while FanGraphs uses Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS. The underlying stats that inform these projection systems are slightly different, but the results usually wind up within the margin of error each other. In 2023 PECOTA saw the pre-season Cubs as a 75-win team while ZiPS had the team at 78-wins.

While 83-wins was just one short of a playoff spot and the September collapse was agonizing for fans, it is worth noting that this team overperformed expectations considerably. The question for today is how?

The answer is complicated, and actually lines up pretty well with a piece we got last year that I don’t recall seeing in previous years. The Athletic’s Eno Sarris and Sahadev Sharma took a look at the 80th/20th percentile outcomes for the Cubs I’m resharing that graphic below:

Cubs 80th/20th percentile outcomes pre-2023
The Athletic

Interestingly, a handful of these players just didn’t make it to the show at all, or most of their contributions were with other teams. I won’t be doing a deep dive into Zach McKinstry’s time with the Tigers or whether we’ll ever see Brennen Davis in the Show.

That said, Seiya Suzuki didn’t quite hit his 148 OPS+ 80th percentile, his 2023 OPS+ was 124. In the second half, he likely exceeded that 80th percentile outcome with an OPS+. While season split OPS+ is remarkably difficult to find at Baseball Reference, his second half wRC+, which is similar to OPS+, was 149.

Patrick Wisdom did not hit his 80th percentile outcome, but did exceed his 20th percentile outcome by quite a bit with an OPS+ of 107.

Christopher Morel did exceed his 80th percentile expectation with an OPS+ of 116. This is the second time that Morel has exceeded expectations and his projections are starting to reflect his historic production. Forgive me for swapping out OPS+/wRC+ so much in this post but next year’s Steamer projections use the latter and project Morel at a 110 wRC+ which is more in line with his first two partial seasons of work.

Alexander Canario only had 17 at bats with the Cubs in 2023, but he made the most of them, posting a 143 OPS+ in that time. This is not a relevant sample for projecting Canario going forward, but he certainly did his part to demonstrate MLB utility in his time with the Cubs.

One player who absolutely blew his 80th percentile projections out of the water that will not be part of the 2024 Cubs is Nelson Velázquez who put up a monstrous 136 OPS+ with 17 home runs in 162 at bats between time with the Cubs and the Royals — where he was traded for reliever José Cuas at the deadline.

And herein lies the rub, because while Velázquez did most of his damage for the Royals, at least one key contributor to the 2024 Cubs is not currently slated to return to the 2024 team, the NL Comeback Player of the Year: Cody Bellinger. Bellinger slashed .307/.356/.525 with 26 home runs and 20 stolen bases across 130 games. He also played exceptional CF and 1B defense. He’s not the only position player the Cubs need to replace. Jeimer Candelario’s post-trade deadline contributions at third and first base need to be replaced as well.

And that’s just on the position player side of things.

Pitching

Those 80/20 projections didn’t look at pitching outcomes, but we can do that by looking at some numbers from FanGraphs. Honestly, a lot went right for the Cubs starting pitchers, especially in the early months of 2023. Take a look at these numbers through the first half for the Cubs rotation:

First half Cubs starting pitchers (min. 50 IP)

Name W L SV G GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Name W L SV G GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Justin Steele 9 2 0 16 16 91.1 7.98 1.87 0.39 .286 75.73% 48.85% 4.55% 2.56 2.84 3.86 2.8
Marcus Stroman 9 6 0 19 19 112.2 7.83 3.28 0.48 .255 72.74% 58.97% 9.38% 2.96 3.38 3.63 2.5
Kyle Hendricks 3 3 0 9 9 53.1 5.40 1.69 0.68 .246 64.20% 43.79% 5.88% 3.04 3.71 4.84 1.1
Drew Smyly 7 6 0 18 18 94 7.56 3.26 1.44 .284 74.07% 34.15% 11.81% 4.21 4.80 4.96 1.0
Jameson Taillon 3 6 0 15 15 71.2 7.91 2.76 1.63 .310 57.78% 35.14% 13.27% 6.15 4.90 4.80 0.6
Select Stats FanGraphs

Let’s bracket the Jameson Taillon discussion for another day. At bare minimum the Cubs need to replace 112⅔ innings with a 2.96 ERA they got in the first half from Marcus Stroman. That’s not going to be an easy thing to do in a red hot starting pitching market. But they probably also need to come up with a solution for Drew Smyly’s innings — which were excellent for a couple of months before he moved to the bullpen.

Another player who absolutely exceeded expectations in 2023 was Justin Steele (don’t worry, he’ll also get his own Cubsmas Advent day). Steele threw a career high 173⅓ innings in 2023 to the tune of a 3.06 ERA with a 3.02 FIP. He was so good he put himself in the Cy Young category before just running out of gas in the final month of the season. If 2023 is the start of a sustained run of excellence for Steele, the 2024 Cubs look a lot better than if it’s an anomaly.

Last, but certainly not least, we need to talk about the bullpen. After way more trial and error than I think any of us wanted, the Cubs settled on a triumvirate of Mark Leiter Jr., Julian Merryweather and Adbert Alzolay at the backend of the bullpen. This chart tells the whole tale of the bumpiness in the bullpen for the North Siders in one table better than just about anything I could write:

Cubs relievers (min. 20 IP)

Name W L SV G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Name W L SV G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Adbert Alzolay 2 5 22 58 64.0 9.42 1.83 0.70 .288 74.60% 42.17% 8.33% 2.67 3.02 3.56 1.5
Julian Merryweather 5 1 2 69 72.0 12.25 4.50 1.00 .313 79.95% 40.72% 11.94% 3.38 3.52 3.61 0.9
Mark Leiter Jr. 1 3 4 69 64.1 10.77 3.36 0.98 .268 75.50% 45.28% 13.73% 3.50 3.77 3.66 0.6
Javier Assad 2 2 0 22 55.2 8.41 3.72 0.65 .279 79.19% 48.30% 8.00% 3.07 3.67 4.22 0.5
Michael Fulmer 3 5 2 57 55.0 10.31 4.42 0.98 .300 70.12% 37.50% 10.91% 4.42 3.96 4.20 0.5
Drew Smyly 4 1 0 18 28.2 12.24 4.08 0.94 .302 71.43% 42.19% 12.50% 2.51 3.26 3.28 0.4
Daniel Palencia 5 3 0 27 28.1 10.48 4.45 0.95 .284 65.09% 39.71% 11.54% 4.45 4.00 4.14 0.3
Keegan Thompson 2 2 1 19 28.2 8.16 5.97 0.63 .234 67.20% 41.03% 6.06% 4.71 4.44 5.44 0.1
Hayden Wesneski 1 2 0 23 40.1 9.60 4.46 1.34 .253 82.16% 46.67% 15.79% 3.57 4.54 4.17 0.0
Michael Rucker 2 1 0 35 40.1 8.93 4.24 1.34 .306 74.14% 51.75% 18.75% 4.91 4.84 4.22 -0.1
Jose Cuas 0 2 1 26 23.0 7.04 5.48 0.78 .233 79.47% 57.38% 14.29% 3.13 5.04 4.91 -0.1
Brad Boxberger 0 1 2 22 20.0 7.65 4.95 1.35 .231 70.18% 43.64% 15.00% 4.95 5.31 5.01 -0.2
Select stats FanGraphs

While Alzolay emerging as a legitimate closer might be one of my favorite developments of 2023 (and you guessed it, we’ll spend a whole day on that), this was an adventurous crew at the backend of ballgames. It left little room for error for manager David Ross and the front office will need to add at least one or two more reliable options for new manager Craig Counsell if they want to chase down a few more wins in 2024.

Takeaways

The bottom line is while the end of the Cubs season was a bit of a letdown, 2023 absolutely exceeded at least the projection systems’ expectations for the Cubs. Frankly, they exceeded my expectations too. That said, a lot of things went right for those 83 wins and a handful of key contributors will need to be replaced if next year’s Cubsmas Advent Calendar is going to have an even better win total, or, dare I even hope for a playoff appearance?!