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The Cubs are surging in the National League Central

They’ll need to keep it up despite the upcoming schedule and international travel

Ian Happ hits an RBI double against the Pirates
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Nine days ago I wrote that the Cubs were about to embark on their most important series with the Pirates in years and the outcomes of those games could keep the Cubs competitive hopes alive or all but ensure they were sellers, yet again, at this year’s trade deadline. So far, the Cubs have completely risen to the occasion — sweeping the Pirates in three games at Wrigley Field, and again to start this week in Pittsburgh, while taking two out of three from the Orioles in between.

That surge was necessary, but not sufficient to keep the Cubs’ hopes alive. Their odds are improved considerably from nine days ago, but they are far from the favorites to win the division as you can see from these updated FanGraphs playoff odds:

NL Central Playoff Odds

On June 12 when I was working on the first piece the Cubs had an 8.9 percent chance to make it to the postseason. After going 8-1 in their intervening nine games they have a 21.3 percent chance to play meaningful baseball in October. That’s still a bit off their 32.4 percent peak on April 11, but certainly preferable to the less than 10 percent chance they were rocking a few days ago.

I’m more cautiously optimistic about this team writing this update now than I was a week and a half ago, but I truly cannot stress the word “cautiously” enough, there. The Cubs have done what they need to do to keep themselves in the race and competitive. They’ve put a real damper on the Pirates playoff hopes by sweeping back-to-back series against them — and also, it just gets harder from here.

For starters, the Cubs will embark on a two-game series against their biggest rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, this weekend in London. The last time these two teams met the Cubs dropped two of three against the Cardinals at Wrigley Field. St. Louis has struggled to a 31-44 record this season, but they’d love nothing more than to push the Cubs back behind the Pirates in the division after this quick series across the pond.

There is also the question of how these London games could impact both teams competitiveness in the short term. In 2017 Cubs fan and Northwestern neurobiologist Ravi Allada published research that studied 20 years worth of travel impacts on MLB players and the results of that study are fascinating:

Home teams played less aggressive offense after traveling, especially if they had just traveled east. In such games, players were less likely to attempt doubles, triples, and stolen bases, all of which require bolder base running. Eastward travel could even cancel out a team’s home field advantage: For example, home teams won 53.9% of the time in the entire 46,535-game data set. But if a team like the Cubs returned to Wrigley Field after playing a series in Los Angeles, California, they were 3.5% less likely to win—effectively removing their advantage.

“Teams expect there to be a problem when they travel on the road, but I don’t think anybody really thinks about the problems that could occur when they return home,” says Aaron Lee, a sports medicine physician at MacNeal Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, who conducted his own review of jet lag in athletes in 2012. One of the more striking finds in the new study, he says, was that jet lag significantly impacted both home and away team pitchers’ ability to prevent home runs. That makes sense, he adds, because jet lag tends to affect actions that require complex cognition and fine motor skills. “The act of pitching is very fragile. It doesn’t take much to throw it off.”

The study noted that impacts were worst for players traveling east, regardless of whether that meant heading “home” or not. Notably, these studies were looking at continental US travel, not international travel. While it’s notable, and likely helpful, that teams have additional off days between these two games, that probably doesn’t offset the impact of jet lag entirely.

That jet lag could occur at a difficult moment in the Cubs schedule with a slew of teams hoping to make the playoffs scheduled to face the Cubs in the next few weeks, including the Phillies, Guardians, Brewers, Yankees and Red Sox.

As nice as it is to check in at FanGraphs (or Baseball Reference) and see the Cubs’ playoff odds rising, it’s worth recognizing that their sparkling play over the last 10 days has gotten them back in the race and made them a much more competitive third place. They are still 3½ games behind a similarly surging Reds team that has won 11 games in a row. The Cubs will need to continue to play at this higher level despite the rougher travel and schedule ahead.