Well, it was never going to last forever. I laughed I did see one prominent Cubs blogger make a joke on Twitter about them never losing again. I think when you write or blog about a team, the normal yin and yang of baseball has an inertia. It’s probably not all that different from playing roulette. Or like flipping a coin. The simplistic mind takes something with a 50/50 probability, or very near to it, in a very simple way. That is, our brain want it to be as simple as if the last result was heads, the next one is likely to be tails. If the last spin was red, the next will be black. If you never study any kind of probability and statistics or high level math, your brain may never get past that.
I’m going to assume the overwhelming majority of anyone that would ever read something I write understands probability beyond a basic level. But our brains fight it. I remember getting into some pretty frustrating back and forths trying to explain probability to poker players. If you are playing the popular variant on poker known as Texas Hold ’em, you start with two cards in your hand. The best two card hand is a pair of aces. The odds of drawing aces on a given hand are 221-1.
Virtually everyone accepts that fact. But ask them what the odds are of getting pocket aces on the next hand? Not pocket aces on consecutive hands, obviously the cumulative difficulty of that is pretty insane. Although not at all so insane that I wouldn’t bet that there are situations at the Main Event of the World Series of Poker every year where someone has pocket aces on consecutive hands. Regardless, the odds at the time the second hand is dealt of getting aces again or 221-1. The cards have no memory.
The baseball gods have no memory either. When you start playing the next day, you at least start the probability at 50/50. Now we all know enough about sports to know at least a dozen variables quickly that effect the outcome of a game. There are many more that we know are there but don’t know how to factor in. We certainly don’t know how many players on each team have minor nagging injuries that aren’t reported anywhere. We don’t know about the guy who slept funny and didn’t get enough sleep.
So, of course, when the Cubs got out of bed Sunday, it was right back at the coin flip. There is no building pressure that forces you to eventually lose. But we accept that the laws of probability will largely balance things out over time. Ironically, when a team starts stacking wins, it really feels like it’s going to go on forever.
Short story made very long by this analogy, under normal circumstances as a writer/blogger, you expect a fairly consistent ebb and flow. But when the ebb gets several days off and it’s all flow, it really builds on itself. The fan who lives and dies with how they are doing feels all of these things too. And, of course, all fans feel it on some level. You wouldn’t be a fan if the game didn’t touch you in any way.
But when you are attached to it, you sort of shut off the part of your brain a little bit that tells you that gravity is going to resume. Certainly for me as a fan/writer, it was strong. I know life has been hectic for me and it’s possibly I’ve been fighting a bug, but I’m completely numb today. Is it the loss? I don’t live and die with the team the way I once did. But certainly, as I’ve written the last few days, I’ve really been enjoying this. I likened it last night to the movie Major League playing out in real life. The “evil” management wanted to sell off parts of the team. While the “hero” players and coaching staff wanted to thwart that plan and force management to add instead of subtract.
It was wild and improbable and largely unpredictable. Ironically, as I went back through the last several Cubs seasons looking for the last streak longer than seven wins in a row, I found that in most of the recent seasons, they’d had a seven game winning streak. That included the two bad teams of the last two years. If we take that flipping the coin analogy, the odds of seven tails in a row are 128-1. I don’t do this math, but the probability of one streak of at least seven heads in a row out of 162 trials, is about 47 percent (trusting a website that gave me a calculator for that).
That feels high to my brain. Yet again, as I looked backwards through Cubs seasons, more of the teams than not seemed to have those longer streaks. To be fair, I quickly was back into a very good team and that probability was probably a bit higher given that the team was winning more than 50 percent of the time.
Here is what sports math tells us about a streak like this. If we oversimplify, there are two possibilities. You can do this with any of the statistical anomalies — say, for example, Christopher Morel’s homer barrage at the start of his 2023 MLB season. If I was creating an (oversimplified) if/then chart, I’d use one question. Did the team (player) unlock a new performance level. If the answer is yes, then they don’t necessarily have to regress to normal performance level. If the answer is no, gravity is coming.
With players, this can be especially complicated. We all would certainly have correctly guessed that Morel wasn’t going to continue hitting nine homers every 12 games. We knew that would be unsustainable. We know that the Cubs won’t suddenly be winning eight of every nine games. But with Morel, it was fairly apparent that he had unlocked a stronger skill set than we saw in 2022. If I (quite unfairly) omit those first 12 games from his season, he’s a hitter with a .251/.325/.417 line with a 102 wRC+ and seven homers in 198 plate appearances. Even that unfair sample shows a higher batting average and on base percentage. There is skill progression. What is his real level going to be? I don’t know, but I’ll never evaluate any player by totally omitting the best or worst 12 game stretch of his season. I do think it is fair to know what it looks like when you take the “aberration” out. But you can’t just memory hole it, it happened.
With an individual player, it’s really tricky. Even with the large sample size that baseball gives us on a player compared to other sports. the analysis always continues. We can’t know for sure if progress is locking in without ever more data. But as the more data is coming in, he’s aging (for better or for worse), his health his changing (for better or for worse), and he’s working to hone his craft. The best talent evaluators in the world aren’t perfect.
When you go back to a team, it tends to be a lot easier to see, because it takes a village to sustain success in the MLB regular season. The Cubs had a winning record for March/April, June and July. They had a losing record only in May. When I skim through box scores from May, I see a team really flailing around through the fringes or its roster. Some of the worst of Jameson Taillon was in there. In fairness, there were clunkers in there from both Justin Steele and Marcus Stroman, who were so consistent in the first half. There is the return of Kyle Hendricks that was shaky at first. There was Hayden Wesneski in and then out of the pen. Jeremiah Estrada looking for a role, Michael Rucker possibly being overexposed. There were the downfalls of Keegan Thompson and Brad Boxberger.
But it would be unfair to make it sound like it was just the pitchers. There were a lot of low scoring games. The team OPS dropped basically 100 points between April and May though it also stayed down through June. Interestingly, with basically the same OPS in June as May, they score 19 more runs in three less games. That ends up amounting to more than a run a game difference between the two months. And then another run still in July. There was too much Eric Hosmer and Edwin Rios. Cody Bellinger got hurt and the offense didn’t have enough depth to it.
Circling back to that struggling pitching staff, the OPS allowed was over 100 points higher in May than April. The team was worse on both offense and defense by about 100 points. It is literally no surprise that the team cratered in May. The interesting thing is that when the offense trended back up in July the pitching looked a lot more like May than April. Our eyes are surely not surprised to say that the offense fueled the run in July.
One of the reasons I love Baseball Reference for data is that I can find pretty easily the breakdown. The Cubs starters were best in April and then the trend line (using OPS as a barometer) has been slowly downhill. One could almost see the cumulative effects of wear and tear and the warmer weather in those numbers. But the numbers aren’t smooth at all out of the bullpen. The bullpen totally cratered in May. Then they had their best month in June.
Our memories don’t argue with that information. It took longer than usual for the front office to work out the bullpen, but the net result is pretty good there. The lineup roared in July. The rotation has trailed off, but the numbers aren’t garish. Just not as sharp as they started.
What am I suggesting out of all of this? The performance level of the team is better. Eight in a row is always at least a little bit of a fluke. We certainly understand that. There were some razor-thin wins in there. They’ll never all fall for you like that, but they’ll also never fall so heavily against you as they seemed to in late April and through May where every close game seemed to go the other way.
I’ll also conveniently use it to get in some last words ahead of the trade deadline. The heaviest struggles of this team were in May when they were having the most trouble around the edges of the roster. As much as we love to think 100 win seasons are about an amazing core of players, they are as much about the depth of the roster and the ability to survive injuries and underperformance. All of that keeps you out of a funk. But playoff baseball, the ultimate goal, is more or less about a set lineup, a reduced number of starters and a core of relievers.
This team could use one more potent bat, someone who can help the lineup stay productive if one of the core goes down again. The Cubs weathered injuries to Nico Hoerner and Dansby Swanson better than they did Bellinger’s. Bellinger, oddly enough, has been the team’s key to success against left handed pitching. Will he be able to do that against the caliber of pitchers you’d see in playoff games? One would fear regression. I’d think one good right handed bat, particularly one with a track record against lefties, would be super. If they can play first and/or third, all the better.
What does this team do if one of its outfielders is injured? Maybe a depth outfielder? Who on the Iowa roster do you want taking important at bats down the stretch if there is an injury out there. Obviously, you essentially have four outfielders right now, but who slides in if one is hurt? Unless you are willing to start the clock on Peter Crow-Armstrong, the speed and the glove already play if nothing else, then Nelson Velazquez is your choice? I don’t know that I don’t believe in him, but I’m fairly certain they don’t or we’d have seen more of him over the last two years.
I think you clearly have to get someone who can handle some leverage out of the pen so that you don’t have to run the same three guys out there in every game you are tied or ahead. I think you have to add a lefty. I also think the rotation looks worn out a little. Even Steele has been a bit more up and down, though I cringe at the idea of not seeing him every fifth day. Stroman has clearly slowed down, did something change that day in London? Does he need two weeks to clear something up? Maybe some move you make allows you to feel comfortable running with six starters a couple of times through at some point?
I don’t think the team needs tectonic upgrades. I know one thing I would not do. I’ve seen several on Cubs Twitter who have decent sized followings suggesting trading Marcus Stroman in conjunction with acquiring another starter. I imagine team chemistry and a good clubhouse might sometimes seem like old forgotten religion, but I wouldn’t touch getting that cute in a million years. But a few tactical additions around the fringes of the roster should prepare them to be in the hunt down to the wire.
There are wins to be stacked in August and September. But again, depth helps with the stacking of wins. For better or for worse, Stroman, Steele, Taillon and Hendricks. Alzolay, Leiter, and Merryweather. Swanson and Hoerner, Bellinger and Happ, Gomes and Amaya, Suzuki and Tauchman. That’s your horse and you are going to go as far as that horse carries you. But get them some depth so they don’t have to be run into the ground trying to get you there.
This was long, much longer than I set out to do. So I’ll leave you with my obvious player of the game in a game where there wasn’t much positive. That is Yan Gomes. To give you a couple of pseudo three star performances, I’ll hat tip for Kyle Hendricks getting through seven innings after a rocky start and Michael Fulmer closing it out. All of the highest leverage relievers get an off day ahead of a big series with the Reds. And Stroman, Steele and Taillon will all go in the series. It should be fun.
Game 105, July 30: Cardinals 3, Cubs 0 (53-52)
Reminder: Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA scores and are in no way subjective.
- Superhero: Yan Gomes (.016). 2-4, 2B
- Hero: Christopher Morel (.006). 1-3, 2 K
- Sidekick: Michael Fulmer (.005). IP, 4 batters, K
- Billy Goat: Kyle Hendricks (-.125). 7 IP, 29 batters, 8 H, BB, 3 R, 2 K (L 4-5)
- Goat: Dansby Swanson (-.079). 0-4, 3 K
- Kid: Nico Hoerner/Trey Mancini (-.063). Hoerner: 0-4; Mancini: 0-2
WPA Play of the Game: Tyler O’Neill batted with a runner on second with two outs, the game scoreless in the first. He singled, scoring the only run the Cardinals would need. (.098)
*Cubs Play of the Game: With a runner on second with no outs in the first, Kyle Hendricks got Paul Goldschmidt to pop up for the first out. (.042)
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
This poll is closed
Someone else (leave your suggestion in the comments)
Yesterday’s Winner: Jameson Taillon (Superhero is 69-35)
Rizzo Award Cumulative Standings: (Top 5/Bottom 5)
- Cody Bellinger +20
- Ian Happ +18.5
- Marcus Stroman +15
- Justin Steele +14
- Mike Tauchman/Adbert Alzolay +10
- Drew Smyly -9
- Michael Fulmer -10
- Patrick Wisdom/Jameson Taillon -13
- Trey Mancini -20.5
Up Next: Home to Wrigley Field for an enormous series with the Reds (58-49) while the trade deadline expires. The Cubs will wake up Monday four behind the first place Reds and 31⁄2 games behind the Wild Card. The Brewers salivate with those two playing head to head while they play the Nationals in Washington.
Marcus Stroman (10-7, 3.51, 125⅔ IP) starts the opener. Marcus is 2-3 with a 6.35 ERA over his last seven starts (34 innings). He allowed seven runs while only recording 10 outs last time out. Somehow the Cubs won that game. Marcus has yet to face the Reds this season.
24-year-old rookie lefty Andrew Abbott (6-2, 1.90, 61⅔ IP) has been a part of the resurgence of the Reds. He doesn’t get any of the mentions that a couple of his teammates get, particularly in the Rookie of the Year department, but he’s had an impressive first 10 games. He has back to back outings without allowing an earned run coming in. He’s 2-0 and has allowed eight hits and three walks over 14 innings in his last two starts. Interestingly, he’s already faced the Brewers four times. He is 2-2 against them and has allowed eight runs in 22⅓ innings. The man is human, but this should be a tough one. The Cubs are going to need a bounce back outing from Stroman.