September has not been kind to the Cubs playoff hopes and with four games left in the season the Cubs no longer control their own destiny. They not only need to win out, they need to hope that the Marlins lose, because the Marlins control the tiebreaker with the Cubs after winning four of the teams' six games earlier this season.
We all knew looking at this stretch of the schedule that finishing the season with six games against division leaders would be difficult. The Cubs have played an absolute juggernaut of an Atlanta Braves squad to the bitter end of each game — but they’ve also fallen short twice. Losing by one run in both of the first two games of this series. And honestly it’s worse than that, as this tweet on the Cubs fate late in games shows:
The Cubs have now lost 5 games this month after holding a lead in the 8th inning or later.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 28, 2023
That's tied for their most such losses in any single month over the last 50 seasons (June 1991 & September 1992).
This struggle in close games late isn’t new, in fact, the 2023 Cubs have been here before. It turns out that maybe the biggest difference in the Cubs success or failure this year is in those one-run games. To put it bluntly, Alzolay in the closer role is the difference between this team being a postseason contender and a bit of a dud.
To evaluate this I divided the season into three parts: Alzolay pre-closer, Alzolay as closer, and Alzolay on the injured list. Let’s take a look at each of these segments of the Cubs season.
I date Alzolay in the closer role back to his save against the Giants on June 9. While Alzolay also got the save on May 30, he didn’t get the save on June 2 (that went to Mark Leiter Jr.) So I tend to date Alzolay’s run in the role to June 9. He went on a run at that point, which I’ll discuss more in the Alzolay as closer section.
From the first game of the season until June 8 the Cubs went 26-36. That’s 10 games under .500 and a .419 win percentage in the first 62 games of the season. For reference, there aren’t currently teams with precisely a .419 win percentage on the season, but the two closest are the Washington Nationals (.434) and the St. Louis Cardinals (.437), both of whom are last place teams in their division.
Digging into that .419 win percentage a bit more, it’s the one-run games that were the killer. The Cubs went 4-11 in one-run games. Now, one-run games aren’t a perfect proxy for “a closer would have made a difference” but they are a good proxy for a closer would have made a difference and before mid-June the Cubs were playing like a last place team.
From the time Adbert stepped into the role as the closer until he hit the injured list on September 10 the Cubs were truly a different team to behold. They went 50-31 in a half season sample. That is a .617 win percentage and right between the Los Angeles Dodgers (.620) and Tampa Bay Rays (.610) — two teams who are not only playoff bound, but punched their ticket with time to spare.
The proof is in the one-run game record during that time period, where the Cubs were 13-9 in one-run affairs. The bottom line from about June 9 to September 10 was that if the Cubs had a lead late they would hold it. Leiter, Julian Merryweather and Adbert Alzolay were a fearsome triumvirate at the back end of a Cubs game and this looked like a team that was sure to play in October with a non-zero chance to win the division as you may remember from FanGraphs playoff odds charts like this one:
Unfortunately Adbert hit a bit of a wall and wound up on the 15-day injured list on September 11 (retroactive to September 10). It’s been a pretty bumpy ride (and playoff odds chart since:
That peak is a 92.4 percent chance to make the postseason on September 6, what’s happened since has been summarized in game threads, posts and recaps during the last 22 days. It’s a stunning collapse and while there are different moments, misplayed balls, walks and other elements that every player on the field has contributed in some way shape or form, for me the biggest change is who isn’t on the field — the closer, Adbert Alzolay.
That’s no shade to Adbert, he’s a competitor and if he was healthy he’d be throwing. But he’s not and it shows just how thin the bullpen is without him. Since September 10 the Cubs have six wins and nine losses. A small sample size, to be sure, but it’s an even worse stretch than their .419 win percentage to open the season at .353. The look lost in close games late and have gone just 1-3 in one-run games without their closer.
Not all hope is lost. I take a bit of solace in the fact that the Cubs playoff odds today are better than they were on Opening Day. If you squint you can see a way for them to win out, take advantage of a Marlins loss or two, and still make an appearance in the Wild Card series. That Wild Card series would conveniently be played in Milwaukee, where the Cubs finish out the season. I imagine the environment would be a raucous one at Wrigley North and I hope we all get to see it play out. However, to get to that future, a handful of guys in the bullpen are going to need to step up, STAT. Many people would look at the Cubs roster and say their most valuable player has been the resurgent Cody Bellinger, or the absolutely gritty starting pitching performance from Justin Steele in 2023, but the more I looked at these three chapters in the Cubs season, I’m pretty sure it might be Adbert Alzolay.