The 2013 Cubs: Better Than We Think

This morning, the following tweet from Gordon Wittenmeyer showed up in my timeline.

I hadn’t noticed this specifically, but once he said it, I did start to wonder about the Cubs record. After all, they’re getting quality offensive production from the likes of David DeJesus, Anthony Rizzo, Nate Schierholtz, and Luis Valbuena. Jeff Samardzija continues to look like an ace. Scott Feldman is living up his billing as the bargain free agent starter of the winter. Travis Wood is having a lot of success, even if it’s not all sustainable. Even after their early bullpen problems, Kevin Gregg has revitalized his career and has yet to give up a run in 11 innings of work.

With so many things going right, how are the Cubs 18-27? And, as Wittenmeyer’s tweet notes, are they actually playing better than their record suggests?

To start with, I figured it’d be helpful to expand on Wittenmeyer’s thoughts and cover the differences between all plays, not just a few stats. To do this, I created a table with every team’s wOBA and their wOBA allowed, and then took the difference between those two columns in order to give us an idea of where the Cubs rank in terms of offensive production compared to offensive production of their opponents. That table is reproduced below, with winning percentage and run differential per game also included for reference.

Team wOBA wOBA Against Difference Win% RunDiff
Tigers 0.341 0.295 0.046 0.568 1.25
Rangers 0.335 0.298 0.037 0.638 1.02
Red Sox 0.336 0.308 0.028 0.596 0.81
Braves 0.324 0.297 0.027 0.609 0.96
Rockies 0.333 0.309 0.024 0.553 0.68
Indians 0.341 0.317 0.024 0.578 0.64
Cardinals 0.316 0.293 0.023 0.652 1.28
Reds 0.320 0.301 0.019 0.617 1.21
Pirates 0.308 0.293 0.015 0.609 0.46
Rays 0.330 0.315 0.015 0.522 0.24
Cubs 0.309 0.298 0.011 0.400 -0.11
Orioles 0.331 0.322 0.009 0.544 0.43
Diamondbacks 0.312 0.303 0.009 0.553 0.53
Giants 0.319 0.310 0.009 0.553 0.09
Athletics 0.317 0.309 0.008 0.521 0.19
Yankees 0.314 0.316 -0.002 0.609 0.50
White Sox 0.297 0.300 -0.003 0.467 -0.33
Dodgers 0.305 0.308 -0.003 0.422 -0.71
Royals 0.308 0.315 -0.007 0.488 0.35
Angels 0.322 0.329 -0.007 0.413 -0.43
Mariners 0.308 0.317 -0.009 0.426 -0.85
Brewers 0.317 0.326 -0.009 0.400 -0.80
Nationals 0.286 0.300 -0.014 0.511 -0.55
Phillies 0.300 0.317 -0.017 0.489 -0.66
Padres 0.307 0.325 -0.018 0.457 -0.43
Blue Jays 0.313 0.338 -0.025 0.413 -0.93
Mets 0.296 0.322 -0.026 0.386 -0.82
Twins 0.306 0.342 -0.036 0.419 -0.49
Marlins 0.266 0.321 -0.055 0.277 -1.62
Astros 0.305 0.372 -0.067 0.298 -1.89

Not only is Wittenmeyer correct, his tweet actually undersells the point; the Cubs have the 11th best wOBA differential of any team in baseball. In terms of just counting and valuing the individual plays in a context neutral setting, the Cubs have performed better than the Orioles, Giants, Diamondbacks, and Yankees, among other teams who are off to much stronger starts from a win-loss perspective. The Cubs are the only team to have a higher wOBA than wOBA allowed and a losing record at the same time. In fact, if you take the Cubs out of the picture, the worst record from any team that has a positive wOBA differential is the A’s, who are 25-23.

Even if we just look at the teams in the same general wOBA differential range as the Cubs — in this case, that would be the Giants, A’s, Diamondbacks, and Orioles — we find that those teams have combined to go 102-86, good for a .543 winning percentage. And, actually, all four of those teams have a slightly worse wOBA differential than Chicago does.

Because wOBA is a well designed stat that does a good job of putting values on all of the individual events, the correlation between wOBA difference and run differential per game is very high, at 0.914, which is an r^2 of .84. You can explain almost a great majority of a team’s success through their wOBA differential. The rest is almost entirely due to the sequencing of events, and how well tables were able to cluster their hits and runs together.

As you’re probably aware, the things that drive sequencing have been shown to be almost entirely random. A team that is very good at hitting with men on base in the early part of the season may not very good at it over the rest of the season. A team that is scoring just enough to win a bunch of games by one run won’t continue to have their runs distributed at just the right times to maximize wins from those runs. For the most part, all a team can really control is how many hits and runs they get or allow, and not so much when those hits and runs occur.

The Cubs have actually played pretty good baseball when sequencing is not considered. By wOBA differential, they’ve been a well above average team. Their record is almost entirely a reflection of the power of the timing of various events.

In our Win Probability section, we track a stat called “Clutch”, which basically looks at the wins a team has gained or lost due to the leverage of the game when their positive or negative events occurred. The Cubs are 28th in clutch hitting and 30th in clutch pitching. When you combine their clutch scores from both sides of the ball, you can see just how far removed they are from the rest of the teams in baseball in season-to-date “clutch” performance.

Team ClutchBat ClutchPitch Clutch
Cardinals 3.2 0.8 4.0
Pirates 0.4 2.6 3.0
Nationals 1.0 1.4 2.5
Giants 2.3 (0.5) 1.8
Yankees (0.8) 2.4 1.6
Indians (0.9) 2.4 1.6
Royals 0.7 0.5 1.3
Reds (0.5) 1.7 1.2
Athletics (0.6) 1.6 1.1
Rangers (2.0) 3.0 1.0
Red Sox 1.0 (0.1) 1.0
Orioles 1.9 (1.2) 0.7
Rays 2.5 (1.9) 0.6
Marlins (0.9) 1.4 0.5
Phillies 1.1 (0.7) 0.4
Mariners (1.2) 1.4 0.2
Braves (0.2) 0.4 0.2
Diamondbacks 1.0 (0.9) 0.1
Twins (0.0) (0.4) (0.4)
Rockies (1.0) 0.3 (0.7)
White Sox (1.0) (0.1) (1.1)
Blue Jays (0.0) (1.4) (1.5)
Angels (2.7) 1.1 (1.6)
Mets 0.3 (2.0) (1.8)
Astros (0.9) (1.0) (1.9)
Dodgers (1.0) (1.0) (2.1)
Padres (1.6) (0.5) (2.1)
Brewers 0.3 (2.5) (2.2)
Tigers (0.4) (2.5) (2.9)
Cubs (1.8) (2.5) (4.3)

At -4.3 clutch wins, no one is even close to the Cubs in terms of underperformance by leverage. It’s not even just that they haven’t converted hits into runs, but that when they’ve scored those runs, they haven’t occurred at the right time to translate into wins.

So, as we approach Memorial Day, the Cubs stand at 18-27, and even if we just did a basic pythagorean adjustment to account for their run differential, we’d only upgrade that “expected” record to 22-23. But, when you look at the full accounting of all of their plays, the Cubs context neutral performance suggests something more like a 24-21 record. And that’s with Matt Garza spending basically the entire season on the DL.

The Cubs are in a ridiculously difficult division, and this isn’t their year to try and make a run for it, but the pieces that the team added over the off-season have made them a competitive team. Even if they end up selling off veterans for prospects at the trade deadline, don’t be surprised if the Cubs start winning more games over the next four months of the season. Based on their first 45 games, there are reasons to believe that this team is actually decent.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

49 Responses to “The 2013 Cubs: Better Than We Think”

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  1. Eddie says:

    I hope this start assures them a top 10 draft pick, juuuuust in case they want to sign a guy who receives a qualifying offer this offseason.

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  2. Kyle says:

    I know this is all true, but as a Cubs fan who has been putting up with seasons like this for decades (in between the legitimately bad ones and the negaive playoff variance), I’m really tired of hearing about how improbable the team is.

    Feels like the Cubs have had four or five of these seasons since their last positive variance year in 1998.

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    • rotowizard says:

      You play in a division with a team that hasn’t had a winning season, let alone a playoff appearance, in 21 years. Give me a break.

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    • Barry says:

      Essentially these stats indicated the Cubs choke more than other team in clutch situations. That is a function of the players, not the stats. The Cubs need to obtain players who will take walks, move runners along and play the game the right way. They also need players who hit well when the pressure is on. Guys like Castro and Soriano are terrible team players, and their stats with RISP and other important stats are pathetic.

      My biggest complaint with Sveum is that he does not discipline his players in a way that causes them to change. They make the same mistakes, with the same approach over and over. Yet he runs the same players out there and with the same batting order time after time. We ave to hope the Cubs continue to tank so perhaps we can rid the team of these overrated, underperforming players.


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  3. Iron says:

    “there are reasons to believe that this team is actually decent”

    Unfortunately, there are even greater reasons to believe this team is actually the Cubs.

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  4. Pat G says:

    The rest is almost entirely due to the sequencing of events, and how well tables were able to cluster their hits and runs together. … lol DYAC?

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  5. hansman1982 says:

    Is this an area where we can start to assign success/failure to the manager?

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    • brendan says:

      I was thinking along these lines, re: bullpen usage. could the cubs be using their good relief arms sub-optimally? I looked at their reliever WAR vs. reliever WPA but I am not savvy enough to draw conclusions :(

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    • H.Villanueva says:

      I’d sure like to assign the blame to Sveum. Once he threatened to send Rizzo and Castro to the minors I lost all respect for him.

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      • cmwieneke says:

        He never did that. Media hype and nothing more. If you are going to lose respect, at least do it over something he actually did.

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      • Nehi says:

        Also, since he said that, Rizzo has been much better. So if you are blaming anything on Sveum blame him for turning Rizzo’s season around. (Also, he didn’t say that.)

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    • Asmo says:

      I’m not sure it’s Sveum’s fault the Cubs are hitting .214 with RISP.

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  6. D4P says:

    According to the 3rd Order Win % at Baseball Prospectus, the Cubs have been the “unluckiest” team in the league so far this year. Their record “should” be 23.6 and 21.4.

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  7. NATS Fan says:

    I have watched the Cubs a bit because of fantasy baseball and blackouts of other teams in my area. I would agree that they are better than their record, but only against right handed pitching. The starting pitching has been good. The bullpen as been both awful and unlucky. They blow defensive plays late in games often. They can’t seem to get hits against left handed pitching. Those are my observations.

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  8. DD says:

    They are middle of the pack in K%, but have the highest O-Swing% and the 3rd highest Swing % as well as 21st best BABIP. This looks like a team that swings a ton, and makes a good deal of weak contact, limiting the ceiling of their run production.

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    • Anon21 says:

      That’s a nice theory, but wOBA takes account of this by assigning credit for things done and not, say, quality of contact.

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  9. Rod says:

    Big proponent of statistical analysis and enjoyed this article but we have 105 years of baseball that says the Cubs aren’t clutch.

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  10. ElToroStrikesAgain says:

    Bullpen implosions? Blown saves? Do these things have anything to do with it?

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    • Jaker says:


      That’s what 10 blown saves (3rd worse) will do to a team. That doesn’t explain all of it but if you convert just 5 of those into wins you’re 23-22.

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      • Jaker says:

        Which is further supported by their -3.45 bullpen WPA. Worst in the majors by far. Cubs want to compete? Get a better bullpen. I’m always amazed at how much bullpens are overlooked.

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        • Jaker says:

          Not to mention worst or top 3 worst in FIP, xFIP, SIERA, K% and the list goes on.

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        • Bip says:

          Bullpens are overlooked because it is really hard to build them. Relievers can go from ace to unplayable over just one season, and their peripherals will show little indication that an implosion is coming. Jim Johnson already has as many blown saves as he had all last year.

          The best bullpens have three things: hard throwing prospects, cheap under-the-radar signings, and luck.

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        • ElToroStrikesAgain says:

          Was surprised this part of the team was overlooked by the author. Being a fan of the pirates lets me know just how important bullpens can be as grilli and melancon have been outstanding so far, and the other less-heralded pieces have been more than adequate. Before Gregg took over as closer the pen was a complete disaster between fujikawa, camp, russell, marmol, etc..

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        • mike says:

          “Go from ace to unemployable”
          Just look at Shawn Camp.

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        • Ruki Motomiya says:

          And yet we consistantly see pitchers who go from ace to unplayable come back again (IE Joe Nathan) to be good. Maybe relievers are just like any other player: Sometimes they have down years. And it’s not like every bullpen arm is fickle: Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan (One bad year does not erase the 7 years he was good before: That is sustainable consistancy…especially since his two next years were good.), Papelbon (One bad year in 7), and so on.

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  11. grandbranyan says:

    I know it’s passe to talk about fielding errors in the SABR world but the Cubs do have quite a few of those, which based on the wOBA formula published in the glossary would not impact their wOBA against.

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    • Bip says:

      Their total team fielding value, which factors in errors, is right around average.

      However, if that fielding value is the result of above average defensive ability and below average fielding percentage, that would make their ERA deceptive, as they would allow a lot of unearned runs.

      However, they are 9th in earned runs allowed (1st being fewest) and they are 10th in total runs allowed. It appears they allow more unearned runs that usual, but are still solidly above average in run prevention.

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  12. mario mendoza says:

    9 innings is an arbitrary endpoint. :P

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  13. Brett W says:

    Last 5 games: +2 run differential, 1-4. That’s pretty much the 2013 Cubs.

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  14. Jon L. says:

    Are the Cubs the anti-Orioles? Can they, like the 2012 Orioles, keep this up all year?

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  15. Bryan says:

    If you compare the Cubs to the Giants, A’s, Diamondbacks, and Orioles one big difference sticks out: the bullpen. In close games and high leverage situations, the Cubs are at a real disadvantage. A few good additions to the bullpen could create a tipping point situation – turning all those “almost wins” into more actual wins. If you swapped the Giants bullpen with the Cubs, for example, the Cubs would probably be near 500. It makes a huge difference.

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  16. John Roberts says:

    I was surprised in the offseason that Theo and Jed didn’t look for more bullpen arms — adding to the bullpen would have increased their chances of putting a palatable product on the field while still fitting into their model of assembling assets that could be traded down the road.

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  17. As a fan, most of the games have been real close. We routinely lose by 1 and 2 runs as a casual observer. The thought I have is that we are only 3 or 4 players away from turning that over into the win column.

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  18. JKB says:

    I know this is about the Cubs, but I keep looking at the Rays in those charts. Look at (clutch bat – clutch pitch) differential for the Rays, it is the largest in baseball by a large margin. Their clutch pitching is killing them.

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  19. Oasis says:

    With Garza back in the rotation, Villanueva immediately improves the bullpen. In fact, I put Monday’s loss on Sveum’s head because he went with a Rule V tomato can instead of Carlos. It was the perfect situation to use a guy that had was in the rotation all year and two or three innings.

    Sveum is almost as bad as Dusty Baker in handling a pitching staff …

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  20. GlennBraggsSwingAndMissBrokenBat says:

    Not better than I think. I picked them to finish 3rd behind the Reds and Cardinals. Knowing the Pirates, there’s still a good chance that will happen.

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    • Eric Feczko says:

      Well, yeah. In fact, this same chart would suggest that the Cubs should end up fourth in the division; the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates all have a better differential. As Matt notes, the NL Central is a tough division this year (now that the Astros are gone).

      Of course, the point of this post is that the Cubs are playing better than their record indicates, which I think is fair. The bullpen has been both bad and unlucky this year.

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  21. Joe says:

    The reasons for the poor bullpen are pretty easy to spot. The Cubs have very little in the upper minors as far as pitching goes. So, there are no live bullpen arms coming. Also, the Cubs actually have a fair amount of money invested in this bullpen. Marmol, Fujikawa, and Camp make decent salaries. Plus, if you throw in Villanueva’s money now, they have plenty of money invested there. That doesn’t mean the money is spent well, however. Also, the last thing a non-contending team needs is a fantastic bullpen. This team is not ready to compete for the World Series. There was no reason to spend a small fortune on Rafael Soriano, for example. Yes, it might have added a few wins. Maybe they’d be sitting at 23-22 right now. I would argue that would actually be detrimental to a team building for 2015 or so. The front office might be tempted to add this summer rather than trading off some of these pieces (Soriano, Wood, Feldman, etc.), which I think would be the wrong move.

    I am not necessarily against Sveum, but I would like to see the hitters have a better approach at the plate. Castro, for one, has absolutely no idea which pitch may be coming in a certain situation. He is legitimately surprised by 2-0 and 2-1 fastballs, and appears to be looking for fastballs in 0-2 and 1-2 counts. If there is a more aggravating position player in all of baseball, in terms of potential v. performance, I’d sure like to hear it.

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    • Brett W says:

      Why would the Cubs trade Wood?

      In addition to Soriano and Feldman, be sure they’re shopping Garza, DeJesus, Marmol, Shierholtz, and a few other guys, too.

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      • Joe says:

        Wood is no better than a #3-5 starter. If the Cubs can get a fortune for him, it really doesn’t make sense to keep him. That would require a desperate fringe contender to give up something valuable for him, which is unlikely.

        I forgot about DeJesus and Schierholtz, who of course should be traded. Marmol is going nowhere because he’s a $10 million guy who can’t get outs; those don’t attract a lot of attention. Garza still has something to prove, but I think I’d rather keep him around than Wood.

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  22. tison brito says:

    What’s with Edwin Jackson? Is he unlucky as the #’s woud indicate (Fip/xfip in mid 3.00’s…50% strand rate) or is he simply incabable of getting the job done with men on base due to poor concentration??

    Something has to give with him no?

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    • Al Dimond says:

      If he had “poor concentration” (or couldn’t pitch from the stretch or some other explanation for a large split between performance with bases empty vs. runners on) wouldn’t you expect that to show up throughout his career? Jackson has been pitching quite a while without exhibiting such splits, so I wouldn’t expect his struggles in this regard to continue.

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