By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) There was ample reason to expect this, in hindsight, no matter that the algorithmic projection systems agreed that the 2017 Cubs should remain one of baseball’s best teams.
Going back to 2012, the World Series champion has failed to make the playoffs the next season. That’s just a fact, regardless of any ranges of individual player outcomes considered when gauging expectations. It may be one of the flaws in over-reliance on metrics, the blind spot that can’t quantify the emotional effect of playing deep into the fall, winning and then starting spring training still in a celebratory blur. Guessing about the reasons for the downturn isn’t as meaningful as accepting that it exists.
Analysts Ben Lindbergh and Rob McQuown investigated the trend back in 2014, noting then that champions in the wild-card era regressed the next season from an average winning percentage of .588 to one of .537, a significant margin of -.051 that’s still well below the Cubs’ alarming drop from .635 to their current .481.
Now, before a more thorough discussion of what’s happening here, this disclaimer is necessary. The 2017 Cubs still have every chance to snap back to form, at least something better than their recent moribund state of 25-27, if not last year’s impossible level of play. The number of individual players performing at the low end of their respective probability spectra is about the same as 2016’s widespread over-performance epidemic, and we’re still understanding what young players can do in a relatively small sample size. Individual baseball seasons are small enough statistical groupings themselves, so all of this is offered with a full awareness of the inescapable dominion of variance.
Lindbergh wrote, “To reach the World Series, a lot of things have to go right — clutch hitting, good health, lucky bounces, unhittable bullpens — and those things rarely go equally right in consecutive seasons.”
Moreover, he found that roster stasis was a likely contributing factor to decline, as teams stuck with what got them there to the point of detriment.
“Think of it this way,” he argued. “If you’re depending on a collection of players who just reached the pinnacle of the sport, there’s nowhere before the group to go but down.”
And here is where the Cubs’ situation deviates from that logic, in part. The truth is that they didn’t stand pat after last year in the hope of unlikely replication, because they’re smart enough to know all this. They gave center field to Albert Almora, the lead-off spot to Kyle Schwarber and reshuffled their high-leverage bullpen roles with Wade Davis and Koji Uehara added in.
Schwarber’s -0.4 WAR is killing the Cubs, as he has become a far worse offensive player than he already was defensively. Almora is a flat 0.0 WAR to this point. Uehara and Davis have been fine at 0.6 and 0.7, respectively, but haven’t been able to influence enough games because the Cubs are mired in the bottom one-third of MLB in wOBA and wRC+.
We still don’t know what Addison Russell (0.4 WAR) or Javier Baez (0.2) may be or where they are in what is clearly non-linear development for both of them, and it’s possible that age erosion for Jake Arrieta, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey could be more accelerated than anticipated.
So now president of baseball operations Theo Epstein must make shrewd and honest assessments of what this team may need to add and subtract to maximize its chances and the extent to which he wants to expend resources to chase a title this year. It’s possible that his definition of “sustained contention” already baked in the possibility of regression after a World Series win and that a broader scope from his experience in Boston would mean keeping his powder dry.
Manager Joe Maddon is keeping everything expectedly sanguine as his bosses allow him to set the tone daily, both publicly and in the clubhouse. Everything is fine, up until the point that it’s not.
But something is clearly not right with the Cubs, that much is obvious. Really, many things aren’t right.
Relative to last year is one thing, we understand — 2016 wasn’t going to happen again regardless of the best planning and even a little good fortune, because baseball ensures that it doesn’t. It’s fair, however, to expect that some issues can and should be addressed before this year drags a still-talented team too far down.