Six weeks into the season, the defending World Series Champion Cubs are struggling. At just 19-19, they sit 2.5 games back of the division rival Cardinals, who look primed to bounce back from a rare postseason-miss last year. The Brewers and Reds have started off strong to the surprise of many, vaulting ahead of Chicago and pushing the Cubbies into fourth place in the NL Central.
Is It Time To Hit The Panic Button?
Coming off a year in which everything clicked into place, things seem to be going wrong left and right. The dominant and durable run prevention unit that propelled the Cubs in 2016 has faltered, with pitchers like John Lackey and Jake Arrieta struggling with ineffectiveness, while the fifth starter role remains in question as Brett Anderson battles another injury. The lineup, so deep and potent entering the year, has also scuffled, with precocious youngsters like Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, and Addison Russell all floundering to some degree at the plate. With half the team underperforming and the rest of the division over-performing, doom is certainly in the cards for the Cubs, right?
In a word: no. The Cubs haven’t started so poorly so as to set off complete hysteria, to plunge a fanbase that was tortured for a century right back into a curse-addled paranoia, but they’re approaching that breaking point. Another week or two of underwhelming play and Chicago fans might be devolve into a full-fledged panic, not seven months after the team defeated Cleveland in Game 7. But such hysterics, so early, and regarding a team so talented, are so unfounded.
Pump The Brakes
It’s tempting to overreact to the struggles of a pre-eminent favorite. Everyone loves a fairytale like the 2016 Cubs, but what people might like even more is to dissect a stunning failure, to ruminate over what went wrong, and how it all should have been so plain to see from the start. Former ESPN Golden State Warriors beat writer Ethan Strauss said it best regarding why it was easier to write about Steph Curry and Co. when lost rather than when they won, simply stating: “It’s easier to perform an autopsy than to explain why life exists”.
For many a Chicagoan last season, the Cubs really might’ve shown why life exists, but now, the baseball-world just seems too eager to perform the autopsy. The Cubs aren’t dead, and they probably won’t die anytime soon.
No one expected the Cubs to be .500 or worse this late into the season. Yet no one expected the dominant Cubs of last year to go 12-20 from June 20th to July 26th. Last year’s Cubs struggled just as much at times, and no one noticed. It’s easier to observe their struggles now just because they happened first. The trials and tribulations of the 2016 Cubs were easily overlooked since they only occurred after a near-historic run of play to open the season.
Reasons To Stay Level-Headed
There are a couple ways in which the Cubs’ slow start could look truly concerning: if the shape of the roster was drastically different from last year’s, whether due to injury or offseason subtractions, or if the team’s underlying performance was so poor so as to force us to re-evaluate what we thought of the team in the first place.
The first part is undeniably inapplicable. The core that brought Chicago its first World Series championship in generations is still in place. Dexter Fowler and Jason Hammel, a pair of veterans who provided solid production, left for St. Louis and Kansas City respectively, but their departures alone are not enough to dramatically impact the Cubs’ bottom-line.
Rather, the Cubs are still stacked, almost as much so as last season. The players that lifted the trophy last year are still here, and just because some haven’t gotten off to roaring starts doesn’t mean they won’t eventually start rolling. So far, Baez, Russell, Schwarber, and Ben Zobrist have combined for 0.4 WAR per FanGraphs. They still project for over 8 WAR the rest of the way. Once the key pieces that are still in place start hitting as they were expected to, the Cubs will, in all likelihood, start to surge back to their rightful place atop the standings.
On The Stat-Sheet, The Cubs Are Still Themselves
As to whether the team has performed so poorly so as to coerce a frank re-appraisal of their talent, well, that’s probably not quite what’s happened here. The Cubs may only be .500, but they’ve played closer to the standard they set for themselves than you might expect. According to Baseball Reference, the Cubs have played the toughest schedule in the National League so far, and have still outscored their opponents on the whole. It may not sound like an impressive achievement, but even as they’ve struggled, the Cubs have scored more runs than a tough slate of opponents.
To better put this idea into context, we can turn to Baseball Prospectus’ adjusted standings. BP adjusts for all sorts of factors to pump out what they call Third-Order winning percentage, which accounts for sequencing luck when it comes to scoring runs, while also adjusting for quality of opposition. By this measure, the Cubs “should” be about 21-17. That’s not exactly on the level of 2016 Cubbies, but if the Cubs were four games over .500 at this moment, it’s hard to imagine that the fanbase would be anywhere near a meltdown.
So if the team really hasn’t played all that bad, and if the players that we thought so highly of a few weeks ago are still in place, there’s just no reason to panic. It would a different story if the Cubs had buried themselves in a deep hole like the Giants or Blue Jays, or if injuries had sapped them of their tremendous talent. But instead, the outlook for the Cubs should be nearly as rosy as it was in April. Within a couple months, we might all look back on this time of Cubs-furor as quaint, as the Cubs push for another NL Central title.