By James Fegan
The Chicago Cubs are the unquestioned best team in baseball, and have been all year.
While Kyle Schwarber has been lost for the year; Jason Hammel has a tight elbow; Jorge Soler is getting over a sore side; and Chris Coghlan is fighting off a mild ankle sprain, they enter the postseason with the health of their core players – perhaps because they have so many of them – being the envy of the league. I picked the Cubs to win it all before the season started and they have done nothing but make me look like the tremendous genius that I am.
In a testament to their dominance, Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds give the Cubs a one-in-four chance of winning the World Series out of the 10-team playoff field: 25.2 percent, which, it goes without saying, gives them a better chance than anyone else.
Even with likely the most dominant team of the last decade – a historically great team – the Cubs are overwhelmingly unlikely to win the World Series and break their ignominious streak. This is not entirely an attempt to throw cold water on the playoff excitement, but to some degree a tacit endorsement of the Cubs’ deliberate, multi-year, long competitive window plan. Super teams are great, but perennial contenders are the only way to start tilting the post season’s cruel odds in your favor, and this is a good phrase for muttering repeatedly in a monotone if things go south early this October in Chicago.
Because it’s also a rationalization. The playoff odds are telling about the difficulty of the path, but they are also limited to what we truly know and can demonstrate and prove: the rate this team has created and prevented runs over the whole season and how often such a team would normally carve its way to the championship.
But baseball, especially a small number of games like these, has a lot to do with matchups. That can mean issues as broad and foreseeable as the Cubs annihilating left-handed pitching to the tune of a .267/.357/.449 line all year and now facing a Giants team that would offer up Madison Bumgarner and Matt Moore as starters, to something as discrete as advanced scouting revealing a tell in a pitcher’s delivery, a slip in delivery or swing mechanics that just happened to crop up in the last week, to the injuries and physical degradation every team has endured at the end of a 162-game season, and how they’re affecting particular players on the actual night of the game.
Which is to the say the Cubs’ actual odds could be significantly higher or lower depending on factors that go beyond a basic stat sheet and calculation of how good they are. If I had to bet, I would say they are higher, because while cliche assumptions like ace starting pitchers, defense, or small ball becoming suddenly more or less important in playoffs are speculation at best, the Cubs distinguish themselves by being able to lean on any facet of their team for dominant stretches.
Their roster was so complete entering 2016 that no team got to focus more on adding pieces, such as Aroldis Chapman, that specifically strengthened for short series play, and the pressure of the postseason, an all-enveloping but unquantifiable factor when playing with championships on the line, at least won’t be a foreign concept to most of this roster.
The real folly of the playoffs is not that they fail to crystallize the conclusions of the regular season, it’s that we ever expect them to. If the playoffs mirrored the regular season, or were set up to specifically to reward the best long-term team, they would not have a purpose. The Cubs were the best by far at playing games every day for six months, and are the logical choice going forward.
Now they’ll embark on something entirely different, and while it may not be fair to the regular season juggernaut, perhaps they are ready to show how far their dominance can extend.