I feel like this season has reached a true crossroads, and the parallels between this season and last are eerie. In 2012, the Cubs lost a number of close games due to bullpen meltdowns. The team found itself 8-15 at the end of April compared to this year’s Cubs which found themselves 10-16 at the end of April cursing a leaky bullpen.
The 2012 Cubs made an interesting run in early to mid May to find the team with a 15-20 record. This really did represent a high water mark for the franchise, as the Cubs promptly went on a 12 game losing streak. The Cubs would have a good July, the only month in which the team was over .500, but the die had been cast for the great sell off.
The 2013 Cubs enter today’s contest at 18-24. A win today would represent their third straight series win. It would also put them back to that five games under .500 mark that the 2012 team eperienced in May. It also has been a stretch that has seen the team as a whole play a lot better shown by their 7-4 record since May 5th. All of these things are true, but you have to remember that the 2012 team had a similar stretch at the start of May in which they went 7-5 to begin the month. Bad teams have good stretches.
Digging deeper than the records though indicates that maybe there is hope, very limited hope, for this team. Even after that good stretch the 2012 team had a -18 run differential after just 35 games. The expected record with that run differential was the Cubs 2012 record at that point of 15-20. The Cubs were performing at the rate they were suppose to following the mini hot streak they were on.
The 2013 Cubs, however, are doing a lot better in run differential. After 42 games, the Cubs run differential is -2, and that is good for an even 21-21 expected record. Baseball Prospectus goes beyond the most basic pythagorean record by creating 2nd and 3rd order winning percentages. Each of these marks indicate that the Cubs should be much better than they currently stand. The second order record has the Cubs at .526 winning percentage and a 3rd order winning percentage of .530. Only the Detroit Tigers are close to underplaying their expected record as much as the 2013 Cubs.
Now none of this means that the Cubs are due to get good luck and have their record equal their various expected records. However, it does point to this recent success as not being unsustainable. That is why today really marks a crossroad. If the Cubs can continue to play the way it has recently we could see a tem that continues to inch closer to the .500ish record I “predicted” at the start of the calendar year. If the Cubs played at their 3rd order expected winning percentage from here to the deadline it would mark a 34-30 stretch. That stretch would put the team record heading into July 31st at 52-54.
In the short term the Cubs have a chance to keep things rolling against a team overplaying its expected record by a fair margin in the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates are not a pushover, but this is a team that the Cubs have done well against the past couple of years. The Reds will be tough, and White Sox series are like Cardinals and Brewers where the games always seem to be crazy regardless of talent of teams. It is unlikely that the team will be .500 by the time the draft rolls around, but they could be in a spot where Scott Baker and a potential first round draft pick could be the midseason “buys” for a fringy wildcard contender. However, I doubt a 52-54 record would be good enough for the current front office to avoid selling off players like David DeJesus, Scott Feldman, Kevin Gregg, and others. Still if the Cubs continue at the rate they have it is going to make the decision to sell a lot tougher than many would have predicted at the start of the year.