As the first half closed Cubs starter Matt Garza, fresh off a beat down from the upstart Pittsburgh Pirates, offered this analysis; “we know we can compete with everybody in our division…we’re right where we need to be right now.” Curiously, the Cubs sit 5th in the NL Central, boasting the second-worst record in baseball, and a horri-awful 12-24 record in divisional games. Yes, Matt – that’s what the Ricketts’ wanted with their $135 million payroll.
If instead the Ricketts’ had put $135 million in a dumpster, soaked the money in Ronsonol, and spun the wheel on a Zippo things would’ve been more memorable (with the right advertising they could get the attendance to make that a better business decision than the 2011 Cubs have proven to be).
But is Garza’s hope warranted? Do the Cubs still have even a snowball’s chance in 2011?
Success in the second half
Since the inception of the All-Star break in 1933, the Cubs have posted a better record in the second half during 38 of 77 seasons; almost exactly half the time. In 22 of those 38 seasons, the record has significantly improved, with the best turnaround being in 1935.
To quantify it, 22 times the Cubs have posted a second half winning percentage that was at least .050 better than the first half. That’s a significant improvement, a .500 team playing .550 ball after the break.
Those 22 seasons can be a bit misleading though – often times those were solid teams turning the corner and becoming great. 1984, 1989, 2003, and the NL Champion 1935 and 1945 teams all posted significant second half improvements en route to the playoffs. In 1933, 1939, and 1972 the Cubs were better than .500 before the All-Star Game and still managed to significantly improve post-break.
That leaves us with 14 dismal seasons which only brightened after the All-Star break. Not surprisingly, the most recent occurrence was last year’s team which started .438 and finished .493 for a total winning percentage of .463 on the year. Sometimes the Cubs were so abysmal to start it would’ve been difficult to repeat their horrid first half (1953, 1954, 1957, 1966, 1981 just to name a few). There is one season that rises above the rest for its comparability to our current squad – 1982.
The 1982 Cubs had a mix of the old (Larry Bowa, Bill Buckner, and Fergie Jenkins), young (Lee Smith, Jody Davis, and Leon Durham), and largely forgettable names managed by Lee Elia. On May 30th they started a 13 game losing streak, their longest of the season. The first half was not pretty.
At the break, the 1982 Cubs were 36-53 (.404) having been outscored by their opponents 364 to 407.
For comparison, the 2011 Cubs are 37-55 (.402) having been outscored by their opponents 375 to 459.
The 1982 Cubs would initially struggle after the break, dropping 12 of their first 16 before things started to click on August 1st. From that point forward they won 33 of their final 57 games, good for a second half record of 37-36 (.507) – finishing the season at 73-89 (.451).
Would .500 in the second half be a success? It wouldn’t get us to the playoffs. But would it again provide false hope that we’d “done something right” in the second half, just as it did last year? The biggest lie in baseball might be that team momentum gained at the end of one season will carry over to Spring Training the following year.
The 2011 Cubs DO have a reason to watch every day – a shortstop named Starlin Castro. Castro – or El Yearling, as handicapper Quade has named him – can do anything and everything during the course of a game. It’s his growth in the second half that will be my greatest interest.
Those 1982 Cubs had something else in common with this year’s team – a young third baseman! named Ryne Sandberg. Though Ryno hadn’t yet achieved legendary status, and though in his rookie year he wouldn’t put up gaudy numbers like Castro did last year; Sandberg was laying the foundation for his Hall of Fame career during that horrible season.
Though the postseason is no longer a viable possibility, there is hope for improvement and reason to watch. Take specific note of our young talent, Castro, Soto, Barney, etc. – it’s during these times when there is nothing to play for that individual attention to one’s craft is apparent.