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October 2013

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COMMENTS

Getting to 90 Wins. In 2014.

Written by , Posted in General

For most of the Wild Card Era, 90 wins has been the magic number in the National League. If your team tallied 90 wins, it was almost certain to make the playoffs. Over recent history, the only 90 win National League team not to make the postseason was the 2010 San Diego Padres. In the 2 years of the expanded Wild Card, the most wins a team who has not made the playoffs out of the National League is 86.

But 90 should be viewed as the magic, shoe in number. Which leads to the question of how the Cubs, a 66 win team in 2013, could add 24 wins in 2014?

 Step One: Better Luck

The Cub’s Pythagorean Record, a measure of what a team’s expected record based upon a team’s run differential, was 71-91. Cubs players accumulated 27.4 fWAR (FanGraphs version of WAR) and 25.9 rWAR (Baseball Reference’s version) in 2013. In other words, WAR would have expected the Cubs to win 73 or 74 games. But why did the Cubs only win 66? Whether it’s luck, decision making, a lack of “clutch” performances, or randomness, the ball did not bounce the Cubs way on certain elements that are not predictors of future success. It would require a near miracle for the 2014 Cubs to compete without at least performing to their WAR and Pythagorean Record. So the first thing the Cubs will need is getting those games that those measures say they should have won into the win column. We’ll use the the middle number of the three, 73 wins, for the sake of simplicity. That leaves us with 16 more wins to find through improved performances.

 Step Two: The Young Hitters Improving

 What was the worst thing about 2013? For me, it was Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, and Darwin Barney combining for just 1.9 fWAR. Without the Cubs getting more production for the shortstop, first base and second base positions, getting to 90 wins in 2014 will be impossible.

 So let’s have some reasonably optimistic predictions: (1) Starlin Castro returns to his 2011 and 2012 value and puts up 3 WAR, for a 3 win improvement over 2013. (2) Rizzo has a BABIP rebound but only marginal other improvements and is a 3 win player, good for a 1.5 win improvement over 2013; (3) Barney has a BABIP rebound and at least isn’t a black hole on offense, with his defense propelling him back to a 2 win player, a 1.5 win improvement.

That gets us 6 more wins, bringing us to 79. 11 more to go.

Step Three: A Better Bullpen

The Dale Sveum led Cubs suffered from some truly awful bullpen pitching, particularly in the early parts of both seasons. Even with the improved bullpen in the second half of 2013, the Cubs bullpen tallied a miserable -0.2 fWAR for the season, although that was largely due to three pitchers: Carlos Marmol, Shawn Camp, and Kameron Loe (combined for -1.8 fWAR). Baseball Reference was slightly more charitable to Cub relievers as a whole, giving them 1 win. However, as Baseball Reference’s pitcher WAR is based on ERA and FanGraphs is based on FIP, I have found that FanGraph’s WAR is a better predictor of future performance.

 At -0.2 fWAR, the Cubs’ bullpen was tied with the Padres for the second worst in baseball, ahead of only the Houston Astros (who were so bad that they were 5 wins worse than the Cubs and Padres).

I’m aiming for realistic expectations here, so let’s aim for a league average bullpen. In 2013, the median relief core tallied 3.7 fWAR. We’ll just round up and say the Cubs would need a bullpen who could post a 4 win year.

 Could the Cubs’ current core of relief pitchers do this? Sure. Pedro Strop and Blake Parker, who are likely to see significant innings out of the bullpen in 2014, posted a combined 1.5 fWAR in partial seasons with the Cubs, with some peripherals that should continue to play well in the Majors. And bullpens are notoriously unpredictable from one year to the next, sometimes with good results, sometimes with bad results.

 In other words, I can’t tell you exactly how the Cubs’ bullpen will get to four wins. Unfortunately, I forgot my crystal ball at the condo in the city when I moved out to the suburbs. What I can tell you is that the Cubs almost certainly won’t be good enough in 2014 to get to 90 wins with a bad bullpen sabotaging half the season. A 4 win bullpen would get them to 83 wins.

 Step Four: Jeff Samardzija Taking The Next Step

 When I look at the fWAR of the Cubs’ starting pitchers, I’m honestly not seeing much room for improvement from what the Cubs averaged in the rotation in 2013. The Cubs didn’t have a black hole in the rotation or an exceptional performer, since fWAR’s use of FIP both regressed Travis Wood (negatively) and Edwin Jackson (positively) to their expected performance based upon their peripherals. According to FanGraphs, Wood was a 2.8 win pitcher and Jackson was a 2 win pitcher.

The Cubs’ ranked 20th in starting pitcher fWAR in 2013, but another 2 wins above replacement would have tied them with the Reds at number 14. Based on the Cubs’ current roster, I only see one place where those 2 extra wins could come from: Jeff Samardzija.

After starting out hot in 2013 (3.34 ERA, 9.53 K/9, 2.94 BB/9) Samardzija struggled mightily in the second half (5.47 ERA, 8.43 K/9, 3.68 BB/9). Samardzija was a 2.8 fWAR pitcher, Samardzija has the talent to be a 4 to 5 fWAR pitcher. We’ll be conservative and say 4, which gets us one extra win and to 84 wins.

Step Five: Avoiding Black Holes

 The Cubs also desperately need to avoid positions that contribute negative value. For the most part, I’ve already discussed these, as the Cubs’ biggest black holes were shortstop, second base and the bullpen. But there was one other spot that was a big gap: the right handed parts of certain platoons. Well, specifically the platoons in the outfield in the first half of the season, although if you’d told me before the season that Donnie Murphy and Cody Ransom would combine to be a solid right handed portion of a third base platoon, I’d have thought you were a crazy person.

Dave Sappelt was just bad in his shot to nail down the right handed part of the center field platoon. Scott Hairston just ran into bad luck, as he hit for power but had a crazy low .129 BABIP. Combined they were worth -1.1 fWAR. If they were able to flip that to a positive 1, that gets us to 85 wins. We’re five away. But wait…

 Step Six: Regression of Good 2013 Performances

 I’m a Welington Castillo believer. While defensive stats aren’t as refined as their offensive or pitching counterparts, the scouting reports also have him pegged as an elite defensive catcher.  I think his 3.2 fWAR in 2013 is real. But Dioner Navarro (1.7 fWAR) was the best backup catcher in baseball last season, and that person usually plays himself into a starting role the next year. The odds of the Cubs getting a similar performance from their backup catcher is… well, unlikely. So let’s take a win off for that. We’re back down to 84.

 The Cubs’ pitchers also hit like crazy, at least for pitchers, this season. You can’t rely on that continuing. Take a win off for that, and we’re down to 83.

 Step Seven: So…..

 This is the Cubs’ WAR per position for 2013:

Catcher: 5.0
First Base: 1.6
Second Base: -0.5
Third Base: 3.2
Shortstop: -0.1
Left Field: 3.4
Center Field: 4.4
Right Field: 0.6
Starting Pitcher: 10.0
Relief Pitcher: -0.2

We’ve maxed out expected contributions from current roster members, or from the sort of free agents the Cubs can be expected to pick up for 2014. Even if the Cubs picked up Shin Soo Choo to play left field (which is where he should be playing), there’s no guarantee he’d do any better than what the Cubs had in that position in 2013.

So what would need to happen for the Cubs to get 90 wins? I would say at least two of the following three things would have to happen.

1) At least one of the players on the current MLB roster who has the potential to become a star (Rizzo, Castro, Samardzija), has to become one.

2) One of the big time prospects who could debut in 2014 (Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Arismendy Alcantara) has to hit the Majors, and become an instant star.

3) Adding a David Price or Giancarlo Stanton type through a trade.

The End Result

Getting to 90 wins on true talent is going to be rough, and highly unlikely. Just as the Cubs underperformed their Pythagorean Record in 2013, they’ll likely need to outperform it in 2014 to compete. But I’d look at 2014 this way: even if the Cubs are only mediocre at best, if Rizzo, Castro and Samardzija take the steps forward I’m hoping, and the big time prospects largely continue to excel, I’ll be a decently happy camper.

  • Doc Raker

    Does all that mean the Cubs need better players? Because that is what I am thinking, you have a lot of numbers and analysis but I think it all means the Cubs need better players so they can play better baseball. I could be wrong.

    • Noah_I

      Yes. The Cubs likely need better players. The question is how many of them are available, and how can the Cubs get those players? So Robinson Cano would clearly be a huge upgrade over what the Cubs got from Darwin Barney last year. He’d likely be at least a 5 WAR player. But he’s about to turn 31, and is he worth a long term deal that could harm the Cubs’ ability to be competitive in, say, 2016 and 2017, and certainly would result in a big overpay in the back end of the contract?

      Or you have someone like Shin Soo Choo, who would immediately become the best hitter on the Cubs in 2014, but wouldn’t necessarily provide significantly more value than the Cubs’ received from left field *(where Choo should play) in 2013. This doesn’t mean the Cubs shouldn’t sign Choo or try to sign Choo. He’d make the Cubs better than what they are now, but how many more wins would he have added over what the Cubs got in left field in 2013 in total? About a third of the Cubs’ value in left field came from Soriano, and another good chunk of it came from what I think is an unsustainable hot start by Junior Lake. Considering the Cubs’ current talent, they could easily post a 0 or 1 WAR in left field in 2014. But I just can’t say Choo would provide a significantly higher number of wins out of that position than the Cubs got in 2013.

      A part of the issue is that the Cubs’ “black hole” positions in 2013 are ones they are unlikely to add new players to. The Cubs are not going to unseat Castro or Barney for 2014, and need better performances from them to be competitive. And I just doubt the Cubs will spend a bunch of money on the bullpen. Beyond that point, you’re looking at getting a win or two at each position. It’s a lot harder for go from a 2 to 3 win player to a 4 to 5 win player than it is to go from a 0 win player to a 2 to 3 win player.

      So where can these improvements come? Well, if the Cubs add David Price, they have an ace at the front of the rotation who could be a 5 to 6 win pitcher every year for the foreseeable future. Or other similar trades to that. Or if the prospects live up to the hype.

      Unfortunately, there are no easy answers for getting to those last 7 wins. It may require the Cubs outperforming their Pythagoran Record by a big amount. Just as a note: the Pirates outperformed their Pythagorean Record by 6 wins this season.

    • Seymour Butts

      Luddite

      • Doc Raker

        No, just seems like a lot of figuring for something pretty obvious.

      • Eddie Von White

        It’s like math class – you can come up with the correct answer but it doesn’t count unless you show your work.

      • Doc Raker

        I have always been more of a mental math guy

  • Doc Raker

    The Cubs interviewed Tampa Bay bench coach Dave Martinez and the Padres bench coach Rick Renteria for manager. Neither of them were catchers and neither are Italian, what is Thed thinking?

    Dave Martinez was rumored to be friends with Cindy Sandberg back in the day. How ironic, no Sandberg in the Cubs dugout but maybe a manager who’s been in a Sandberg. I just don’t think it would be a good hire.

    • Seymour Butts

      I understood she was the reason Raphael Palmero was traded. I guess she had a thing for the spice.

      • Cindy led all Cub wives in Pythagorean dudes-humped.

      • Doc Raker

        The rumor is Dave Martinez was traded for the same reason. Ryne actually went to management and ask for them both to be traded which put the Cubs in a difficult position with no leverage. The Cubs sent Martinez to the Expos for Mitch Webster and sent Rafael Palmero to Texas along with Jamie Moyer and Drew Hall for Mitch Williams and 5 other non impact players. So one can say Cindy Williams costs the Cubs some talent.

        Maybe the Cubs should hire Rafael Palmero as bench coach and Dave Martinez as manager for when the Phillies come into Wrigley next year.

        Do you realize the Cubs could of had Sandberg, Dawson, Grace, Dunston and Palmero all in the same line up. Too bad Palmero wasn’t a Cub in 1989.

      • “You’re either getting rid of these dudes whom my wife keeps humping or me, skip. The ball is in your court…”

      • Doc Raker

        Actually Cindy’s chin is where the balls are bouncing these days, she’s had more balls bounce off her chin than a seal in a circus.

      • Seymour Butts

        Perhaps the Cubs should hire Cindy Sandberg.

  • Jedi

    I think Samardzija’s next step will be his first.

    • Doug S.

      A non fWAR way of looking at the bullpen is blown saves. Last year we had 26, league average is 19. If we improve to average that’s maybe 7 Ws. Also wouldn’t be surprised is there were non save opportunities blown, seem to recall a Gregg 4 run choke job. Funny….re-reading the ‘if we improve to average’ sentence above. Not asking too much is it?

      • Noah_I

        Blown saves aren’t a great indication of wins, though, because not all blown saves turn into losses, and in some games you have multiple blown saves. It’s more that the blown saves are evidence of the fact that bullpen was bad. So saying those additional 7 blown saves would turn into 7 wins is pretty speculative.

        With that said, I do like the guys who are likely to be our primary 8th and 9th inning pitchers: Blake Parker and Pedro Strop. Both tally a ton of Ks, so the question will be if they can limit walks. I also think Russell will probably find more success returning primarily to a LOOGY role.

        I think the Cubs have enough guys now to put together a decent bullpen, but like I said, bullpen performance is very unpredictable. Perhaps in the second half if the Cubs can get positive contributions from Kyuji Fujikawa, Daniel Bard and Arodys Vizcaino, they could actually have a very good bullpen. But you’re dealing with a lot of people coming off injuries there, which only adds to the unpredictability.

      • Jedi

        Maybe I misread the article, it all seemed highly speculative.

  • Jedi

    I think Samardzija’s next step will be his first.

  • Doug S.

    A non fWAR way of looking at the bullpen is blown saves. Last year we had 26, league average is 19. If we improve to average that’s maybe 7 Ws. Also wouldn’t be surprised is there were non save opportunities blown, seem to recall a Gregg 4 run choke job. Funny….re-reading the ‘if we improve to average’ sentence above. Not asking too much is it?

    • Noah_I

      Blown saves aren’t a great indication of wins, though, because not all blown saves turn into losses, and in some games you have multiple blown saves. It’s more that the blown saves are evidence of the fact that bullpen was bad. So saying those additional 7 blown saves would turn into 7 wins is pretty speculative.

      With that said, I do like the guys who are likely to be our primary 8th and 9th inning pitchers: Blake Parker and Pedro Strop. Both tally a ton of Ks, so the question will be if they can limit walks. I also think Russell will probably find more success returning primarily to a LOOGY role.

      I think the Cubs have enough guys now to put together a decent bullpen, but like I said, bullpen performance is very unpredictable. Perhaps in the second half if the Cubs can get positive contributions from Kyuji Fujikawa, Daniel Bard and Arodys Vizcaino, they could actually have a very good bullpen. But you’re dealing with a lot of people coming off injuries there, which only adds to the unpredictability.

      • Jedi

        Maybe I misread the article, it all seemed highly speculative.