Let’s address the elephant in the room. With the signings of Jon Lester and Joe Maddon, the Cubs have signaled that they are fielding a team that has a competitive chance at a postseason berth. Last season it took 88 wins to make the postseason, but the previous season it took 90 wins to earn a wildcard spot.
Splitting the difference means it’ll likely take an 89-win season for the Cubs to end their playoff drought in 2015. That record would represent a 16-game jump, which, as Brett Taylor at Bleacher Nation noted, is something the Chicago Cubs have managed a number of times in the past three decades. From Bleacher Nation on September 30, 2014:
The sense you get from folks who have followed the team all year is pretty consistent: there are reasons to be optimistic about the future, but getting to there (the playoffs) from here (73-89) is going to take some more work. I agree with that, generally-speaking. I would, however, point one thing out: the last six times the Cubs made the playoffs, they improved 12, 19, 21, 22, 16, and 25 games over the year before.* In other words, making a huge leap from one year to the next is not only possible, it’s generally how the Cubs have made the playoffs in recent memory. (That’s kind of the way it goes when you’re generally not very good. Here’s hoping 20 years from now, that list features much lower numbers, and lots of ‘em.) It took 88 wins to get a Wild Card spot in the NL this year. That’s a 15 game jump over how the Cubs finished in 2014.
16 games marks a nice clear improvement. Given the current 162-game schedule, that represents nearly 10% of the total games in increased victories season-over-season. Of course, MLB has only been playing a full 162 games in both leagues since 1962. That means for the purpose of this study we will ignore seasons prior to 1963. The two strike-shortened seasons of 1981 and 1994 also are excluded since 36 teams managed to improve 16 or more games in the years following due to the dramatic increase in games played.
Of the remaining 47 seasons 114 teams have managed such an improvement after completing a full 162-game season the previous year. The largest such improvement was by the 1999 Arizona Diamondbacks, who managed a 35-game jump. The best single-season increase by the Cubs was actually the non-playoff 1967 team, which managed a 28-game improvement.
The Cubs have managed to improve by 16 or more games eight times during the stretch of baseball history in question here. Looking at those teams might yield some interesting results, several different types of teams that made the leap from one season to the next. The imprecise measure of baseball-reference WAR and transaction records are going to be used to determine the method of value added to each of these improved ballclubs.
The 60’s Bump
The Cubs saw two teams make dramatic improvements in win totals in this decade and the 1963 and ’67 Cubs shared a number of characteristics. Each team was coming off of a 59-103 from the prior season. Each had a manager that was in his first or second year with the club (one trend that continued with only one exception through Cubs history).
The 1967 team had the highest single-season improvement of any Cubs team in our time frame and 1963 checked in at number 3. Neither team managed to make the postseason, but bear in mind that this was prior to divisional play.
The Major League Draft for first year players was only implemented in 1965, and free agency was ten years off from that date. There are very few trends that can be gleaned from this information, but they are interesting to look at how different roster construction was in the 1960’s.
The 1963 team was after the College of Coaches, with Bob Kennedy being named the full time manager. While it was the third-biggest increase, the jump only produced a slightly-above-.500 finish at 82-80, seventh place in the then 10-team league. The ’63 Cubs slightly over-performed their Pythagorean record of 80-82, but fairly significantly under-produced their WAR total, which suggested an 87 win team (39 Total WAR).
The biggest source of talent was amateur free agents, who produced an overwhelming amount (over 98%) of that total. The best players were 25-year-old Billy Williams (6.4 WAR), 23-year-old Ron Santo (6.7 WAR), and 23-year-old pitcher Dick Ellsworth (10.2 WAR). Pitching also came in large chunks from trades, with Larry Jackson (5 WAR) being the biggest source.
Leo Durocher’s second season in Chicago produced the biggest single-season win improvement of any Cubs team, as the club managed its highest finish since 1946. The Cubs had an 89-73 Pythagorean record and the WAR total of 39.9 paints the picture of an 87-win team again.
We are, however, starting to see some impact from the 1st year player draft in 1965 as the graphs get slightly more interesting. At 3.9 WAR, Glenn Beckert was the productive drafted player on the roster, but the ’67 Cubs were still largely powered by Ron Santo (9.8 WAR) and Billy Williams (4.7 WAR). The pitching staff was built almost entirely through trades, with Fergie Jenkins (5 WAR) as the headliner of the group.
Return to the Postseason: The 1980’s
The Cubs managed to make the postseason twice in the 1980’s, and the comparisons become a little easier with divisional play and amateur draft long being facts of Major League Baseball life by this time. There are still some difficulties considering how different free agency was during this period though.
The most significant free agent signing during this period was Andre Dawson (2 WAR), with his blank check designed to break collusion. Trades and draft picks were the primary sources of WAR for the ’84 and ’89 teams.
The 1984 Cubs generated the second-largest increase in win totals and also became the first team to make the postseason in nearly four decades. The team finished 96-65, which isn’t much higher than the Pythagorean record 91-70, or the nearly 89 wins projected by a 40.9 WAR.
This was Jim Frey’s first year managing the Cubs, and his team was largely built through trades. 80% of the offensive WAR and 73% of the pitching WAR came through trades: Ryne Sandberg (8.5 WAR), Rick Sutcliffe (3.9 WAR), Dennis Eckersley (3.9 WAR), Gary Matthews (3.2 WAR), and Scott Sanderson (3.1 WAR). Free agency has crept up to 5% on offense and 20% pitching. Steve Trout (3.7 WAR) was the biggest single free agent target for the club.
Don Zimmer’s second year managing the Cubs resulted in a 16-game improvement, as the ’89 Cubs finished 93-69. Again, luck doesn’t appear to be a huge factor; their Pythagorean record was 90-72 and they compiled the highest WAR total (41, for an 89-73 mark) of any Cubs squad so far. This team was also the first that saw substantial contributions from the amateur draft.
The Cubs saw 23-year-old Greg Maddux (5 WAR), 25-year-old Mark Grace (3.9 WAR), 25-year-old Dwight Smith (2.3 WAR), and 26-year-old Shawon Dunston (2.3 WAR) pay dividends. They also received a great deal of production from trade acquisitions Ryne Sandberg (6.1 WAR), Mike Bilecki (4.3 WAR), Rick Sutcliffe (3.2 WAR) and Mitch Williams (2.2 WAR).
Lightning in a Bottle: The 1998 Wildcard Team
The 1998 Cubs present quite the divergence from the usual success stories of previous teams. Jim Riggleman was in his fourth season when the Cubs won their only wildcard to date with 90 wins. The 16-game improvement marks only the second time (1989) that the Cubs hit that level exactly. It also marks the second time the team outpaced their Pythagorean record by 5 games (1984).
A difference can be seen, however, in the vastly lowered WAR totals. The previous four Cubs teams researched had managed anywhere from 39 to 41 total team WAR. This unit managed a measly 31.9 total team WAR, which is good for an 80-win team and marks the biggest gap between WAR total and performance.
The ’98 team also reflects some of the building strategies employed by Andy MacPhail. General Manager Ed Lynch had compiled a decent amount of pitching through the amateur draft with Kerry Wood (3.9 WAR) and Steve Trachsel (2.9 WAR).
The offense was built almost entirely through trades and mostly driven by Sammy Sosa (6.4 WAR) and, to a lesser degree Jose Hernandez (2.2 WAR), who had been brought on in a deal made before Lynch ran the team. Add in Mickey Morandini (3.8 WAR) and you’ve got over a third of the total WAR produced by the 1998 team.
The Playoff Runs of 2001, 2003, and 2007
The 2000, 2002, and 2006 Chicago Cubs were not very good baseball teams, winning only 65, 67, and 66 games respectively. In fact, only once did the manager of one of those squads survive into the following season. That man was Don Baylor, who led one of three bounce-back campaigns featured in the MacPhail/Hendry era.
Each of those resurgent teams was led by a manager either in his second or first season with the Cubs and each reflects the general philosophy of developing pitching first. Also evident is the general failure to develop meaningful talent from amateurs they acquired on the hitting side. It is interesting to watch the trends as the farm system began to dry up for impact arms in the last run as well.
Let’s start with the first team, those sacrifice bunt-loving Don Baylor-led 2001 Chicago Cubs. This was Baylor’s second year in Chicago after taking over for Jim Riggleman and was the one team of the bunch that failed to make the postseason. The Cubs improved by 23 games, from 65 to 88 wins, in that season. The Pythagorean record of 89 suggested wins was nearly a match to the actual record, and the WAR total of the bunch was 37.4 wins.
The Cubs saw significant contributions from amateurs they acquired on the pitching side: Kerry Wood (3.3 WAR), Kyle Farnsworth (2.1 WAR), and Juan Cruz (1.1 WAR). Ed Lynch’s greatest move, Jon Lieber (3.9 WAR), was paying dividends even after the GM’s departure. It is interesting to note how much of the team’s WAR was created by the bullpen, led by Farnsworth and Todd Van Poppel (2.0 WAR).
This Cubs offense was powered by another insane Sammy Sosa season (10.3 WAR), which was nearly half of the team’s total 22 WAR created by batters. The next two highest players were acquired by trade and in free agency with Rondell White (2.1 WAR) and Ricky Guttierez (2.3 WAR).
The 2003 team still evokes feelings even in pie chart form, but, again, it is fascinating to see the roster-building strategies. The pitching staff is powered almost solely by the draft picks of Kerry Wood (6.2 WAR) and Mark Prior (7.4 WAR). The Cubs offense was again powered by Sammy Sosa, but his measly 2.7 WAR sagged well below 2oo1 levels.
The Cubs also acquired significant contributions through trades for Kenny Lofton (1.8 WAR), Alex Gonzalez (1.1 WAR), Aramis Ramirez (0.6 WAR), and Mark Bellhorn (0.1 WAR). The total WAR produced by this club was 37.1, a mere 12.3 of which came from the batters. The team outproduced their Pythagorean record by 3 games.
The 85 wins by the 2007 team represent the lowest total of any Cubs team that made the postseason. The team actually underperformed their Pythagorean record of 87 wins but the total WAR of 37.5 was the highest of the 21st century trio. This team was built almost entirely through free agency and shows what happened once the farm stopped producing impact arms.
The Cubs were headlined by big free agent acquisitions Ted Lilly (4.1 WAR), Alfonso Soriano (4.3 WAR), Mark DeRosa (2.2 WAR), and Bob Howry (1.7 WAR). The amateur draft did provide some talent in the form of Rich Hill (3.4 WAR), Ryan Theriot (1.7 WAR), Sean Marshall (1.2 WAR), Michael Wuertz (1.1 WAR WAR), and Geovany Soto (1.0 WAR). Amateur free agency provided value as well, primarily in the form of Carlos Zambrano (3.4 WAR) and Carlos Marmol (3.0 WAR).
While it’s illuminating, the predictive nature of this analysis is vastly limited. The pre-wildcard teams of 1963, 1967, 1984, and 1989 probably hold the least amount of comparative value, though the four most recent examples might provide some reference points.
As posited above, the Cubs will likely need to win 89 games to reach the postseason, a mark that would put them toward the high end of the examples. The Steamer projections for the current Cubs roster has them at 83 wins with a projected total of 32.5 WAR. That would place this team at just below the 31.9 of the 1998 club.
The Steamer projection for the Cubs’ 2015 team has an average age of 27.35 for batters and 28.47 for pitchers. That would mean this team would be slightly younger than the most recent rebound teams, but a bit older than those of the 1960’s.
The last chart shows the projected WAR breakdowns of the 2015 Chicago Cubs. The pitching chart looks very similar to the batting chart from the 1998 team, but there really isn’t a historical comparison with as even a split as the batters’ chart. For the first time since the 80’s, a majority of the value should be provided by amateurs the Cubs have acquired.
There are a number of superficial similarities to draw between the position this Cubs team finds itself in now and those of earlier resurgent units. First, it has an established manager in his first season with the club, which historically has boded well for massive jumps in wins. This team is projected to produce at levels that netted one postseason appearance, at a time with one less wildcard no less.
This does not necessarily suggest that it is likely the Cubs will make the jump this coming season, but such an improvement is certainly not without precedent in Cubs history.