The Cubs are MLB’s Best in One-Run Games, but That’s Not a Trend They Can Count On

Only 5 teams thus far have allowed fewer than 300 runs, with only the Cardinals (229), Pirates (271), Royals (285), and Dodgers (288) being stingier than the Cubs (293). So that seems pretty good, right?

Well, sort of.

Of the 16 teams in baseball currently boasting a positive run differential, only the Tampa Bay Rays (302) have tallied fewer total runs than the Cubs’ 314. So while the Cubs are indeed scoring more runs than their opponents, their margin for error has been decidedly slim. That is of particular importance when they look up in the division standings.

It’s not a particularly good sign when you have a team that has trouble scoring runs trying to compete with two other teams that are the best in baseball at limiting them. That Cards’ total is pretty absurd, but the Pirates are no slouches themselves. But perhaps I shouldn’t sell them so short, they’re tremendous slouches.

I don’t think there’s anyone outside of Matthew Trueblood — possessed as he is of an indomitable spirit — who believes the Cubs have a shot at the division title, which means we’re all pulling for a Wild Card berth. And while the current 3 1/2 game cushion certainly feels nice, it’s lying over a bed of nails.

Consider that the Cubs have already played 33 one-run games this season, the most in the majors and one of only four teams to have played 30 or more such contests. And among the 9 teams that have played the most one-run games, the Cubs (.576) have the highest winning percentage. Okay, so that’s good, right?

Well, sort of.

You see, this is where that whole regression to the mean thing comes in. I don’t really believe in luck, per se, but the likelihood that a little break here or there can impact a game is exponentially greater when the scoring margin is slim. In that regard, the Cubs might as well have Jack Sprat in the lineup.

Over the last 34 games, a stretch that began at the end of May, the Cubs have scored 2 or fewer runs 17 times. They are 7-10 in those games and have been shut out three times; on the other hand, they’ve shut out their opponents six times. But outside of 17-0 and 8-0 drubbings of the Indians and Twins, even those shutouts were too close for comfort (2-0 and 1-0 twice each).

However, the Cubs were 6-4 in one-run games during that same stretch, a mark that is roughly on par with their season-long success in close games. In fact, if they were able to replicate that same winning percentage across all games for the entire season, they’d be 93-game winners. That’s good, right?

Well, sort of.

Okay, winning 93 games is really good no matter what. But you can’t just look at an outcome that is somewhat of an outlier and then extrapolate it as though it’s indicative of a team’s true performance. I do believe there is something legitimate involved in the ability to win close games, but I’m more concerned about the number of games we’re talking about.

While this is oversimplifying things, consider the event of a coin flip; like a baseball game, there are only two possible outcomes. And while the various collections of players add innumerable variables to the outcome on the diamond, those influences are compressed as the score gets closer. In a 0-0 game, the slightest error can result in a win or loss, while even a grand slam means nothing in a game in which you are leading 13-0.

My point is that if you keep flipping a coin over and over, it’s entirely possible that you’ll experience one outcome more often than the other. You might think it odd that the coin keeps coming up heads, but inherent in a two-outcome trial is the fact that the results will eventually balance out. It might take dozens, hundreds, even thousands of flips, but it’ll happen.

So when you see that the Cubs are not only playing a lot of one-run games, but that their run-scoring in general is depressed, you’re left with a higher likelihood that they’ll fall back to Earth to an extent as the season goes along. Then again, we’re already 80 games into the season and they’re still going strong.

The key to all this will be getting Jorge Soler back into the groove and keeping Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant healthy and productive. Again, the more talent you have and the more runs you score, the less likely you are to be influenced by those instances of chance. In other words, you don’t need to flip a coin at all.

I’m definitely concerned with the Cubs’ run-scoring, particularly since they’ve score more than 2 runs only twice in their last 12 games. The fact that they’re 6-6 during that stretch masks the issue a bit, as does their overall record and their mark in those one-run games I mentioned earlier.

Far be it for me to be Debbie Downer, but it’s really hard to ignore something that just won’t go away. But who knows, maybe this is truly a team of destiny. Maybe the Cubs will continue to pull out one run games and drive up sales of blood pressure medication throughout the Midwest. As awesome as that would be, I’d rather not leave as many outcomes up to coin flips.

Besides, Tom Ricketts needs to pinch those pennies, amirite?

This upcoming Cardinals series will be an interesting one and could be a real springboard for the Cubs if they’re able to break loose a little bit. And then they’ve got the White Sox, MLB’s lowest-scoring team, coming in for a three-game set to close the first half. Could be a battle of attrition there.

At the end of the day, the Cubs are 8 games over .500 a week into July and that’s all that matters. I just hope that when we look back over the season in October, this business of close, low-scoring ballgames is but a footnote to a playoff season.

Until then, I’ll be rubbing my rabbit’s foot with my fingers crossed while knocking on wood.


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