Not quite a third of the way through the season, the Cubs’ won-lost record and their runs/runs allowed data are telling different stories.
They are 28-22, but they’re scoring and preventing runs at a level that normally would lead to a 33-17 record by Bill James’ Pythagorean method or a 32-18 mark by the BaseRuns projection listed at Fangraphs.com.
At the same time, the National League Central-leading Brewers are outpacing their projections with a 35-20 record, as compared with their 32-23 Pythagorean record or 31-24 BaseRuns projection.
When teams win several games less or more than the projections would indicate, the usual reasons are an exceptionally good or poor run of clutch hitting, bullpen performance and chance factors. Line drives sometimes are hit directly at a fielder, soft flies sometimes drop in front of the outfielders and chance plays its part.
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Chance doesn’t have to even out over the season. The most probable path is for teams to win at the level their runs/runs allowed suggests from here on out, but the Brewers’ extra few victories and the Cubs’ extra few losses are on the record for keeps.
The Cubs lead the NL at 5.26 runs per game, and some fans have wondered if the average has been padded with high-scoring games. Are the Cubs also having a disproportionate number of low-scoring games, leading to more losses, than the averages would suggest?
Through 50 games, the Cubs had scored two runs or fewer 15 times. That’s tied with the Cardinals for the third-fewest two-or-fewer games in the NL, with the Braves at 13 and Phillies at 14.
Over 162 games, that’s a pace for 49 games scoring two or fewer. That’s nearly the same as the Cubs teams that made the NL Championship Series in 2015 (53 two-or-fewer games while averaging 4.25 runs) and 2017 (47, 5.07) but considerably more than the 2016 World Series champion (36, 4.99).
To confine this to the lower-scoring, no-designated-hitter NL, other teams that have averaged five or more runs during the Cubs’ three-year NLCS-or-deeper run have had fewer low-scoring games.
That’s a very small set. The Rockies had 37 two-or-fewer games in 2016 and 38 last season, and the Nationals had 39 and the Diamondbacks 40 last season.
There’s not necessarily an indication of a seasonlong trend there. Scoring increases as the weather warms. And some of the comparison is statistical illusion. Scoring is depressed when the wind blows in at Wrigley Field, and comparisons that involve the high-octane offense produced by Coors Field in Denver are never quite apples-to-apples.
For the record, the Pythagorean formula is winning percentage = runs squared/(runs squared + runs allowed squared). BaseRuns is more complex, calculating how many runs a team normally would score and allow given its hits, extra-base hits, walks, double plays and other factors, then using those projected runs/runs allowed to calculate a winning percentage.
Either measure leads to a good news/bad news result: The Cubs have played better than their record, but the extra losses aren’t going away.