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  • No, 85 Wins Will Not Win the NL Central

    Matt Trueblood

    Everywhere I've looked since the end of the unofficial first half on Sunday, I've seen the denizens of Cubs Twitter wondering whether the Cubs can muster a 43-30 finish to the 2023 season. It'll only take 85 wins to win the NL Central, the thinking goes, so the question is whether the Cubs can get to that number. I think their climb will be steeper.

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    There’s no editor quite as good as 100 essayists spread out across a century, grasping at straws.

    “It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for certain that just ain’t so,” goes the famous aphorism from Mark Twain, the greatest American aphorist. Twain never actually said or wrote that, and all efforts to ground the modern version of it in anyone’s actual authorship lead back to much less pithy lines. It was a brilliantly succinct and important idea, clearly but imperfectly communicated, and 150 years later, we have a beautiful rendition of it, thanks mostly to trial and error. 

    It also helps, in my opinion, that the speakers and writers who slowly polished the original framework did so while attributing it to (among others) Twain. It’s much easier to be fearlessly clever and witty when you disclaim ownership of the word web you’re spinning. They may have been (knowingly or otherwise) fraudulently borrowing on Twain’s authority in making their points, but these anonymous accidental editors did modern rhetoricians a great service along the way.

    Anyway, your premise that the Cubs just need to go 43-30 from here just ain't so. We have to update our estimates of the division race of which the Cubs are a part. Early on, when the obviously unsustainable Pirates hot streak put them in the lead and the previously favored Cardinals were down and out, it made some sense to envision a scenario in which a record scarcely better than .500 would bring forth a team from the Central. Now, however, all of that has changed.

    The Reds will enter the weekend on pace for 89 wins. The Brewers are on pace for 87. The two teams have six more games to play against one another this month, so only one can make major progress toward a 90-win pace in the next two weeks, and it's possible that neither will. Still, the Reds are a team reinvented and catapulted forward by the arrival of their star rookies. The Brewers have survived this long despite not having Brandon Woodruff in their rotation since mid-April. Woodruff will be back soon. Elly De La Cruz, Matt McLain, and Andrew Abbott aren't going anywhere.

    If only one of these two clubs were on pace for 88 wins or so, it would be reasonable to argue that they're likely to face down the stretch. Certainly, while they now seem legit, the Reds aren't going to keep up the pace they've established since late May, when they took off from 21-29 to their current record by winning 29 of 41. Still, their overall record contains within it a 21-29 stretch, and that was done by a different team (none of the big rookies, and no Joey Votto, either, because he was hurt) than this one. If Cincinnati adds a starting pitcher at the trade deadline, watch out. They could win 93 or 94 games.

    More importantly, though, even if they don't do that well, the Brewers could. After a long slump, Willy Adames busted out with a power binge just before the break. Christian Yelich was snubbed, but played the first half at an All-Star level. Their pitching staff is getting healthier, and their offense is due for regression, and the combination of those two things gives them a great chance to push toward 90 wins.

    Again, one need not believer either of those teams is going to actually do as well as I describe there to understand why 85 wins probably won't win the division. The very existence of two of them makes it pretty likely that one of the two will have that kind of strong finish.

    The Cubs, then, can't do much of anything with a 43-30 finish. They have to do something I like to call "pulling an Elia"--to wit, getting [horsefeathering] hotter'n [horsefeathers]. To believe the Cubs have a serious chance in the division, you need to buy that they can finish (roughly) 48-25. That's a 108-win pace for nearly half a season.

    Maybe you do believe that. That's ok. Deep down, in parts of my baseball heart I try to guard and hide away, I believe it, too. I believe that the schedule is soft enough coming out of the All-Star break to allow this team to get hot and earn a key addition or two ahead of the trade deadline. I can easily imagine a more powerful second half from Ian Happ, Dansby Swanson, Cody Bellinger, and Seiya Suzuki, and a broadly better one from Nico Hoerner. I have already made my cases for bigger roles on the team for Daniel Palencia and Miguel Amaya, and I think we'll hear from Matt Mervis again before the year is out.

    The Cubs massively underachieved in the first half, and even if you believe (as I do) that some of that underachievement is systemic and unlikely to simply evaporate without significant changes, the fact is that the talent core of this team is stronger than its record. It can get even better, and with a bit of good luck, a roster this good can get very hot for two months.

    We just need to be clear that that's what needs to happen. From here, the team has a decent chance to climb out from under .500 and post a winning season, but that won't be nearly enough to get them into the postseason. If they want to do that, they need to pull an Elia, because one of their small-market rivals is going to remain competent and make it a fight from here.

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    I don't think the Cubs can muster a 43-30 finish even with a favorable schedule. The balanced schedule will do them no favors chipping away at the deficits. They are a workman-like  team and will finish with a workman-like respectable record close to .500.

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    13 minutes ago, CubinNY said:

    I don't think the Cubs can muster a 43-30 finish even with a favorable schedule. The balanced schedule will do them no favors chipping away at the deficits. They are a workman-like  team and will finish with a workman-like respectable record close to .500.

    They literally have the easiest schedule left in baseball so I'm not sure what the balanced schedule has to do with the conversation.

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    4 minutes ago, mul21 said:

    They literally have the easiest schedule left in baseball so I'm not sure what the balanced schedule has to do with the conversation.

    They don't get to play the Brewers or the Reds 12 more times each. 

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    The balanced schedule also helps them in that there's fewer games where a team in front of them is guaranteed to win.


    I think the conclusion is correct(the Cubs playoffs odds are more faint than the standings might suggest), but I also think it's simpler to think in terms of probabilities.  Let's take the 85 win example.  What are the odds that the Reds play at a 77 win pace or worse the rest of the year, and what are the odds that the Brewers play at an 80 win pace or worse the rest of the year?  I don't particularly believe in either of those teams(they are 9th and 10th in the NL in run differential after all) so I think it's probably close to a 50% chance for both.  Call it 50% for the Reds and 45% for the Brewers just to put a number to it.  That means that the odds that that both give you the outcome you want is a shade under 25%, and that's before you get into the long odds of the Cubs playing like 95 win team the rest of the year.  If that's even a 20% chance, then you're at ~5% odds of all 3 coming to fruition for a Cubs division title.

    That said, if the Cubs do make it to the 85 win threshold and that's not enough for the division, they wouldn't be favorites to take a wild card spot, but that 5% does improve, which even if it's not the same math would mirror Fangraphs' odds that are near 10%.

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    FG has the Brewers projected for 84 wins and the Reds for 82 wins, so if there's a place to bet money on the division winner ending up with less than 89 wins, I would like to bet on it. I understand the basics of just projecting out their current win/loss performance, and certainly understand that only one of them has to do it. But.

    - They've been outscored by a combined 22 runs this year (Cubs are +26).

    - They are a collective 36-23 in one run games (Brewers being especially egregious at 16-7).

    - Woodruff hasn't even made a rehab start yet, and already had to pause his rehab once. Far from a sure thing. 

    - Elly and McClain are certainly fun and worrisome, but they are currently both BABIPing over .400, with De La Cruz's xwOBA 78 points lower than his current xwOBA. Andrew Abbott is fine, but he certainly can't pitch every day, Hunter Greene is delayed getting back, and the rest of their (non-Alexis Diaz) pitching is garbage. 

    Now, the Cubs are a .500 team that hasn't gotten the results of a .500 team. They've dug themselves plenty big of a hole. But the Marlins went 53-39 with a -5 RD, the DBacks went 52-39 with a +26 RD. It's unlikely, but I think that pace puts you right there. 

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    They may not win the NL Central and they have six teams in front of them for the WC, but the next two weeks should be fun unless they completely horsefeathers the bed coming out of the ASB.

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    The Reds aren’t going to keep playing +.700 ball like they have for the last 40 games. They’ve gone 22-4 in 1- and 2-run games during that span. They’re going to come back to earth. With that pitching, they’re more than likely a slightly sub-.500 team the rest of the way. 

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    Before the season started I slated this team for 87 wins. Hell, even bet a bottle of whiskey on it. There are times that I think I'll be drinking whiskey in October and then there are times I think I will be buying whiskey in October. So 85 wins......possible if not probable.

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