What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?
If you’ve spent any time living in Western civilization — or if you’ve watched The Dark Knight — you’ve probably come across some version of that question. For some reason, the intelligentsia has latched onto this query as a kind of parlor game, a way to prove one’s bona fides as a Deep Thinker. (Guys, you’ll never believe this, but Neil deGrasse Tyson has some thoughts on the subject. Here’s an entertaining solution to the problem.)
Never mind that it is, to be frank, a bullshit question. As Isaac Asimov wrote a generation ago:
For those who remain convinced that this paradox has a solution, however, there’s finally good news: The question will be resolved this year. The answer lies in the fate of the 2016 Chicago Cubs.
The immovable object here is the year 1908, when Teddy Roosevelt was president, the Model T first rolled off the assembly line, and the Cubs last won a world championship. The last Cubs title predates modern skyscrapers, toasters, home air conditioning, sliced bread, and Arizona. The weight of 1908 has proved not only immovable, but unapproachable since 1945, the last time the Cubs even played in the World Series. The last Cubs pennant predates the United Nations, Israel, India, and integration. Decades of Cubs fans have been born, lived full lifespans, and died without ever witnessing their team win a championship.
A Cubs world championship would not be the most unlikely outcome in sports — thanks to Leicester City, it would not even mark the conclusion of the longest championship drought this year — but it’s not an exaggeration to say that it would be the most anticipated championship in sports history. Nothing can come close. The Cubs’ streak is now 22 years — nearly an entire generation — longer than the Red Sox’s 86-year drought.
The Cubs have been unlucky — they were famously five outs away from the World Series in 2003, and were up two games to none in a best-of-five NLCS in 1984 — but mostly they just haven’t been very good. The last time they had the best record in the major leagues was 1945, so even if baseball played by EPL rules and awarded the crown to the team with the best regular-season record, the Cubs’ title-less streak would be at 71 years and counting.
For any team to go a century without a title is improbable. For that team to be the marquee baseball franchise in what was the second-largest city in America until the 1980s (when Los Angeles passed Chicago in population), with all the revenue advantages that accompany its geography in a sport with no salary cap, is almost unfathomable.
Unfathomable though it may be, it is also undeniable: The Cubs have pissed away a sizable competitive advantage for 108 years, which is why their pursuit of a championship is the greatest ongoing adventure in American sports.
It wasn’t always this way. The Cubs were, in fact, one of the game’s premier franchises during the game’s first 40 years as a professional sport. The Chicago White Stockings, as they were then known, were champions of the National League in its inaugural year of 1876, the first of their six NL titles in the league’s first 11 seasons. After a 19-year stretch of fielding competitive teams without a first-place finish from 1887 to 1905, the Cubs (who adopted their current name in 1903) broke through in 1906 with the greatest regular-season record of all time. Featuring a 6–4–3 trio immortalized in poetry and remembered today as Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance, the Cubs went 116–36. They lost to the White Sox in the World Series in six games, in one of the greatest upsets in World Series history, but rebounded to win back-to-back titles in 1907 and 1908.
From 1906 to 1910, the Cubs won four NL pennants, two World Series, and averaged a record of 106–47. Their .693 winning percentage over a five-year span looks like a misprint; in the last 60 years, just three teams have posted a winning percentage that high over a single season: the 2001 Mariners (.716), the 1998 Yankees (.704), and the 1995 Indians (.694), who played only 144 games following the 1994 strike.
Make that four teams, because at least for the moment, the 2016 Chicago Cubs are on the list.
If Theo Epstein were a man of Westeros, he’d be known as "Cursebreaker" by now. Promoted to Red Sox GM after the 2002 season, he guided Boston to its first world championship in 86 years just two seasons later — when Epstein was only 30 years old. To prove it wasn’t a fluke, the Sox won another title three years later. He and the Red Sox parted ways after the 2011 season, and he quickly seized upon the opportunity to take on the only challenge in sports greater than bringing a title to Fenway Park — bringing one to Wrigley Field.
Epstein (as team president) and his longtime Boston consigliere Jed Hoyer (whom he hired as Chicago’s GM) inherited a vastly greater challenge in Chicago than they had in Boston. The Red Sox were coming off a 93–69 season when Epstein took over, their third 90-win season in five years. The Cubs, by contrast, had gone 71–91 in 2011, with an old roster and a mediocre farm system. They would not turn into a winner overnight.
So Epstein and Hoyer didn’t try to make them one. They sensibly decided the team had to get worse before it got better, and in 2012 the Cubs lost 101 games, their worst season since 1966, which, given the Cubs’ reputation as lovable losers, was saying something. In 2013 they improved all the way to 66–96; their 197 losses over the two-year span were the most in the franchise’s 140-year history.
But unlike so many bad Cubs teams of generations past, this time their losing was done with a purpose. This time the future really did look brighter, and not just in retrospect. Taking their lumps for two years gave the Cubs top draft picks, which they used to select Kris Bryant (no. 2 overall in 2013) and Kyle Schwarber (no. 4 overall in 2014). It gave them the no. 2 pick in the 2012 Rule 5 Draft, which they used to select Hector Rondon. And it gave them the wherewithal to trade veterans for young players, like Sean Marshall for Travis Wood, and Ryan Dempster for Kyle Hendricks, and (of course) Scott Feldman for Jake Arrieta. They picked up Luis Valbuena (whom they traded three years later for Dexter Fowler) and Trevor Cahill on waivers.
The Cubs’ hitter-centric approach to building a roster led to shrewd deals like trading Andrew Cashner for Anthony Rizzo, and perpetually injured reliever Arodys Vizcaíno for Tommy La Stella, while spending millions of dollars on Jorge Soler as a near-major-league-ready Cuban defector. And when the front office felt the team was close enough to contention to open the vault, it signed Jon Lester (and Joe Maddon!) as free agents and took on Miguel Montero’s contract after the 2014 season, and then wrote more big checks to Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and John Lackey this past winter.
And, of course, they took advantage of a spectacular bit of desperation on the part of Billy Beane by making one of the defining moves of their administration, trading 1.5 seasons of Jeff Samardzija for an über-prospect by the name of Addison Russell. (In an entertaining bit of chutzpah, the Cubs included Jason Hammel in the trade — and then re-signed Hammel as a free agent five months later.)
The Cubs’ transaction list under Epstein and Hoyer reads like a work of fiction, a wish-fulfillment list composed in hindsight. The worst mistakes they’ve made in four years are not protecting Justin Bour in the Rule 5 Draft after the 2013 season, trading Welington Castillo last summer for a minimal return (though Castillo would be traded again weeks later before emerging with the Diamondbacks), and throwing a ton of money at Edwin Jackson in free agency, a mistake they wrote off last summer when they released him.
But those are the worst mistakes, and if Epstein and Hoyer could undo all of them, all they’d have is a first baseman with nowhere to play, a catcher with a little more thump, and some cash. Meanwhile, their successes have built a juggernaut basically from scratch: Not one player on the 2016 Cubs was on the major league roster when Epstein and Hoyer were hired.
But even to those who believed in the Cubs’ plan, the pace of their improvement has been breathtaking. In 2014 the Cubs went 73–89. Their farm system was the toast of baseball, and they started bringing their hefty financial resources to bear that offseason, but even heading into 2015, most (but not all) pundits figured it was premature to expect the Cubs to contend.
Instead, the Cubs delivered one of their best regular seasons in more than a century, recovering from a 52–47 start to earn a wild-card berth. Though they’d finished third in the NL Central, they vanquished their divisional rivals in Pittsburgh and St. Louis before getting swept by the Mets in the NLCS.
A season before the Cubs were supposed to be ready for prime time, they went 97–65. The last time they won more than 97 games in a season was … 1945. The rebuilding process had yielded fruit a year early, and its harvest was the most bountiful Wrigleyville had seen in generations.
And it was only the beginning. Two months into the season, this year’s Cubs are the most irresistible force that baseball has seen in recent — and maybe not-so-recent — history.
It’s hard to talk about the 2016 Cubs without descending into what can only be called baseball stat porn. The numbers that surround this team range from the astonishing to the unbelievable. Here is the simplest way to sum up how good this team is with facts that should be mutually exclusive:
1. The 2016 Chicago Cubs are on pace to challenge the all-time record for victories in a season.
2. They are underachieving.
At 39–16, the Cubs are on pace to win 115 games. The major league record of 116 wins, set by the 1906 Cubs, was approached by the 1998 Yankees (114) and then tied by the 2001 Mariners, but has never been exceeded.
The key words there, of course, are "on pace." It’s much easier to win 71 percent of your games over a third of a season than over a full one. In modern baseball history (i.e., since 1901), 16 teams have started a season 41–14 or better. The Cubs’ record at this point in the season is rare — just five teams in the divisional era have had a better start through 55 games — but not unprecedented.
What is unprecedented is just how they’re managing it. The Cubs aren’t winning five out of every seven games by claiming all the close ones. They are, in fact, quite pedestrian in those affairs: After Sunday’s 3–2 loss to the Diamondbacks, they are just 7–7 in one-run games.
Rather, the Cubs are winning by utterly obliterating their opponents. Consider this: The Cubs have lost four games all season by three runs or more. On April 15 they lost to the Rockies 6–1; on April 23 they lost to Cincinnati 13–5 (their only loss all season by more than five runs!); on May 11 they lost the first game of a doubleheader to the Padres 7–4; and last Tuesday they lost to the Dodgers 5–0. That’s the entire list.
By comparison, they’ve won 27 games by three runs or more. That 27–4 mark in such contests is staggering and would easily eclipse the modern major league record if it held:
That list is basically a who’s who of the greatest teams before integration. The 1902 Pirates famously went the entire season without losing three games in a row. We’ve already discussed the 1906 Cubs. The 1927 Yankees are a cliché for total domination whose usage transcends sports. And the 1939 Yankees are a popular pick among the cognoscenti as the greatest team of all time.
Lucky teams can win the close games — the 2003 Detroit Tigers, who set the AL record with 119 losses, went 19–18 in one-run games — but as that list shows, the hallmark of great teams is beating others to a pulp.
And a third of the way through the season, the Cubs are lapping the field in that metric, beating their opponents with such abandon that they’ve basically turned their closer’s job into the baseball equivalent of the Maytag repairman. Despite leading the known universe in wins, Chicago ranks 26th in the major leagues in saves, with 11. It’s hard to earn a save when a team is always leading by five runs in the ninth.
A more holistic method for measuring a team’s dominance is to look at its ratio of runs scored to runs allowed. (Run differential — runs scored minus runs allowed — is a simpler method, but doesn’t account for the difference between high-scoring and low-scoring eras.)
And by that measurement, the Cubs are again off the charts. They’ve scored 297 runs and allowed 156, giving them a ratio that would be the best in modern major league history:
Using baseball’s Pythagorean theorem, which estimates what a team’s win-loss record should be based on its runs scored and allowed, the Cubs should be 42–13. They’re on pace to win 115 games — and they’ve been a little bit unlucky.
Even more impressive is that the Cubs are doing this in the modern era. No other team on the above lists played after World War II, and for good reason: The game had considerably less parity before things like integration, the draft, and revenue-sharing made it a little harder for the best teams to dominate the worst. The Cubs are the only post–World War II team in the top 15 in terms of run ratio. Here’s the same list since 1946:
That’s not a gap; that’s a Secretariat-with-a-jetpack-size chasm. Yes, we’re only a third of the way through the season, but even if we compare the 2016 Cubs to other squads at the 55-game mark, they’re still ahead of every team in more than a century:
What the Cubs have done in the last two months is without precedent in the memory of anyone alive today.
While it would be logical to assume the Cubs won’t continue to play this well all year, there are no red flags screaming "regression!" in their lineup. Fowler (.303/.421/.515) and Zobrist (.326/.438/.500) are unlikely to maintain their batting lines, but Heyward probably won’t slug .299 all season, either. Rizzo is hitting exactly as well as he did in 2014–15, and Bryant (who has cut his strikeout rate by a third from his rookie season) and Russell are good bets to continue the steady improvement they’ve shown as sophomores.
In part because of the season-ending injury to left fielder Schwarber — one of the three best hitters on the team as a rookie in 2015 — the Cubs’ lineup isn’t, at least on the surface, all that impressive. It’s middle-of-the-pack in terms of power (sixth in the NL in homers), speed (eighth in steals), and batting average (seventh). But it leads the NL in runs per game because it’s the epitome of what Epstein and Hoyer want their offense to be: The Cubs grind out at-bats and make pitchers throw strikes. In this regard, they are not just the best in the NL and better than the 2000s Red Sox teams that Epstein and Hoyer built: They might be the best team of all time.
The Cubs have drawn 250 walks in 55 games, an average of 4.55 walks per game. The average NL team has drawn just 3.23 walks per game, meaning the Cubs are on pace to draw 213 more walks than a league-average team. That would be, easily, a National League record:
The Cubs preach plate discipline, and they preach it, and they preach it some more. They target it in the free agents they sign (Zobrist is like the Pied Piper of plate discipline, and Fowler and Heyward have always had that club in their bag), and they encourage it in their young players (Russell and Soler have both taken a step forward in their walk rate this year). The Cubs take their walks so they can get on base (they’re second in the NL in OBP) so they can score runs.
But the pitching staff is the linchpin to their greatness. The Cubs have used only five starting pitchers all season, and all five starters have an ERA under 3. In fact, of the 11 pitchers who have thrown at least 10 innings for Chicago this year, Justin Grimm (3.48) is the only one with an ERA over 3. The team ERA as a whole is 2.57, which is, well, nuts. The Cubs are on pace to allow 459 runs; the only team of the live-ball era to allow fewer runs per game is the 1972 Orioles.
Strangely, the Cubs are on a historic run-prevention pace even though their pitchers aren’t particularly distinguished in the three outcomes over which they have the most control. The Cubs have allowed the second-fewest home runs in the NL, but they are just fourth in the NL in strikeouts and sixth in walks allowed. But their ERA is half a run better than every other team in baseball because of their .248 batting average on balls in play, another one of those stats that looks like a misprint. League average in this regard is usually a tick under .300; anything under .270 requires a great defense, tremendous luck, or both.
The Cubs don’t have a reputation as a great defensive team, but this is one area where their bleeding-edge analytics may give them a hidden edge. With teams using defensive shifts 10 times more often than they did just five years ago, we know now that properly positioning defenders can make a bad defense look good and a good defense look great. Fowler’s defensive metrics in center field, for instance, have improved significantly this year largely because he is playing deeper.
This seems to be the fulcrum on which the Cubs’ ability to keep winning at a historic pace rests. If their team BABIP has been the beneficiary of good luck and starts to regress to the mean, they may cool off to the point of finishing the season as just an ordinary great team (by which we mean they’ll still probably win more than 100 games, the first Cubs team to do that since 1910). But if they can continue to turn balls in play into outs three-quarters of the time, then their run prevention may not be a fluke, and they may in fact make a serious challenge for 116 wins.
Also working in the Cubs’ favor is that the National League has as little parity as any league has had in at least a decade. Six NL teams entered the season neither expecting nor trying to win in 2016. While the Phillies rode a hot stretch in one-run games to a 24–17 start, they’re under .500 now, as are the similarly frisky-but-not-really-trying Brewers. The Braves are 16–40. The Padres are 23–35 and have already sold off James Shields. The Reds are 21–36 and have one of the worst bullpens ever assembled. The Cubs don’t really need the help: They have a 17–6 record against teams above .500, which would, yes, be a modern major league record. Still, the opportunity to beat up on the bottom-feeders of the league bodes well for their chances to make statistical history all season long.
So the good news for Cubs fans is that their team is probably going to wind up as one of the best regular-season teams ever. The bad news is that none of that really matters once the postseason starts.
Historically, there has been a correlation between starting the season this well and finishing the season with a ring; of the 16 teams that have started 41–14 or better, 15 at least won the pennant. The problem is that almost all of those teams played before the divisional era, in which finishing the regular season with the best record in the league meant a spot in the World Series. Only three of those teams had to play an additional round of playoffs, and one of them — the 2001 Seattle Mariners — lost in the ALCS. The Mariners have still never appeared in a World Series, but at least they trace their history back to just 1977. If the Cubs win 117 games but fail to reach the World Series, let alone win it, their regular-season record will be of little solace.
We can do a little back-of-the-envelope math to determine the probability that the Cubs will win their best-of-five NLDS and best-of-seven NLCS to advance to the World Series. If we assume the Cubs’ true talent level is that of a 110-win team, that the wild-card team they’ll face in the first round is a 92-win team, and that the division winner they’d face in the second round is a 97-win team, then using what Bill James called the Log5 method along with simple binomial theory, we can calculate their odds of winning each series as follows:
- Odds of winning the NLDS: 71.1 percent
- Odds of winning the NLCS: 68.3 percent
- Odds of winning both rounds: 48.6 percent
Factor in home-field advantage and the Cubs basically have a 50–50 shot of reaching the World Series for the first time in 71 years. (Their odds of winning the World Series cannot be calculated without knowing whether the asteroid smashing into the earth will collide before or after Chicago wins the title.)
A coin flip may not sound like a resounding endorsement to fans giddy with excitement over the greatest Cubs team of their lifetimes, but in the 10-playoff-team era, it’s remarkable for any club to have a 50–50 shot at the pennant on June 7.
But the best news of all for Cubs fans is that there’s no reason why Chicago won’t continue to dominate in years to come. This is a team built for the long haul. Five members of the starting lineup are 26 or younger, and the average age of the offense is 27.9; of the 12 teams since World War II that won at least two-thirds of their games, none had an offense this young.
For all the premature talk about whether Arrieta will leave the team as a free agent after next season, he’s the only key member of the roster who is eligible for free agency before the end of 2018. The Cubs still have room to grow their payroll, and they still have talent left in the farm system, including 19-year-old shortstop Gleyber Torres and 24-year-old catcher Willson Contreras, who’s hitting .335/.428/.585 in Triple-A and could be the starter next season.
Oh, and if the chatter about MLB shrinking the strike zone (by raising the bottom of the zone from the hollow beneath the kneecap to the top of the knees) is true, that figures to benefit the teams that use the strike zone as a weapon — and none do so more effectively than the Cubs.
Anything could happen when the irresistible force meets the immovable object this October — cats and dogs living together, the sun going supernova, a Donald Trump presidency — but Cubs fans should take solace knowing this isn’t the last crack they’ll get at the ultimate prize. Maybe the better question to ask is this: What happens when one irresistible force after another meets an immovable object? Eventually that object has to yield, doesn’t it? Eventually the Cubs have to claim a title?
Or maybe it’ll cause hell to freeze over — which, as every Cubs fan knows, is the same thing.
All statistics are current through Sunday’s games. These figures, and possibly the meaning of life, are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.