Quantifying Hope: Cubs Still Projected for 85 Wins, NL Central Tie-tle

The Cubs seem incapable of holding a lead and already sit 4.5 games back in the NL Central just a week into the season, but it’s way too early for all those dog-in-burning-house memes. In fact, the Cubs are still closer to the 88.5 wins projected at MyTopSportsBooks.com than the 79 that had everyone turning PECOTA into a curse word.

According to FanGraphs’ most recent projections, the Cubs are still on pace to win 85 games and once again tie for the NL Central crown after 162 games. It’s an incredibly close race, though, with the Brewers also at 85 and the Cardinals coming in at 87 wins. It’s only a few steps into the cellar, with the Pirates at 79 wins and the Reds at 78. That spread would be the tightest ever in a division that has never seen a last-place team with more than 73 wins.

What gets lost in the Brewers’ hot start and the early stumbles of the rest of the Central is that luck holds much greater sway over smaller samples. Consider that Milwaukee has opened the season 6-1 on the strength of five one-run victories and another of just two runs. They have yet to score more than five runs in a game and have a mere +3 run differential on a total of 28 runs.

The Cubs, on the other hand, sit at 1-5 and have blown late leads in three games en route to a -10 run differential that is second-worst in the NL. Yet they’ve scored 36 runs in those games and lead the majors in average (.307) and OBP (.398) while sitting second in wOBA (.388) and fWAR (2.1). When you have 2.1 wins above replacement and only one actual win, water eventually has to find its level.

To this point, it’s been a matter of bullpens having an inordinate affect on the outcomes of games. The Brewers have an elite unit, while the Cubs have…well, the Cubs have a group of pitchers that can be utilized after the starter is removed. A pair of grievously abbreviated starts haven’t helped, but the ‘pen has been a noted issue for several seasons and remains a source of consternation.

The Cubs have taken strides to increase their collective urgency this season by identifying “trap games” and instituting more mandatory batting practice, among other things. However, the early results of those efforts indicate that the pendulum may have swung too far in the other direction, causing players to push too hard and place unnecessary pressure on themselves.

“Everyone is trying to come in, whether it be a hitting situation or pitching situation, and be the guy,” Jon Lester told reporters after Wednesday’s loss. “That’s hard to do over 162 games. We put such an emphasis on getting off to a good start, I think it’s hanging over our heads a little bit.

“This is a product of trying too hard right now. Guys want to do well and make the really good play or make that perfect pitch. Right now, we’re kind of backing ourselves into the corner as opposed to getting the opposing team into the corner.”

The good news here is that the pendulum can swing back just as easily. Think about struggling to open a particularly pesky bottle or jar. You’re exerting so much force that your hand nearly cramps and the ridges from the lid leave impressions in your skin that will last for an hour. It doesn’t seem worth the effort, but then it finally comes free and twists off with ease.

That’s the Cubs right now, or so we hope. Because if they can find a groove and rattle off a few wins, that push that has them backed into a corner could suddenly see them running through walls.

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