Quantifying Hope: The Cubs Took a Few on the Chin in St. Louis, but Their Playoff Odds Improved in June

There’s nothing like a trip through the Gateway to the Worst to ruin the mojo that had reached an all-time high following back-to-back wins over Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke that had the Cubs sitting at 9 games over .500 and holding the NL’s 3rd-best record. Fast-forward five days and they’re only 4 games over with the NL’s 6th-best mark.

Wait a minute, did I just say only 4 games over? That statement in and of itself is indicative of just how much better this team is and how expectations have increased over the first few months of the season. The fact that the Cubs have been competitive enough to remain in the conversation into the summer is something to celebrate.

Then again, there’s a level of frustration that comes from knowing this team could still be 8 or 9 games over were it not for a decided lack of timely hitting. And it doesn’t help matters that they appeared overmatched and out of sorts over the weekend in St. Louis. With the exception of Friday night’s extra-innings nail-biter, the Cardinals played the role of bully with maddening panache.

The off-day couldn’t have come at a better time, as the Cubs are coming off of consecutive short starts from Donn Roach and Jason Hammel and have several players still licking their wounds. Before this recent skid, I’d have said that a trip to Queens would have provided ample salve for said maladies, but the Mets, who had been on a 7-game skid, have now won 4 straight.

I can’t really blame all the fans who have begun to eye the nearest ledge with nervous anticipation, but I also believe they’d do well to shift their focus a bit. After all, this is still a very young team that isn’t at full strength and that just went through a bit of a wringer, schedule-wise.

And, at the risk of sounding like the trio in ESPN’s booth last night, the Cubs got a front row seat to see what winning baseball looks like. Now if you’ll excuse me, I just threw up in my mouth a little bit and I need to freshen up a bit.

Whew, I’m back. Sorry about that. All jokes about hacking and voodoo magic aside (though I’m still a little upset that Robert Johnson only got a few short years after trading his immortal soul, while the Cards continue to flaunt the spoils of their Faustian swap), the Cardinals just seem to do everything well. And they’re timely.

If the Cards are a Swiss watch, the Cubs are kind of like a Faux-lex; they look really good from a distance, but you start noticing the flaws when you get a little closer. But even when they look broken, they’re something to behold during those two times a day when they’re right. And that is what’s so maddening for so many.

This isn’t a bad team with flashes of brilliance, it’s a good team that trends both up and down. Speaking of trending, I had meant to take a look at what the Baseball Prospectus projections have to say about the Cubs and their playoff chances. When I checked at the end of May, our heroes had a 57.1% chance of making the playoffs, 5th-best odds in the NL.

As you might imagine, the recent slump has taken a big, wet bit out of their odds as June comes to a close. As you might not imagine, those odds are actually better than they were 30 days ago. Despite sliding 11.6% over the last 7 days, the Cubs currently have a playoff percentage of 59.1, 4th in the league.

What’s more, their projected win total shifted only one-tenth of a game, down to 86.5. Weird, it’s almost as though the projections accounted for something like this and figured the Cubs would lose a few games. Go figure.

But I don’t want to sit here and blow sunshine and rainbows up your backside, as there are some negative trends to note. When April closed, the Cubs had a 62% playoff projection and 5.1% chance at the World Series. After May, those numbers had dropped to 57.1 and 4.2 and latter total is now down to 3.6. Then again, I don’t think anyone’s worried about a drop in the WS chances.

A bigger worry is the Pittsburgh Pirates, who, after a relatively moribund May, had only a 36.2% playoff projection. On the strength of a resurgent June that has seen them go 16-9 with one game to go in the month, those odds have ballooned to 58%, just behind the Cubs. And the Giants are lurking as well, down to 54.6% after last month’s 61% mark.

While this is all theoretical, it’s not as though the folks at BP are simply spitting out arbitrary numbers. Only their play on the field will determine the Cubs’ actual chances at the playoffs, and that play of late has left more than a little to be desired.

But with the recent return of Neil Ramirez and Jorge Soler rehabbing in hopes of a return in early July, there’s reason to believe that BP’s philosophies and hypotheses really can define how, despite the fact that the Cubs have been dropping these, they’re not mockeries. In other words, there’s still hope for triumph even in the face of recent losses.

The Cubs will have a three-game set in Flushing to close June and open July, after which they’re back to Wrigley to end the first half of the season with a ten-game homestand during which they host the Marlins, Cardinals, and White Sox. Sounds like a nice opportunity for some get-right games and a little revenge.

So keep those windows locked, folks, the Cubs are going to be okay.


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