It was the best of timing, it was the worst of timing. Under other circumstances, Kris Bryant’s measured, forthright response to a question about concerns over the Cubs’ performance would have served as something of a rallying cry. The only trouble with it is that Bryant’s team promptly went out and soiled the sheets against the Indians Tuesday night.
To call the Cubs’ effort flaccid would be an insult to the target demographic of sports talk radio. Not that any of it is Bryant’s fault in any way or that his words are any less accurate as a result, but, man, things could have worked out a little better.
Then again, maybe the blowout was for the best. Maybe what Bryant had to say will be even more important in the wake of a 10-1 beatdown — at the hands of low-level comic book villain Trevor Bauer, no less — in which nothing seemed to go right.
“Honestly, I just hear it from you guys,” Bryant told reporters before the game, per Sahadev Sharma’s tweet. “I don’t pay much attention to it. I don’t read any of the comments, the newspaper, any of that. But when you guys ask the questions, I’m starting to get a little sense that our fans aren’t as happy as they would like to be.
“I guess it’s understandable. I feel like we’re underperforming a little bit. We’re pretty average right now, but we’re still six games above .500 and in a pretty good spot. We kind of look at our track record here, three consecutive NLCS appearances. It’s true, that gets old and maybe it can be seen as an excuse.
“But I think when you look at the talent in here and what we can do, it would be kind of foolish to doubt us.”
Boom. That last line was delivered with the same kind of blunt force Bryant normally reserves for meaty cutters that come in thigh-high on the inner third. And just like his no-nonsense, been-there-done-that trot following those majestic home runs, the lines above were delivered with typical stoic pragmatism that belies the mic-drop denouement.
Before I get into the actual point of this post, can we all just take a moment to appreciate how flippin’ awesome it is that KB is a Cub? Okay, back to the lecture at hand.
Bryant wasn’t taking some kind of defiant stand or anything, he was just stating the irrefutable facts of the matter. At 25-20, the Cubs are a game ahead of their record through 45 games last year. Not that anyone wants a repeat of that campaign, but it’s sort of hard to argue with the three consecutive NLCS berths deal.
At the same time, the 2016 MVP is being completely frank about how the team’s play is anything but exemplary. Gild the wilted lily all you like, there’s no denying the fact that the Cubs aren’t playing to their talent level right now. Of course, you can’t put that on Bryant, who’s putting up the best stats of his career in most regards. He can’t really go around pointing fingers, though, certainly not publicly and with 117 games still to play.
And therein lies the reality of a future laden with hope (or rife with anxiety, however you want to view it). Even if all they do is maintain their current .556 winning percentage, the Cubs would finish with 90 wins. And do you think they could maybe find a way to squeeze another handful of W’s in there? Maybe as many as 10?
Winning 100 games would require them to go 75-42 (.641) over the remainder of the season, which would be a skosh better than the 68-49 (.581), 72-44 (.621), or 72-45 (.615) marks they posted in each of the last three seasons, respectively. Ah, but they’ve proven over and over that they can indeed finish strong.
Interestingly enough, the Cubs were 25-20 through 45 games in that breakout 2015 campaign and were still only five games over .500 (51-46) after being no-hit and swept by the hapless Phillies in late July. Which means they closed the remaining 65 games of that season on a blistering pace, going 46-19 (.708) and finishing with the third best record in baseball.
Last season saw saw a similar late surge, as the Cubs went from 51-47 on July 24 (half a game worse than in ’15) to close the season with a .641 winning percentage (41-23) to secure their second straight division crown. Wait, where have we seen that .641 number before? Oh yeah, that’s what I said they’d have to do this year.
Just a couple more notes before I wrap this up and let you get back to whatever more important thing you were doing before I hijacked your attention.
The Cubs were actually 43-45 on July 9 last year. That means they closed out the remaining 74 games on a .662 pace (49-25), which is pretty okay. And though it’s normally the Cubs winning the 2016 World Series that people forget, there’s also that 5-15 run from June 20 – July 9 that has been glossed over. The Cubs were at 52-35 (.598) with one game to go before the break and finished the season with a 51-23 (.689) run.
Despite all the changes and all the worries, the hot starts and the June swoons, the Cubs have been remarkably consistent down the stretch in each of the last three seasons. Their records in the last 74 games in each of those campaigns has varied by only two games, from 49-25 to 51-23, indicating that this isn’t some sort of fluke or product of good fortune.
An average .656 winning percentage over a combined 222 games (last 74 of each season) is proof positive that this team knows how to win when it matters. So let’s say they play five games under .500 over the next 43 games and find themselves treading water on July 9. Just continuing the trend of the Maddon Era would see them at 94-68 by season’s end.
Not that it’s wise to count on this rope-a-dope strategy to work every single time, that’d be silly. As Bryant plainly stated, the Cubs aren’t following some grand plan to once again lie in the tall grass until it’s time to pounce. What we’ve clearly seen over the last three years, though, is that they can do exactly that. Ideally, they’ll get a little more momentum going now and can pace themselves a little earlier than in the past.
I’m not telling you not to be worried about what the eye test tells you when you’re watching this team play. That would be condescending and intellectually dishonest, since I myself get pissed AF when they’re walking in runs and swinging at dirt balls. But let’s not act as though we haven’t seen this before or that the Cubs don’t have the the talent to do again exactly what they’ve done in the past.
Feel free to worry about whether or not they can actually put that all together this time around, just remember that it would be kind of foolish to doubt them.