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How Good Have the Cubs Been So Far?

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One of our readers, Andrew Berman, shared some research he did where he looked into the best starts to the regular season in major league history, specifically referencing the Chicago Cubs and their 20-game tear to open up 2016. Andrew’s research references Bill James’ Pythagorean Winning Percentage, which uses a team's runs scored and runs allowed to estimate their expected win-loss record. Runs scored and allowed are more representative of a team’s underlying performance than wins and losses over a small sample, and so it's no surprise that Pythagorean Winning Percentage has proven more predictive of team's future win-loss records than their actual win-loss records.

As it stands today, the Cubs hold a major league-best 15-5 record. But how does their Pythagorean record stack up against some of baseball’s historically great teams? We went back 75 years and examined each team's first 20 games of the season. Here’s what we found:

Pythagorean Winning Percentage Through 20 Games, 1940-2016
Team Year Runs Scored Runs Allowed Pythagorean Win% Outcome
Athletics 1981 99 37 .877 Lost ALCS
Dodgers 1974 117 51 .840 Lost World Series
Cubs 2016 123 54 .838 TBD
Yankees 2003 142 63 .836 Lost World Series
Red Sox 2001 109 49 .832 Missed Postseason
Twins 1972 96 49 .793 Missed Postseason
Indians 1959 121 62 .792 Finished 2nd in AL
Cardinals 2012 104 54 .788 Lost NLCS
Dodgers 1941 120 63 .784 Lost World Series
Tigers 1984 120 63 .784 Won World Series

The Cubs boast the best Pythagorean Winning Percentage in over 30 years of baseball. Granted, we’re putting stake in only an eighth of a season’s worth of data, but there is some pretty remarkable company shown in the table. Of the bunch, only two teams missed the postseason, while four of the seven who did dress in October found themselves playing for the World Series by season’s end. Let’s see how their run differential compares to some of the great teams of the past.

Run Differential Leaders Through 20 Games, 1940-2016
Team Season Runs Scored Runs Allowed Run Differential
Yankees 2003 142 63 79
Cubs 2016 123 54 69
Dodgers 1974 117 51 66
Tigers 1993 158 93 65
Cardinals 1962 141 77 64

From top to bottom, the Cubs have done everything well this season, dominating all phases of the game. Their pitching has been spectacular, where they own a league-leading 0.96 WHIP and the league’s third-best ERA at 2.58. As we wrote last week, their defense has been among the best in baseball so far, and their offense has been well above average in its own right. For a bit of perspective on this season, here’s how the run differential leaderboard shapes up through the first 20 games of 2016.

Run Differential Leaders Through 20 Games, 2016
Team Runs Scored Runs Allowed Run Differential
Cubs 123 54 69
Cardinals 126 85 41
Nationals 82 52 30
Mets 88 60 28
Dodgers 96 74 22

When restricting to only the first 20 games of 2016, the Cubs are well ahead of the rest of the field. While they certainly won’t maintain this torrid pace, their differential of plus-69 runs prorates to 559 over a 162-game season. Give or take 200 runs, and that mark would still easily top the 1998 Yankees’ differential of 309 runs, the greatest difference dating back to 1940. But only time will tell if history was meant to be made in 2016. 

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