Take a look at these two teams:
Team A: 182 runs scored, 179 runs allowed, +3 run differential
Team B: 179 runs scored, 175 runs allowed, +4 run differential
They look pretty similar, right? Of course, you know where I'm going with this. Team A is the Milwaukee Brewers and they're 28-20, owners of the second-best record in the National League. Team B is the Chicago Cubs and they're 17-28, owners of the second-worst record in the National League.
How to explain this? The teams should have similar records, but don't. I'm guessing the three immediate reactions may be something like this:
1. The Cubs just don't know how to win and the Brewers do.
2. Brewers have a good bullpen and the Cubs don't.
3. Take your runs scored and runs allowed and your calculators and spreadsheets and watch the games.
Taking these in reverse order ...
Take your runs scored and runs allowed and your calculators and spreadsheets and watch the games.
Using runs scored and allowed to project a team's record does work. Only four teams have more than a two-game difference between their expected record and actual record:
A’s (four games worse)
Rangers (three games better)
Brewers (four games better)
Cubs (six games worse)
Different factors can create an unusual spread, especially early in the season, most notably a team’s record in one-run games and a team’s record in blowouts. Indeed, the Brewers are 10-5 in one-run games and the Cubs are 2-9.
The Cubs are 6-4 in blowouts (games decided by five or more runs), including wins of 17-5 and 12-5. Their biggest losses have been 10-4 and 8-2. In those 10 blowout games, the Cubs have outscored their opponents 72 to 53. The Brewers on the other hand are 4-6 in blowout games and have been outscored 60 to 45. They’ve had just one win of more than five runs, a 10-4 victory. Their biggest loss was 11-2.
A bad record in one-run games doesn’t always ruin a team. The Royals are 4-11 in one-run games but are 23-23. The Red Sox were 21-21 in one-run games a year ago and won 97 games. The Tigers were 20-26 and won 93. The Diamondbacks were 34-21 but won just 81.
What’s generally true is that good teams win more blowout games than bad teams. That hasn’t happened so far with these two clubs.
Brewers have a good bullpen and the Cubs don't.
The Brewers are 21-0 when leading entering the ninth inning while the Cubs are 17-2. When leading entering the eighth the Brewers are 17-2 and the Cubs 16-2. The big difference has come in tie games and extra innings. The Cubs are 0-3 when tied entering the ninth and 1-6 in extra innings. The Brewers are 4-3 when tied entering the ninth and 4-2 in extra innings.
The bullpen numbers, however, are closer than you may think:
Brewers: 3.21 ERA, .235/.302/.377
Cubs: 3.37 ERA, .227/.319/.329
Brewers fans will argue that Wei-Chung Wang is skewing the numbers, having allowed 15 runs in 7.2 innings. But the Cubs have Jose Veras, who allowed 12 runs in 8.1 innings.
Anyway, the Brewers' pen is 11-7 and the Cubs' pen is 3-12. While Cubs relievers have a terrible record, it hasn’t always been the fault of the relievers. They’ve lost games in the 16th, 13th and twice in the 12th, losses that should be blamed as much on the offense as the bullpen.
Yes, the Brewers’ pen has been clutch so far. We’ll see if Francisco Rodriguez and company keep it up.
The Cubs just don't know how to win and the Brewers do.
Do the respond to pressure while the Cubs tighten up? That's sort of what that argument is all about. And yet: The Brewers went 20-8 in April ... but they’re 8-12 in May. The Cubs went 9-17 in April but are 8-11 in May. Did the Brewers just have a month where everything went their way in close games? Or is May just a bad month so far?
The Brewers probably are a little better. FanGraphs now projects the Brewers to win 83 games, the Cubs 70. Given the Brewers’ 11-game head start as of now, that’s only two games better the rest of the season. From an analytical perspective, the true talent levels of the two clubs appear similar.
Do the Brewers just know how to win? Brewers fans better hope so.