We’re into Month 3 of what’s shaping up to be the best Chicago Cubs season in decades. Will the pace continue? Can the Cubs break the record of 116 wins shared by the 1906 Cubs and 2001 Seattle Mariners? Let's examine that question and a few others as the Cubs embark on a nine-game road trip through the NL East.
They’re on pace, but ...
At 39-16, the Cubs fell below the 116-win pace with Sunday’s loss to Arizona, but for all practical purposes, their .709 win percentage puts them in striking distance of the record. The problem: If the recent history of great teams means anything, Chicago is more likely to slow its win pace than speed it up.
On June 6, 2001, the Mariners had a .793 win percentage but finished with a .716 mark. The 1998 New York Yankees won 114 games for a .704 percentage but were winning at a .768 clip at this point in the season. The 1986 New York Mets won 108 games but on June 6 were on a better pace, with a .700 win percentage. The 1969 Baltimore Orioles won 109 games but slowed the pace in the later months as well. There are exceptions, such as the 108-win 1975 Reds, who got better as the season progressed, but the majority of big-winning teams slowed down as the seasons wore on.
The further back you go, the less the theory applies, and some posit that modern travel and different start times are contributing factors against keeping up a win pace in today's game. In any case, Cubs manager Joe Maddon is apt to rest guys more in the hotter months and might do so when the Cubs' magic number to make the playoffs starts to dwindle. That’s what he did late last season as the Cubs pulled away in the wild-card race.
FanGraphs thinks the Cubs' win pace will lower to .590 the rest of the way, which would give them about 103 wins for the season. The service gives the Cubs a 99.7 percent chance to make the postseason -- much more important than breaking the wins record.
Talk about flying under the radar
Any idea who is second in baseball in walks plus hits per inning pitched, behind Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers? It’s the same person who has a .201 batting average against -- the same as nine-game winner Chris Sale. It’s also the same guy who has given up one fewer home run than Kershaw this season at 4 vs. 3. OK, that last stat came in two fewer starts, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks is quietly putting together some big numbers.
Hendricks is finally getting some recognition after he came within one inning of becoming the first Cubs pitcher since Greg Maddux in 2004 to throw back-to-back complete games. Hendricks has been great so far in his second full big league season. That's also about the time Maddux took off, with an 18-8 record and a 3.18 ERA one year after he compiled a 5.61 mark. Hendricks isn’t starting from that far off, considering he had a 3.95 ERA in 2015, but this year has been even better.
The key for Hendricks has been first-pitch strikes. In his first two years in the big leagues, he threw strikes on about 63 percent of first pitches. This season, he’s up to 70.3 percent, which leads the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. (Just behind him is teammate John Lackey at 69.9 percent.) That translates to his 0-2 percentage rising as well, which means hitters are in 0-2 counts against Hendricks more than ever. It doesn’t take a sabermetric genius to understand how that helps him.
With all this working for Hendricks, you might wonder why he ranks "only" 22nd in ERA (2.84). That's because the hits he has given up have been timely for the opposition. For example, he has the highest batting average against (.227) among the five Cubs starters when men are on base. But that number plummets to .188 when the bases are empty, which is the best on the team. Maybe Hendricks simply needs to refine his stuff when he’s in the stretch, but no matter how you break it down, he’s having a very good season to date.
No team statistic traditionally correlates to runs scored more than on-base percentage, and the Cubs employ two of the best at getting on. Ben Zobrist is first in the league with a .438 mark, and Dexter Fowler is fourth at .421. It wasn’t long ago that they ranked one and two.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the most recent pair of teammates to rank first and second in their respective league in on-base percentage was Joey Votto (.435) and Shin-Soo Choo (.423) of the Cincinnati Reds in 2013. Before that, you have to go back to 2005, when Jason Giambi (.440) and Alex Rodriguez (.421) of the Yankees achieved the feat.
One thing Maddon toyed with at the end of spring training was making sure Fowler, Jason Heyward and Zobrist all got up in the first inning by hitting them 1-2-3. He’s big on “feeding” his sluggers and felt there wouldn’t be many first innings in which at least one of those three didn't get on base for Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.
So far this season, however, Zobrist has batted third in the order only 12 times, while Fowler and Heyward have been at the top all season. As anyone following the Cubs knows, Heyward has struggled to get on base, as his percentage is only .316 for the season.
As such, there might be a mathematical reason to send Zobrist to No. 2 in the order. Feeding the sluggers might not be an issue with Fowler and Zobrist hitting first and second. In 1984, Bobby Dernier and Ryne Sandberg were known as the Daily Double for the Cubs. Perhaps Fowler and Zobrist can rekindle that magic by batting next to each other.
Then again, the Cubs are 39-16, so maybe things are just fine.