Are the Cubs out of it?

The Cubs sit 6 games behind the Reds after last night’s loss. I’ll even admit that I didn’t think the Cubs would fall this far behind this quickly. With the Cubs easy schedule early on I expected them to actually look like a contender and then fall back when the schedule became tougher. Instead of that, the Cubs fell behind early playing less than average teams and have continued to fall since.

We knew going in that this wasn’t an especially good team. The projections had the Cubs winning between 77 and 80 games. It was the worst the Cubs had been entering the season since at least 2002. Based on attendance, that information was something the fans already knew about. You didn’t need to see a projection to recognize the lack of talent on this roster. Each team from 2003 through 2010 was projected to win more games than they were this year. I think all but the 2003 team was expected to win at least 5 more games than this one. The 2006 team was projected to win about 85 games by PECOTA. That just goes to show how much error there is in a projection, but even that team had a shot entering the season.

It’s even possible the 2002 team was projected to win more, but I don’t know and I’m not going to run the numbers right now. It is something I may do later on because I had a feeling back in December and January that this was the worst team the Cubs sent out on Opening Day in over a decade. I’m pretty sure the 2000 team was horrible, but the 2001 team contended and I can easily see following year’s team being projected to win more than this group.

The question right now isn’t whether or not this is the worst they’ve been in a decade, but whether or not they are out of it. Let me start by saying that no team is out of at this point. There are 120 or more games left to be played so there’s plenty of time for any team to come back at this point. It’s obviously harder for some teams, but even for the really bad teams there’s so much that is random in this game that even a bad team can play really well. That’s just baseball.

If we were to assume that each team plays up to their projected records the rest of the way, the Cubs have a lot of ground to make up. They were projected to finish 5 to 6 games behind the Reds, but are already 6 out. Here is how the NL Central would play out if all the teams played to their projected winning percentage.

Central W L PCT Proj Pct. Proj-W Tot-W GB
Reds 24 17 .585 .528 63.9 87.9
Cardinals 23 19 .548 .514 61.7 84.7 3.2
Brewers 20 21 .488 .513 62.1 82.1 5.8
Cubs 17 22 .436 .493 60.6 77.6 10.3
Pirates 18 23 .439 .433 52.4 70.4 17.4
Astros 15 26 .366 .407 49.2 64.2 23.6

The Brewers have underperformed so far, which is obviously good for the Cubs since they were projected to finish ahead of them. However, the Cardinals have played better than expected and the Reds have played significantly better than expected. This now leaves the Cubs more than 10 games behind the Reds at the end of the season because they’re already so far behind.

If the Cubs were to catch the Reds at 88 wins, the Cubs would have to play .585 baseball the rest of the season. This means they’d have to go 72-51 the rest of the way to get to 89 wins. .585 is 94.8 wins per 162 game schedule. The Cubs would have to be nearly as good as they were in 2008 in order to catch the Reds if the Reds play up to expectations.

Let’s say the Reds fall down quite a bit and the Cubs just have to get to 85 wins at which point they’d pass the Cardinals. That means the Cubs would have to play .553 ball the rest of the way, which is the equivalent of an 89 to 90 win club over 162 games.

The Cubs aren’t out of it yet, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll find themselves in contention. They’ve dug themselves a pretty big hole while the top team in the division has played better than expected. That’s the opposite of what the Cubs needed to happen this season.