The Reason the Cubs are a Top Ten MLB Team

Jeff Samardzija leads a pitching staff that sits sixth (yes, sixth) in overall efficiency.

When's the last time you took the Chicago Cubs seriously? Was Sammy Sosa still in town? Was it the Kerry Wood days? Did Bartman steal your heart too?

Then perhaps you haven't noticed an interesting trend developing on the North Side of Chicago. The Cubs may be 25-36 and mired in last place in the NL Central, but they also sit 10th in numberFire's team power rankings. This is not a drill; this is real life.

When I saw the Cubs in the Top 10, my response was a mixture of confusion and awe. I've been to Wrigley Field this season; I live on the North Side. This is not a Top Ten team, so sayeth every baseball conventional wisdom ever. numberFire's analytics has them tied with the Pirates and above the Indians and Yankees, for Mark Prior's sake!

However, after talking with numberFire Chief Analyst Keith Goldner, I've now seen the light. The Cubs are indeed better than you thought they are, and it all starts with the men on the mound.

A Top-Notch Rotation?

The league average WHIP (walks plus hits allowed per inning) sits at 1.299. The league-average hits allowed per nine innings sits at 8.7. When dealing with a team that sits at 25-36, conventional statistical wisdom would expect to see the starting rotation way over this amount.

So somebody tell me: what in Theo Epstein's Name exactly is this?

Jeff Samardzija13131.1297.1
Travis Wood12121.0136.1
Scott Feldman12121.1708.1
Edwin Jackson12121.56910.6
Carlos Villanueva1581.1648.0
Matt Garza441.1647.3

There are two takeaways from this chart. First, Edwin Jackson is a plague upon the concept of baseball and should be quarantined and eradicated immediately. Second, holy cow, every single other Cubs starter has a WHIP and hits per nine rate significantly below the MLB average.

As a team, the Chicago Cubs have allowed the second-least percentage of plate appearances going for hits in the entire major leagues. When opponents are only batting .281 on balls in play against you, the fourth-lowest mark in the entire majors, that's not too surprising. And when you add in Chicago's tenth-best 2.4 percent (of total plate appearances) homeruns allowed rate, the domination of the Chicago Cubs pitching staff is evident.

According to Goldner, their ability to keep hits from the field of play and homeruns from going over the wall are two of the biggest components of numberFire's pitching nERD formula. In fact, even with the ninth-highest walk percentage in the majors at 8.5 percent of all plate appearances, the Cubs still hold the sixth-most efficient pitching staff in the majors. That initial shock at the Cubs as a top ten team starts to fade away when one of the key aspects of the game is just this dominant.

What Does This Mean?

With that exceptional pitching, the Cubs would be expected to allow 3.72 runs in a given game against a league-average team. As I mentioned, that's the sixth-best in the majors. But unfortunately, they would also be expected to score only 3.99 runs, which sits 20th in the majors. It's the offense, which features not a single player in the top 50 of our batter efficiency rankings (Anthony Rizzo is highest at No. 72), that is holding the North Siders back.

With the NL Central as tough as it is, any lack of run production is a death knell for the Cubs. In our efficiency rankings, the Cardinals sit at No. 4, the Reds at No. 8, and the Pirates tied with the Cubs at No. 10. The AL East with Boston (2), Tampa (7), and Baltimore (9) is the only other division in baseball that even has three teams in the majors' top 14 in terms of efficiency. The highest team in the NL West is the San Francisco Giants at No. 13.

Because of this competition, the outlook for the Cubs remains muted. Given the tough future schedule, numberFire projects them to finish with a sorry 72-90 record, just a tiny bit up from their current win percentage. And as it stands, they hold only a 0.4 percent chance at the playoffs and a 0.0 percent chance at breaking the Curse of the Billy Goat. In terms of efficiency, they are the only team in the Top 14 with fewer than 20 percent playoff odds. There's always next year.

Still, given the relative strength of their pitching staff, the future is bright for the Cubs. Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Welington Castillo are on an upward trajectory, and the offense figures to improve over the next couple of seasons. If only for that pesky tough division they have to compete against...