Welcome to the last baseball post of the season. A very interesting NFL season is underway, so in the months to come we’ll turn our attention there. After the Super Bowl, my plan is to go mostly dark for the remainder of February (my little vacation) and begin in March with features on players as we prepare for the 2017 Major League season.
First things first. Congratulations to the World Champion Chicago Cubs (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say in my lifetime). From the first pitch of the season to the last game of the Series, they dominated all of baseball like few teams in recent memory. They left no doubt along the way that they were without peer anywhere in organized baseball. After a 109-year trial, their long national nightmare is at last over.
That means, of course, that the curse is dead. And that is really too bad. I will miss it.
Looked back on – now that it is over – the curse is the single most amazing and un-repeatable occurrence in the history of all sports anywhere. It was beyond incomprehensible. It dwarfs the achievement of any single player or era – no matter how great – in the history of history.
Consider: There are currently 246 players who are members of the baseball Hall of Fame. The curse has completely spanned the careers of 187 of them. That is 76% of every member of the Hall of Fame who played their entire careers without ever seeing the Cubs win the title. This streak will continue for at least another four years until the 2021 class is elected.
When partial careers are considered, the number is even more astonishing as the curse lapsed at least part of the careers of 219 of the 246 Hall of Famers – an amazing 89% that will only grow larger as the next player to be enshrined that didn’t have at least one year of his career fall within the years of the curse won’t be eligible until Aledmys Diaz or Alex Reyes (or some other rookie from this year’s class) goes in sometime around 2036. Forty-eight of these 246 (a shade under 20%) lived their entire lives without enduring a Cubs championship.
The sheer breadth of this amazing curse has left an indelible imprint on the game. With its cessation, the game will lose much of its richness. It thus becomes another black mark on an already dreary year whose other lowlights will include scandals at Wells Fargo and Volkswagen, the fading of our relationship with the Philippines, the beginning of the disrespectful trend of players taking a knee during the National Anthem, and a presidential election that may be the most humiliating choice that any free people has ever had to make at any time in history.
Truly, it has been a bad year to be an American.
Chicago, of course, having borne the brunt of the curse, is enjoying only the relief that this is over and behind them. As a public service to them – seeing how there are no living Cub fans who remember their last championship – let me just prepare you. The off-season will be surprisingly short. Before you know it the season will be upon you, and usually you will find that the magic will be difficult to re-capture. The lingering euphoria will have pretty much evaporated by the end of April.
It is possible that, over time, you will come to miss the curse. It was the thing that distinguished your team – that brought a large measure of national sympathy for you plight. That is all over now. Now you are just another large market team like Boston and New York, whose successes will be met with shrugs while fans and media will continue to praise the accomplishments of the middle-market teams (which is pretty much every other team in your division). You may eventually find yourselves missing the general goodwill of the baseball universe.
I have been asked if I fear that this Chicago team will now dominate the major leagues in general and their division in particular for the next two decades. I don’t, of course. The Cubs should continue to be a competitive team for the foreseeable future, but I think a decade of winning 103 games or more a year is pretty unlikely.
While I begrudge the Cubs nothing – their championship being well and truly earned – it is nonetheless worth noting that they enjoyed uncommon good fortune on their way to their title.
Let’s begin with the career years in the rotation. It’s extremely helpful when a team gets even one career year from a member of their rotation. For example, in the Cardinal’s 100-win season in 2015, only one of their starters could have been perceived as having a career year. Jaime Garcia slid through with a remarkable 2.43 ERA. But even that comprised only 20 starts and 129.2 innings. Everyone else had reasonable success compared to their expectations. A career year out of one of your starters is a big deal.
The Cubs got two.
Thirty-two years old and pitching in his eleventh big-league season, Jon Lester had the year of his life. He matched his career high in wins with 19 while losing only 5 times all year. His .792 winning percentage and his 2.44 ERA were both career bests. He was 10-1 with a 1.76 ERA in 14 starts after the break.
Meanwhile, Kyle Hendricks – an eight-game winner in 2015 with a 3.95 ERA – came out of nowhere to win 16 games and lead the league with a 2.13 ERA. Hendricks – 26-years old and an eighth-round pick back in 2011 – had never hinted at this level of domination. In his 2 AAA seasons he had managed a solid but unspectacular 13-6 record with a 3.28 ERA.
As much as anything else, it was these two career years that pushed the Cubs to the best ERA in the league (3.15) and tilted the division so decidedly in their favor. Are they repeatable? Career years rarely are. A case in point is Jake Arrieta, who in 2015 at the age of 29 had far and away the best year of his life. He went 22-6 that year with a 1.77 ERA. Last year – still a very good and effective pitcher – Arrieta came back to the pack quite a bit. He finished 18-8 with a 3.10 ERA. That’s pretty much what I expect to see from Lester and Hendricks. I have no doubt they will continue to be very good pitchers. I doubt they will continue to be other worldly.
I also doubt the Cubs will be as fortunate on the injury front next year. I had questions about the Cubs depth going into last year – questions that will forever be unanswered, as it turns out, since their depth was never tested. Over the course of the 162-game regular season and 17 playoff games you could nearly count all the Cubs injuries on the fingers of one hand. They did lose Kyle Schwarber for most of the season – a palpable loss, but outfield was their one area of depth. I think I remember Dexter Fowler missing a couple of weeks. John Lackey missed a couple of starts, and there was another point when I think they were down a couple of set-up relievers. And that was it. The entire injury history of their curse-breaking season. That was all! All the major pitchers and all the big bats in the middle of the line-up were available for duty every single day – an almost miraculous preservation.
This advantage was made all the more decisive when weighed against the significant injuries that mostly hamstrung the other teams in their division.
The Cardinals were called on to contend against this Cubs team despite the losses of Lance Lynn (for the full season), Seth Maness (about 80 games over two DL stints), Jhonny Peralta (for the first 57 games of the season and then a second DL stint that cost him about 15 more), Tommy Pham (about 65 games), Tyler Lyons (almost 60 games), Trevor Rosenthal (almost 50 games), Matt Holliday (about 45 games), Aledmys Diaz (about 40 games), Michael Wacha (about 30 games), Matt Carpenter (about 25 games), Brandon Moss (about 24 games), and Matt Adams (about 20 games). This is most of the big bats in the lineup, several key bullpen members – including the closer, and one member of the starting rotation. Injuries don’t usually define the Cardinal’s season. This year, of course, they did fall one game short of a playoff appearance.
While none of the other NL Central teams were plagued to this extent, they all suffered critical injuries at positions where there was no depth. This was especially true in the rotation, where every other NL Central team lost their best starter for significant stretches of the season. Pittsburgh’s key losses included #1 starter Gerrit Cole (who missed about 10 starts) and sparkplug Jung Ho Kang – who missed around 50 games. Cincinnati lost Anthony DeSclafani – arguably their best starter – for the first two-and-a-half months of the season and saw offensive sparkplug Billy Hamilton miss the last month. In Milwaukee, 31-year-old Junior Guerra came out of nowhere to win 9 games with a 2.81 ERA. He missed the month of August and the last half of September.
Looking at the league outside of the Central Division, injuries were especially heavy in New York, where the Mets (the team that conquered the Cubs in 2015) lost three-fifths of their rotation in Matt Harvey (threw his last pitch of the season on July 4), Steven Matz (threw his last pitch of the season on August 14) and Jacob deGrom (threw his last pitch of the season on September first). The Mets also played without third-baseman David Wright (took his last swing on May 27) and second baseman Neil Walker (took his last swing on August 27).
Not all of their injuries were season ending. Lucas Duda missed about four months, but did make it back by mid-September. Jose Reyes missed the first three months (although with a suspension, not an injury).
All this was enough to keep the Mets – arguably the biggest threat to the Cubs – from effectively competing for their division title. New York still fought its way into the playoffs, but had their opportunity contracted to that one-game playoff against the Giants (they didn’t prevail).
None of this is to minimize the Cubs championship. I’m just saying that the Chicago dominance was aided greatly by much better fortune than they can necessarily expect going forward. Career years and injuries are very much the luck of the draw in any given baseball season. If that luck is distributed a little more evenly next year, Chicago won’t have quite so easy a path to a repeat title.
And that will be good for baseball. Division races that are decided before the All-Star break greatly reduces the September excitement.
In fact, looking forward to 2017, I have a feeling the entire division will be much more competitive top to bottom. As last season wound down, I was very impressed with the growth in Cincinnati and Milwaukee. In fact, it was hard to look at that Cincinnati team and not see a reflection of the Whitey-ball Cardinals of the 1980’s. I’m not necessarily saying that the Reds and/or Brewers are ready to contend for the division crown next year, but I don’t think they’ll be 90-loss derelicts either. The days of the Cubs leaving on a seven-game road trip through Milwaukee and Cincinnati and coming home with six or seven wins could well be over.
In fact, in my opinion, the biggest question marks in this division going into 2017 will be the teams that have been the front-runners here for most of the last five or six years – the Cards and Pirates.
The wheels seemed to come off for the Pirates last year – especially the rotation which all but collapsed. Additionally, cornerstone players Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco suddenly became surprisingly average. The Pirates will need both of those players return to form and hope that their rebuilt pitching staff holds up or they could well be left behind by the entire division.
And then there are the once and future champions in St Louis. The Cardinals are a team in transition as the heroes of the early years of this century are moving towards the end of their careers and the baton is about to be passed to a very promising crop of prospects. The Cardinal future appears very bright as St Louis’ talent-rich system is about to graduate many highly regarded prospects. But prospects are just prospects. It very much remains to be seen if talents like Carson Kelly, Harrison Bader, Austin Gomber, Luke Weaver and Alex Reyes can translate their potential into major league production.
At the crux of any return to contention by the Cards will be the performance of three established talents coming off disappointing seasons. What St Louis gets out of Kolten Wong, Randal Grichuk and Adam Wainwright will largely determine how the season plays out. The Cards could use a little good fortune as they struggle to remain competitive in this division.
If they get half the good fortune the Cubs got last year, they should do OK.