Yesterday, the Chicago Cubs lost twice at home to the not-so-good San Diego Padres by scores of 7-4 and 1-0, ending their eight-game win streak (or snapping it; winning streaks are always snapped). It also put a (temporary?) outer bound on the best start baseball has seen since before most of their players were born, which makes this a good moment to stop and take in what we’re seeing.
More or less everything has to go right for any team to play .800 ball for more than a month—the Cubs aren’t, for one thing, going to end the season with three starters boasting ERAs below 2.00—but what’s surprising about this one is that they don’t seem to be playing that far over their heads; there are reasons why Dave Cameron called them a “perfect baseball team” at Fangraphs earlier this week. (Shut up, shut up, shut up, say Cubs fans.) Even leaving aside the kind of advanced measures Cameron brings up, this seems about as close to a flawless team as you could design. They have true superstars and depth; power hitters and speed-and-defense types; strikeout artists and junkballers; young guys and (still productive) old-timers who’ve played for championship teams and presumably have lessons to impart about How To Win; and Joe Maddon, the best manager of his generation, equally famed as a strategic and tactical innovator and as a guy guys just love to play for.
More than that, they have results in hand. The Cubs are already one of those freak outliers that comes along every so often in baseball, putting up numbers that just don’t make any sense. This isn’t even just about their record—25-6 going into yesterday’s doubleheader, the best start since the 1984 Detroit Tigers—but about their having outscored opponents by 103 runs over their first 31 games. That’s more than the run differentials of the two next-best teams put together over that time; more than every division leader in the American League combined; and, as SB Nation’s Marc Normandin pointed out, more than the Atlanta Braves scored period:
The Cubs aren’t this good, because no one is, but it’s already too late to just wave your hands and say it’s early. The unexciting truth is that at this point all reasons to doubt amount to “Yeah, but they’re the Cubs,” which is dumb as shit. As arbitrary as 31 games are, teams that open the year even nearly this well, like the 1984 Tigers or the 1998 New York Yankees or the 2005 Chicago White Sox, (both opened one game off the Cubs’ won-loss pace, though like the Tigers they had much less impressive run differentials) tend to win the World Series.
All of this seems a little neat—it’s mid-May, and this team lost 89 two years ago—and if you’re really looking for reasons to not trust your lying eyes past the possibility that the devil may renege on his deal with Jake Arrieta, you can find some. If you were trying to downplay what this team is doing for whatever reason (Go on, say Cubs fans), you might note that a run of wining 26 of 31 really isn’t historically rare; over the past quarter-century 26 different teams have done it at some point in a season, among them the unremarkable likes of the 2005 Washington Nationals, who finished 81-81. (Of course their run wasn’t anything like the Cubs’; they only outscored their opponents by 23 during their banner month or so.)
You might further note that teams no one cares about have gotten a bit hotter than this. Over the last 25 years, eight teams have put up better run differentials than these Cubs have over at least one 31-game stretch. One was the 1998 New York Yankees, maybe/probably the best team of all time; the others were the 2007 Yankees, the 2002 Anaheim Angels and Arizona Diamondbacks, the 2000 and 2001 Oakland A’s, the 1996 Chicago White Sox, and the 1995 California Angels. Some, like the prime Moneyball A’s or the world champion Angels, were really, really good, but these are basically some teams to remember. (The 2002 Diamondbacks?) The one with the highest run differential during their hot run was—and this could win you a bet—the 1995 Angels, who played out of their minds in July of that year and then utterly collapsed, finishing in second place and failing to even make the playoffs.
Still, though, if this sort of thing is the worst to be said about the Cubs—Some excellent teams have played this well in the middle of the season and not won the World Series!—it should probably tell you something. This is a 97-win team that added Jason Heyward in the offseason and by every qualitative and quantitative measure seems right now like exactly the kind of team that would win 105 or more games and go on to a slightly anticlimactic October coronation. Maybe they won’t, especially because three-tier playoffs are a hell of a thing, but for now probably the only thing to do is gape.