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The Year Of The Cubs

OK, we’ve been a little fixated on the Chicago Cubs this year. We trolled them when they dominated the hot stove (sorry!); wondered what might possibly keep them from being baseball’s best team (how silly was that?); marveled at their hot start to the season, then compared them with the 1927 Yankees and then compared them with the Golden State Warriors (because why not?); and examined their pitchers’ unparalleled ability to suppress hits on contact (apparently they solved BABIP). Our Elo rankings have had them at No. 1 every week of the season, and we currently give them an MLB-high 26 percent probability of winning the World Series and ending the franchise’s 108-year title drought.

But overkill or not, there’s no denying that this was baseball’s Year of the Cubs. And as Chicago starts the NLDS tonight against the San Francisco Giants, it’s as good a time as any to check in on exactly where their dominating regular season ended up ranking in the annals of baseball history.

The simplest way to judge these Cubs is to look at their win-loss record, and with 103 victories they were baseball’s winningest club since the 2009 Yankees. Teams with 103 wins don’t come along very often; there have been only 47 of them since 1901,1 and just 22 — or one every two-and-a-half seasons — during the 162-game era (which goes back to 1962). But if you account for the fact that earlier teams played fewer games, the 2016 Cubs only tie for the 74th-best winning percentage of any MLB team since 1901, not quite the stuff of a historically dominant squad.

However, this year’s Cubs were probably better than those 103 wins suggest. If we look at their ratio of runs scored to runs allowed using the Pythagorean formula, Chicago played more like a 107-win team who got a bit unlucky in close games, on top of already being a bit unlucky in the timing of their hits. (In case you needed more evidence that a team’s record in one-run ballgames is mostly random, the Cubs had a losing record in those contests, checking in at 22-23 on the season.) A Pythagorean winning percentage as dominant as Chicago’s is significantly rarer than its basic winning percentage was; in fact, the Cubs’ mark ranks 27th among MLB teams since 1901. That’s a placement more in line with what we were all thinking of as we spent the season pondering Chicago’s place among the great teams of history.

The Cubs rise even further if we look at how many total wins above replacement (WAR) their roster generated during the season. According to FanGraphs.com’s version of the statistic, Chicago became only the 12th team ever to produce 59 or more total WAR in a season, which equates to roughly 107 wins — much like the figure we arrived at using the Pythagorean theorem above — and the 2016 Cubs still rank 14th in WAR since 1901 on a per-game basis.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also check where Chicago ranks in the Elo ratings, FiveThirtyEight’s pet metric for judging a team’s quality at any given moment. This year’s Cubs finished the regular season with an Elo of 1579, which ranks 72nd among MLB teams since 1901, but that was also after spending most of the season’s final two-thirds in cruise control after a scorching start to the year. Chicago’s peak Elo of 1592, set on June 19 after a 10-5 win over the Pirates brought their record to 47-20 (a 114-win pace per 162 games), ranks 60th-best among seasonal high-water marks since 1901. And if we calculate Chicago’s average Elo across every game of the regular season, their 1576 rating ranks 30th-highest over the same span.

As we’ve done before when ranking all-time NBA and NFL teams, we can blend those three considerations — a team’s final, peak and average Elo ratings — to get an overall sense for the shape of its season. Averaging together the three numbers above, the 2016 Cubs come in at 46th among all MLB teams since 1901.

Finally, let’s pull together all of the metrics we’ve discussed by adding up each team’s all-time ranking in each category, and sorting for the teams with the smallest combined total rank:2

ELO RANK STAT RANK
YEAR TEAM MAX AVG FINAL BLEND WPCT PYTH WAR TOTAL WON WS?
1 1902 Pirates 4th 1st 2nd 3rd 2nd 2nd 2nd 9
2 1939 Yankees 2nd 2nd 3rd 1st 10th 3rd 7th 21
3 1906 Cubs 1st 11th 1st 2nd 1st 1st 21st 25
4 1927 Yankees 16th 28th 6th 14th 6th 4th 1st 25
5 1944 Cardinals 3rd 3rd 35th 4th 20th 7th 9th 40
6 1909 Pirates 5th 24th 5th 5th 3rd 10th 32nd 50
7 1905 Giants 24th 10th 24th 17th 17th 11th 5th 50
8 1998 Yankees 6th 14th 17th 7th 9th 18th 22nd 56
9 2001 Mariners 32nd 47th 16th 29th 5th 17th 6th 57
10 1942 Yankees 17th 18th 12th 12th 32nd 6th 13th 63
11 1904 Giants 8th 25th 41st 21st 11th 9th 26th 67
12 1942 Cardinals 12th 37th 4th 13th 16th 8th 34th 71
13 1943 Cardinals 13th 13th 7th 6th 20th 33rd 16th 75
14 1969 Orioles 44th 58th 84th 57th 28th 14th 3rd 102
15 1937 Yankees 10th 5th 23rd 8th 39th 23rd 35th 105
16 1932 Yankees 19th 6th 13th 9th 12th 52nd 33rd 106
17 1910 Athletics 38th 42nd 39th 36th 23rd 12th 42nd 113
18 1954 Indians 14th 31st 8th 16th 4th 16th 80th 116
19 1936 Yankees 40th 29th 25th 30th 34th 25th 28th 117
20 1953 Dodgers 36th 76th 18th 32nd 20th 50th 18th 120
21 1912 Giants 11th 7th 64th 23rd 19th 31st 49th 122
22 1931 Athletics 27th 15th 40th 25th 8th 60th 39th 132
23 1975 Reds 29th 48th 28th 31st 34th 34th 38th 137
24 1998 Braves 86th 53rd 44th 58th 47th 39th 4th 148
25 1970 Orioles 45th 71st 20th 38th 34th 55th 22nd 149
26 2016 Cubs 60th 30th 72nd 46th 74th 27th 14th 161
27 1911 Giants 31st 106th 36th 42nd 61st 48th 15th 166
28 1995 Indians 62nd 68th 33rd 44th 13th 51st 58th 166
29 1929 Athletics 21st 12th 37th 22nd 14th 22nd 109th 167
30 1901 Pirates 25th 85th 14th 27th 60th 26th 59th 172
Baseball’s greatest regular seasons, 1901-2016

Source: FanGraphs.com, Baseball-Reference.com, Lahman DB

Our master meta-ranking pegs this year’s Cubs as the 26th-best regular season team in major league history, at least going back to 1901. Their basic rate of winning ballgames was impressive, though not especially historically notable, but their underlying statistical indicators — as measured by WAR and run differential — fared better against historical greats. And Elo, for its part, basically split the difference between wins and the more advanced metrics.

So in the end, Chicago’s season wasn’t quite as great as it seemed it could be when they were crushing everyone early in the year. Back then, it seemed like they really were destined to post a 2001 Mariners or 1998 Yankees-esque win total in the mid-110s. But even though they fell a bit short of contending for G.O.A.T. status, the sum total of the 2016 Cubs’ résumé still ranks them among the best two dozen or so regular-season teams ever — and easily the top edition of the franchise since it was routinely contending for pennants in the mid- to late nineteen-oughts.

Now the only question left is, can the ‘16 Cubs finish the job and end the team’s 108-year championship drought? The final leg of that journey starts tonight.


VIDEO: How dominant are the Cubs?

Footnotes

  1. 1901 was the earliest year for which the American League was considered a major league.

  2. Breaking ties with the following preference of metrics: blended Elo, then WAR per game, then Pythagorean record and, finally, basic winning percentage.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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