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The Cubs’ Start Is Even More Dominant Than It Seems

The Chicago Cubs have started the 2016 season on a roll, amassing a 19-6 record — with one of the wins coming via a no-hitter — and outscoring opponents by an average of 3.6 runs per game. Tabbed in spring training as a potential 100-game winner by nearly every projection algorithm, the Cubs are somehow exceeding even those lofty expectations. Now the benchmark is quickly shifting to whether they can become one of the best teams in baseball history.

By run differential, the Cubs’ start ties for fourth-best in MLB’s modern era (going back to 1900). But that fun fact doesn’t quite do their dominance justice, because MLB is also currently in an epoch of incredible parity, with the spread of talent between teams smaller than it’s ever been. If you adjust for how bunched-up team run differentials have become in recent years,1 the Cubs are off to the strongest 24-game start since at least 1950.2

YEAR TEAM RUN DIFFERENTIAL SCALED RUN DIFFERENTIAL WON LEAGUE WON WS
2016 Chicago Cubs +83 +3.50
2003 New York Yankees +85 +3.42
1984 Detroit Tigers +71 +3.08
1974 Los Angeles Dodgers +71 +2.95
1962 San Francisco Giants +74 +2.89
1993 Detroit Tigers +69 +2.84
2012 St. Louis Cardinals +65 +2.67
2010 Tampa Bay Rays +66 +2.69
2002 Boston Red Sox +65 +2.61
1955 Brooklyn Dodgers +69 +2.54
The Cubs are the best (through 24 games)

Source: Baseball PRospectus

To put it in perspective, the distance between the Cubs’ run differential and that of the second-best team (the Washington Nationals) is the same as the difference between the Nationals and the 20th-ranked Oakland A’s. Not only is Chicago scoring the most runs in baseball, it’s also tied for allowing the fewest. And as if that wasn’t enough, the Cubs boast the best base running of any team as well.

This Cubs squad wasn’t always an unstoppable force. According to our Elo ratings, which measure the quality of a team at any given point in time, the club Theo Epstein inherited bottomed out around the end of the 2012 season, when their 1439 rating left them ranked second-to-last in the majors — ahead of only the tanking Houston Astros. But in the 521 games since,3 the Cubs have gained 120 points of Elo rating, a level of sustained increase exceedingly rare in MLB history. For every thousand similar stretches, we’d expect to see a 120-point Elo increase only about two or three times.4

In only three years, the Cubs have risen from one of the worst teams in baseball to achieve an unprecedented degree of dominance. But there’s no pennant for the best Elo rating, no trophy for the highest run differential. And it might take playing at this level all season to overcome the most stunning streak of postseason futility in professional sports and win a championship for the first time in 107 years.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. I did this by calculating the standard deviation in run differential at game 24 of each season, and smoothing the trend over time using local regression.

  2. Which is as far back as Baseball Prospectus has data.

  3. Including the playoffs.

  4. It’s difficult to determine the exact probability because there are so many possible 521-game stretches, but we can estimate it by looking at a sample of 1,000 such sets.

Rob Arthur is FiveThirtyEight’s baseball columnist and also writes about crime.

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