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|
|2003||New York Yankees||+85||+3.42||√|
|1974||Los Angeles Dodgers||+71||+2.95||√|
|1962||San Francisco Giants||+74||+2.89||√|
|2012||St. Louis Cardinals||+65||+2.67|
|2010||Tampa Bay Rays||+66||+2.69|
|2002||Boston Red Sox||+65||+2.61|
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.