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|
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.