Equalizing the Phillies and the Cubs

Jeff “Doesn’t Have a Nickname That I Know Of” Sullivan wrote an article about the Phillies and the Cubs. More specifically, it was about how the Phillies are really bad and the Cubs are really good, but there is still a chance that the Phillies finish with a better record than the Cubs. He estimated it to be a 0.5% chance. That seems pretty small, half a percent. That’s about the percentage of Americans who live in Idaho. That being said, millions of people live in Idaho. Hall of Famer Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators lived in Idaho. Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, also of the Washington Senators was born in Idaho. Of everyone who played in the majors in 2015, two guys, Josh Osich and Nick Hagadone, were born in Idaho. Just because something is really unlikely doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. That being said, it’s a lot easier to make someone be born in Idaho than it is to make the Phillies win more games than the Cubs in 2016. But, for you Phillies fans looking for some wild optimism, you Cubs fans looking for something to remind you that you are still Cubs fans and this is all going to go downhill as it was preordained, and for the rest of you just wanting to see chaos, here is your road map to fun!

FanGraphs currently projects the Phillies to win 66 games and the Cubs to win 94. That seems like an enormous gap, but it’s six wins shy of the gap between the actual standings from 2015. So that’s a good start! But we need a few more factors.

Under-performance

Remember last year’s Nationals? How basically everyone older than either Bosnia and Herzegovina or Daisy Ridley played worse than we all expected, whether due to injury or just being bad? Let’s imagine that the Cubs befall the same fate in 2016.

Kris Bryant is only barely older than Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the Steamer/Depth Charts projections have him accumulating 5.7 WAR in 2016. I like Bryant, but a bit sophomore slump could knock him down to say, 3.7 WAR. Anthony Rizzo has two solid years under his belt, but in 2013 he hit all of .233. With some bad BABIP, it’s easy to see him checking in a win below the 5.3 WAR projected of him. Ben Zobrist is projected at 3.2 WAR, but he only managed 2.1 last year, and he’s going into his age-35 season. A bit of decline from the bat and he’s a 1-WAR guy all of the sudden.

On the pitching side of things Jon Lester is projected for 4.4 wins. Now Lester’s been remarkably durable in his career, but so was every pitcher until they weren’t anymore. And although his past two seasons have been great, he was pretty average the three preceding seasons. A bit of regression and some missed starts, and there go two wins from the Cubs’ ledger. Finally, let’s pick on reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. The projections have him at 5.3 WAR, which is definitely a drop off from last season, but still top-tier pitching. Of course, it wasn’t that long ago that Arrieta was a pretty fungible asset. I’ll be kind and only lop one win off that projected total.

From just five players under-performing a bit, we’ve already docked the Cubs eight wins, dropping them down to 86. That puts them around the level of the Giants, Astros, and Mets, which is to say, still a playoff team. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.

Over-achievement

Just as players we thought were good can be not good, players who we thought were bad can be not bad. And with the Phillies, there are, well, an abundant amount of bad players to beat the projections.

The only position player projected to break even the 2-WAR barrier is the young Maikel Franco, who comes in at a very respectable 2.7 WAR from Steamer/Depth Charts. Of course, this could be an underestimate. All y’all project Franco to basically hit as well as he did last year over a full season, which is worth about 4 WAR. But if the Phillies are to have a breakout year, he’s going to need to have a big year as well. Maybe his 20-homer power turns into 30-homer power. Maybe he hits .300. Somehow, Franco could manage to beat his projection by two wins. Odubel Herrera would also have to have a fantastic season should the Phillies want to be decent. He was a 4-WAR player last year, despite only projecting for 1 WAR. Simply repeating last year gives the Phillies three more wins. Aaron Altherr is another young guy who has shown some talent. He was pretty successful in a brief stint last season but is projected as slightly better than replacement level. He’s definitely not a world-beater, but he could probably manage to be an average outfielder. Two more wins on the ledger. Finally, while I wouldn’t bet either Cameron Rupp or Carlos Ruiz to be a super valuable player this year, but between the two of them there is some upside to the 1.6 total WAR projected for them. Rupp showed some real power last year and Ruiz is just one year removed from a 3-WAR season. I’ll give them one extra win based on the possibility of some magic or something.

It’s a bit harder to get excited about the Phillies’ pitchers. It is very unlikely that Charlie Morton has a big breakout inside of him, and Steamer already seems rather bullish on Aaron Nola based on his pretty unexciting debut last season. The guy with the most upside here is Vincent Velasquez, who likely will start 2016 in the minors, and could pitch primarily out of the bullpen once he does arrive for good. Overall, it’s hard to see any easy bets to beat the projections here. Maybe a win here or there, but probably not.

In total, we’re looking at eight more wins from the Phillies hitters, and let’s say one more win from the pitchers, for a grand total of nine more wins. That puts Philadelphia at 75 wins. That’s still three wins behind literally every team in the American League and 11 behind the Cubs. How can we possibly make that up?

Luck

Unpredictable variance is a big factor in baseball, as you likely know. I do think that calling it luck is a bit dismissive; after all, it’s not ‘lucky’ if six straight guys hit hard singles in a row. Those guys all did their job. That said, it’s probably not a good idea to rely on that happening again. This is all to say don’t yell at me because you think I’m dissing the Royals when I say that variance in BaseRuns goes a long way to making a good team look bad and vice versa.

In 2015, the Royals and Cardinals both won 11 more games than expected based on their BaseRuns. Of course, it would be a little unfair make the Phillies the luckiest team in baseball. Last year’s Twins are a good model of what we want the Phillies to be, and they went from a 73 win team to an 83 win team on the basis of sequencing. If we give the Phillies nine extra wins from sequencing, all of the sudden, they’re an 84-win team! It didn’t even take a ridiculous amount of luck!

On the other hand, the 2015 Athletics poorly sequenced their hits into 12 fewer wins than they ought to have had. And while the Cubs would in all likelihood be the franchise to be unluckier than that, it was most likely an aberration that the A’s were that unlucky. That being said, the favorites going into 2015, the Nationals, managed to win seven fewer games than they would have with average sequencing. If the Cubs match that mark, along with all the stuff we did to their best players, they would come in at 79 wins, which is five less than the Phillies in this bizarre version of the 2016 season.

But is it that bizarre? While they certainly were not as bad as these Phillies, the 2015 Twins were not seen as a world-beater by anyone, and no one would have been surprised to see them win only 66 games. Meanwhile, the 2015 Nationals were pretty big favorites. Both teams won 83 games in 2015. It’s crazy to think that the Phillies could finish ahead of the Cubs. But is it? After all, there are people from Idaho.

We hoped you liked reading Equalizing the Phillies and the Cubs by Jaack!

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Jaack is a pseudonym bestowed by one Jeff Sullivan upon a humble Fangraphs participant. His interests include Barry Bonds, Rutherford B. Hayes, and very bad baseball players.

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