The Chicago Cubs have not won the World Series since 1908, the longest drought in baseball history, their lack of a championship has been attributed to many things; goats, black cats, a lonely fan listening to a radio broadcast are among the few non-baseball factors that are blamed for the Cubs’ drought. All of these excuses are based on the fact that the Cubs have really bad luck, and are not really attributed to any true baseball fact. So I beg to question are the Cubs really unlucky or just really bad? Since World War II, Chicago has only made the playoffs six times, and has not reached the World Series once. The goal of this post is to see if any of those six teams were just not good enough to win the World Series, or are the Cubs just truly really unlucky.
First I set out to see what statistics World Series caliber teams excel in, and I came up with two estimations using a combination of hitting and pitching Sabrmetrics. The first combination is a comparison between team wOBA and team FIP, and the second is team batting WAR and team pitching WAR. I used the last ten World Series Champions as the template for what makes a World Series team (The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals were a clear outlier, however, so the 2000 New York Yankees were used as the replacement for the template). The wOBA/FIP estimator will be referred to as Template 1, and the WAR estimator will be referred to as Template 2. Template 1 says that on average a team would need a wOBA of .340 and a team FIP of 4.13 in order to win a World Series. While Template 2 says that on average a team would need a batting WAR of 29.05 and pitching WAR of 21.5.
The Cubs’ six playoff teams in the modern era reached the playoffs in 1984, 1989, 1998, 2003, 2007, and 2008. The 2008 Cubs are the only one of these six teams, who qualifies for Template 1 with a wOBA of .348 and a FIP of 4.09. However, four of the six teams had better FIP’s than the average but fell short in the hitting category. None of the six teams qualified for both categories of Template 2, however, the 2003 and 1984 Cubs had high enough pitching to win it all with WAR’s of 24 and 24.1 respectively. The only Cub team with a batting WAR high enough to win the World Series was the 2008 Cubs who had a WAR of 34.7, and also a pitching WAR of 21 (only .5 off of the qualifying 21.5).
Thus, the three teams I am going to analyze to see if they were good enough to win in their respective seasons and did not win the series because of luck are the ’84, ’03, and ’08 Cubs. First, the 1984 team lost in the NLCS to the San Diego Padres by a score of 3 games to 2. The Padres went on to lose in the World Series to the Detroit Tigers. During the regular season, the Tigers were the only team who had a better record overall than the Cubs. So did the Cubs have the ability to beat the Tigers had they gotten passed the Padres in the NLCS? The Tigers were the best hitting team that season with a team wOBA of .344 and total WAR of 40.3. However, the Cubs were the best pitching team with a FIP of 3.41 better than the Tigers’ 3.74, and pitching WAR of 24.1 also better than the Tigers’17.9. So the real question is would the Tigers’ hitting outweigh the Cubs’ pitching in this fantasy World Series scenario? My guess would be yes, but with the two best teams in baseball that season, the question is fairly ambiguous for a seven-game World Series scenario. And in fact, it would not be bold to chalk up the NLCS loss to the Padres (a lesser team) to luck, and say the Cubs had a squad talented enough to win the World Series in 1984.
The 2003 Chicago Cubs are the Cubs’ most famous attempt at a World Series championship, for many reasons. Many will recall of course the 3-0 lead the Cubs blew in the top half of the eighth inning, in what would have been a clinching Game 6 victory, before the collapse. Everyone remembers the Steve Bartman/Mosies Alou fiasco, and most around baseball remember the Alex Gonzalez error that lead to an 8-run Florida Marlins’ inning and a deciding Game 7 the Cubs would eventually lose. But were Mark Prior and Kerry Wood’s Cubs better than the Marlins, the eventual World Series Champion? On Template 1 the Marlins and Cubs are almost even with the same FIP and nearly identical wOBA’s, but on Template 2 the two teams differ. The Marlins had a much higher team batting WAR of 28.4 to the Cubs’ 21.0, while the Cubs pitched better with a WAR of 24.0, while the Marlins were only at 19.9. So on Template 1 the teams were identical, and the difference between their hitting and pitching on Template 2 was nearly negligible, making the difference between the teams. Which is most likely why the ’03 NLCS was so close, there was no difference between the two teams other than luck, or dare I say Steve Bartman? Just kidding, but honestly the ’03 Cubs were as good a ballclub as the ’03 World Series Champion Marlins.
The 2008 Chicago Cubs are easily the most confusing of these teams to analyze, because they essentially were good enough to be a World Series champ according to both templates, yet they never won a postseason game. The Cubs won the NL Central that season with 97 wins, which was good for the second best record in baseball behind only the Los Angeles Angels. They were the number one team in the National League, yet got swept out of the NLDS, by the Los Angeles Dodgers. This sweep was the second straight for the Cubs in the LDS, and essentially since then the ’08 Cubs season has fallen into obscurity. This is most likely because the 2008 World Series brought a championship back to Philadelphia, who became a perennial power, and truly the only team remembered from 2008 (save possibly the upstart Rays). Were the Dodgers, the team who beat the Cubs, and the Phillies, the World Series champ, better than the Cubs? Or are 5-game divisional series almost pure luck, that can sweep away a great team like 2008 Cubs? The Dodgers were a much worse hitting team than the Cubs that season, .322 wOBA to the Cubs’ .348 and 18.6 WAR to the Cubs 34.7. The Dodgers, however, pitched slightly better than the Cubs with a FIP 3.67 much lower than the Cubs’ 4.09 and WAR of 22.7 better than the Cubs’ 21.0. But, the fact is the difference in hitting is substantial compared to that of the advantage for the Dodgers in pitching. Which is most likely why the Cubs won 13 more games in the regular season than the Dodgers. But that Dodgers’ pitching was able to overcome the Cubs in 2008, even though the Cubs were better on both templates than eventual champion Philadelphia. The 2008 team is not as remembered (or mourned) as much as '84 and '03, because those two teams came within one win of reaching the Fall Classic, but they maybe should be, seeing as they were the Cubs best overall shot at bringing a ring back to Wrigley.
Essentially, the Chicago Cubs had three legitimate shots at winning the World Series for the first time, since 1908, in the modern baseball era. The 1984, 2003, and 2008 Cubs all were good enough to win the whole thing (especially the 2008 ballclub), yet fell short, because baseball is a game were luck is a huge factor. Cubs’ fans are not completely in the wrong to blame their teams’ shortcomings on luck, because for the most part they have been unlucky when they have come up short. But, blaming these losses on goats, black cats, and Steve Bartman, may not be the correct way to go about explaining their woes. Someday when Chicago puts together a team that can win it all, the balls will fall in for them, and the errors will be made on the other side of the ball, but until that day there is some comfort in the fact in knowing that, the curse cannot be solely attributed to them never being good enough to win.