October Baseball in Chicago?
On the plane from New York to Chicago yesterday, I had every intention of making my way over to Wrigley for last night's game between the Cubbies and Sox. I would find a single one way or another. After circling over Lake Michigan for a half hour and then touching down to pouring rain, I realized that there might be no game at all.
To see if these showers were just passing - maybe there was some way they would get it in - I went to the Chicago Tribune's mobile sports page to try and get some news on the game, the weather and what the chances the game would take place looked like. When I got there, I stumbled across this piece by Dan McGrath titled One opinion: Sox have better shot at playoffs than Cubs.
McGrath does not take a very analytical approach to the piece. Much of it is off the cuff and its intro makes light of how very underwhelming Chicago baseball has been this season. But nonetheless he does try and mount a case by breaking both teams down, comparing their competition and draws the conclusion that the Pale Hose look like a better bet for October than the Cubs. I disagree pretty strongly with McGrath's position on this one.
Let's just start with some facts. The Cubs are 30-30 and have scored 8 runs more than their opponents thus far in 2009. The White Sox are 30-34 and their opponents have outscored them by 27 runs. The Cubs are 2.5 games behind the San Francisco Giants in the NL Wild Card race and just 3 back of the Milwaukee Brewers for the NL Central. The White Sox are currently 4.5 out in the AL Central and trail the New York Yankees by 6.5 games for the AL Wild Card. While neither team has played the heavyweights from their respective leagues' East divisions (Red Sox and Yanks in Sox case, Phils and Mets for the Cubs), the Cubs have already played four games against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the class of the National League thus far. By a narrow margin, it would seem the White Sox have had the easier schedule to date and therefore figure to face a tougher slate down the stretch.
So the White Sox have a worse record, worse run differential, larger deficits to make up and need to do so against a tougher schedule. In and of themselves, these factors do not make conclusive the case that the Cubs are the more likely playoff bet but if you are going to say you like the White Sox' chances better, the onus falls on you to argue the position that much more persuasively. McGrath's defense in this respect falls way, way short.
Here is my favorite sentence, symptomatic of the rigor with which McGrath makes his case:
Even with Carlos Quentin ailing, the White Sox have enough guys having decent years that they've been impervious to teamwide slumps despite being shut out nine times.
Did you get that? They're impervious to slumps, but have been shut out nine times this season! Pick your garden variety crappy Major League Baseball offense. The A's? They've been shut out five times. Seattle can't hit, what about them? Again, five times. Sure the Giants must have been shut out a whole bunch? Three times. You get the point. It's hard to gloss over the fact that the Sox have been shut out nine times.
What's interesting is that the two teams have had a similar look thus far in 2009. They both pitch it very well while their respective offenses have slumped badly. This is in part thanks to injuries to star performers. Just as the White Sox badly miss slugger Carlos Quentin, the Cubbies can't get Aramis Ramirez back quickly enough. Did you know that with Mike Fontenot now playing mostly at third with Ramirez out, Aaron Miles is playing second and hitting .200/.240/.252! Maybe he remains on the Cardinals payroll?
The key difference between the Cubs and the Sox is that the former has a much better chance of seeing its offense improve dramatically. Geovany Soto, Alfonso Soriano and Milton Bradley all figure to hit much better the rest of the way than they have to date. Whatever the heck the Cubs decide to do at second base is going to be a lot better from here on out, too. Meanwhile, the Cubs do not have any clear regression candidates. Maybe Ryan Theriot just a bit? For the White Sox to improve on the offensive side, they first need Quentin back and a performing a lot closer to the way he did in 2008 than he was before he went down. Second, you need to place a lot of faith in guys like Chris Getz and Josh Fields and Brian Anderson, something that I find hard to do.
So to sum, the Cubs have a big leg up in the standings, have performed better to date and have better prospects to improve. It's why the various Baseball Prospectus playoff odds reports put their chances of making the playoffs anywhere between 25% and 35% or so. They're far from a slam dunk but they have a real shot. Those same measures have the White Sox around 5% to 10%, far worse than the Cubs' chances for all of the reasons I have described above.