- It's only mid-August, but with a gigantic lead in the NL Central, it would take an extremely unlikely development for the Cubs not to win their first division title since 2008.
“It ain’t over 'til it’s over” may be the most accurate of baseball’s maxims, but even though there are still six weeks left in the 2016 major league season, one playoff race appears to be done: the National League Central. Despite splitting this past weekend's four-game set with the Cardinals at Wrigley Field, the Chicago Cubs still lead second-place St. Louis by 12 games with 46 games left on their schedule. Their record since the All-Star break is an MLB-best 20–8, a .714 winning percentage, and they've allowed a mere 2.6 runs per game over that span.
If that seems like a small-sample fluke, consider that the Cubs posted an identical winning percentage (due to a 40-16 record) over the season's first two months. On June 19, Chicago was 47–20 (.701) and had opened up a 12 1/2-game lead on the Cardinals. The Cubs then fell into a slump, going 6–15 (.286) until the All-Star break, but as bad as they were in that stretch, St. Louis never got closer than 6 1/2 games.
Chicago's lead reached a season-high 14 games last Friday when it won its 11th game in a row, crushing the Cards 13-2. At that point the Cubs' chances of both making the playoffs and winning their division hit 100.0%, according to Baseball Prospectus’ Playoff Odds. As of this morning, their chance of winning their division is 99.8%, with the Cardinals’ chances of stealing the NL Central from Chicago a mere 0.2%. Put another way: The remainder of the season would have to be played 500 times for St. Louis to be likely to win the division even once.
Still, it’s important to note that the Cubs' chances of blowing the division have yet to reach zero. As much of a mortal lock as they may seem, larger collapses have happened. Using numbers from Baseball Prospectus co-founder Clay Davenport, I compiled a list of the largest collapses in major league history ranked by peak playoff odds after the Red Sox and Braves both fell apart late in the 2011 season. Those were based on those respective teams’ chances of at least winning the wild card, but they’re still informative in this case.
Only twice in major league history has a team with playoff odds better than those of the 2016 Cubs failed to reach the postseason. In 2007, the Mets had a 99.8% chance of making the playoffs through Sept. 12 when they had a seven-game NL East lead over the Phillies with 17 games left to play. New York then went 5–12 as Philadelphia went 13–4, and the Mets finished one game out of first place and missed the wild-card as well. In 1995, the Angels had a 99.99% chance of winning the American League West through Aug. 20; at that point, they led the division by 9 1/2 games with 38 left to play. Not only did they blow that lead, but it was the third-place Mariners, who were 12 1/2 games out and had less than a 0.01% chance at finishing first, who overtook them, not the second-place Rangers. The Angels went 12–25 (.324) and Seattle went 25–13 (.658) to force a one-game playoff for the division, which it won. The Mariners overcame odds greater than 1-in-10,000 to reach the postseason for the first time.
The 2007 Mets and 1995 Angels aren’t the only teams worth mentioning here. In 1969, the very first year of divisional play, the Cubs started play on Aug. 20 with an eight-game lead on the Mets with 40 games remaining. Based on the strength of the two teams’ performances to that point in the season (Chicago had a +152 run differential to New York's +26 mark), Davenport’s calculations would have given the Cubs a 97.9% chance of winning the NL East. Instead, they went 15–25 (.375) and the Mets finished 33–11 (.750, by far the best record in baseball over the remainder of that season) to win their first division title, en route to the World Series championship. Chicago, meanwhile, missed the postseason for the 24th straight year, a drought that would reach 38 years before it was finally snapped in 1984.
Perhaps the most famous comeback in baseball history occurred in 1951. Through Aug. 11 of that year, the Brooklyn Dodgers had a 13-game lead over the rival New York Giants with 48 games left to play, meaning they had a 99.74% of winning the NL pennant. Brooklyn didn't even collapse, per se. They went 26–22, a respectable .542 winning percentage that was third-best in the eight-team National League. The Giants, however, went a ludicrous 37–7 (.841) to force a best-of-three playoff. In the ninth inning of the third game, New York's Bobby Thomson hooked a pitch from Ralph Branca over the leftfield wall to turn a 4-2 deficit into a 5-4 victory. The Giants won the pennant.
These are some of baseball’s signature moments: Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round The World;” the 1969 Miracle Mets; the Mariners’ franchise-saving comeback in '95. Only the Mets’ collapse in 2007 failed to leave an indelible mark on the game, due largely to the Phillies getting swept by Colorado in that year’s Division Series. It would take a similarly seismic event to dislodge the Cubs from the winning this year's NL Central title.
Consider first of all that while those '69 Cubs had a lead of just six games in the loss column on Aug. 20, this year Chicago is up by twice that many with only a handful more games left to play. In fact, even if St. Louis wins each of its 44 remaining games, Chicago could still win the division by going 34–12, which is only one game better than what it would do if it continues to play at its current second-half pace for the remainder of the season. Meanwhile, if the Cubs merely go .500 (23-23) the rest of the way, the Cardinals would have to go 34–10 (.772) to claim the division. Given their .525 winning percentage this year to date, that seems unlikely.
Those odds give us a chance to calculate something even more interesting: the exact date the Cubs will clinch. Entering Monday’s action, Chicago's magic number is 34, meaning any combination of Cubs wins and losses by the second-place team will lead to corks being popped in the Windy City. If both teams continue to win at the rate of their full-season winning percentages, the Cubs would clinch in 31 more games, which would mean on Sept. 16 at home against the Brewers. However, Chicago's next matchup with the Cardinals comes Sept. 12 to 14 in St. Louis, which would give the Cubs a chance to officially wrap up their first division title in eight years in the ballpark of their biggest rival.