Division title nears, but Cubs are also chasing these five benchmarks
- Even before it can start chasing that elusive World Series crown next month, Chicago has a chance to make history in September.
With the passing of Labor Day, the 2016 regular season is in its home stretch, with fewer than four weeks to go until the season concludes on Sunday, Oct. 2. There's little suspense that the Cubs—who will enter play on Tuesday with a 16 1/2 game lead in the NL Central—will win their division, but even before Chicago can chase the franchise's first pennant since 1945 and its first World Series title since 1908, manager Joe Maddon’s bunch still has some historic achievements within its reach. Here's a quick rundown of what's at stake for the Cubs over the remainder of the season.
The .650 Club
With Monday afternoon's 7–2 win over the Brewers, the Cubs are now 89–48, a .650 winning percentage. Catching their 1906 predecessors and the 2001 Mariners, the teams that share the MLB single-season record of 116 wins, is not possible, but if Chicago wins each of its remaining games it would finish the season on a 27-game winning streak—which would break the major league record set by the 1916 Giants (albeit with a tie thrown in)—and leave the Cubs even with the 1998 Yankees' total of 114 wins, the third-highest mark in baseball history. If each game was a simple coin toss, Chicago would have just a 1-in-33.6 million chance at making that happen, but assuming a flat 65% chance of winning each game, those odds improve to 1-in-47,551. So, yes, we're saying there's a chance, albeit not a realistic one given that at some point, resting the regulars in advance of the postseason grind will take precedence over chasing history. At the Cubs' current pace, they will finish with 105 wins, matching the 2004 Cardinals for the most since the '01 Mariners.
That total, as impressive as it would be, would actually leave Chicago just short of joining an exclusive club of teams to finish with a winning percentage of .650 or better. Since the schedule expanded to 162 games with the 1961 season, only eight teams have done that: the aforementioned Mariners (.716) and Yankees (.704); the 1969 Orioles and '61 Yankees (both .673 via 109–53 records); the '70 Orioles, '75 Reds and '86 Mets (all .667, via 108–54 records); and the '98 Braves (.654, 106-56). The '04 Cardinals finished with 57 losses and a .648 winning percentage.
The +250 Club
Including Monday's win, the Cubs have outscored their opponents by 229 runs, putting them on pace for a +271 run differential. That would be the 17th-highest since 1901 and the third-best of the expansion era (1961-present), behind only the '98 Yankees (+309) and '01 Mariners (+300). While 30 teams have outscored the opposition by at least 250 runs since 1901, just five have done so in the expansion era, namely that aforementioned pair and the '69 Orioles (+262), '75 Reds and '98 Astros (both +254).
In Chicago's franchise history, which dates back to the founding of the National League in 1876, two of its other clubs have finished at least +250: the 1906 squad that went 116–36 (+323, the fifth-best of the modern era, i.e. 1901-present) en route to the Cubs' first pennant, and the 1935 team (+250), which rode a franchise-best 21-game winning streak to the NL pennant.
While a 6–15 skid at the end of the first half cost Chicago its shot at the win totals of the '01 Mariners and '98 Yankees, it has actually posted a higher winning percentage since then (.735 via a 36–13 record) than before (.701). That .735 clip is the sixth-best second half winning percentage since the advent of the All-Star Game in 1933, excluding strike seasons. Here is the top 10:
Admittedly, the lengths of those post-break schedules vary slightly from year to year depending upon the calendar, and they're generally not even halves of the season; aside from the '35 Cubs and the '42 Cardinals, the other teams above played somewhere between 70 and 75 games after the All-Star break. That aside, Chicago is on pace for the third-best post-break record of the expansion era. They'd have to go 22–3 the rest of the way to top the 2001 A's for the best such record of the wild card era (1995-present).
With Monday's win, the Cubs' magic number to clinch the NL Central flag is down to 10. If they win their next five games and St. Louis loses its next five, the earliest they can clinch would be Sunday, Sept. 11 at Houston. That would render Chicago's Sept. 12–14 series against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium an afterthought. If the Central division isn't sewn up by the close of play on Sunday, the Cubs will have an excellent chance to pop the champagne in their arch-rival's clubhouse, because each Chicago win would also be a St. Louis loss, thereby reducing the magic number by two each game. We'll leave it to Cubs and Cardinals fans to argue over which scenario would be the more desirable.
Historically speaking, Sept. 11 would be among the earliest clinch dates since the dawn of division play in 1969, but not the earliest. Via the Los Angeles Times, the 1975 Reds clinched on Sept. 7, the '95 and '99 Indians both did so on Sept. 8, the '98 Yankees and 2002 Braves both wrapped up the flag on Sept. 9, and the ’08 Angels did it on Sept. 10. From among those teams, the ’99 Indians had played just 139 games when they clinched, and the ’02 Braves 141—numbers out of reach for Chicago this year, though it could match the ’75 Reds at 142 games.
Three years ago, the Dodgers went on a 42–8 run, tying the 1941 Yankees and '42 Cardinals for the best 50-game stretch of the past century. Admittedly, it's a longshot, but these Cubs could join or even surpass that company. Starting with an 8-1 win over the crosstown White Sox at Wrigley Field on July 27, Chicago is 30-8, so it would need to win its next 12 games to match L.A.'s feat. The Cubs are also 27–7 since July 31, meaning that they could go 15–1 to match that mark, or 16-0 to surpass it. Good luck with that.