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  • While Cleveland rolls to the AL Central title, Chicago is on pace to be the first reigning World Series champion this decade to win its division the following season. But the Cubs will do so with a much worse record than a year ago.
By Tom Verducci
September 05, 2017

The season has been a struggle for the Cubs, who have stayed afloat by beating last-place teams (24–13) and failed to measure up against the six teams they’ve played who are in playoff position today (11–21). Maybe this should not have been a surprise: No defending world champion has won its division since the 2009 Phillies.

Meanwhile, the Indians are rolling. The hottest team in baseball will become the eighth straight World Series loser to make the playoffs the next year.

What gives? Why do World Series winners have a much harder “year after” than World Series losers? Human nature.

Yes, there is a real hangover effect to winning the World Series, and it is largely a mental challenge.

“It’s real,” Boston manager John Farrell said about the effect. “In 2013 everything went right for us. Every player, from the moment they stepped into that clubhouse, was fixated on the team, on finding a way to win. It just wasn’t the same the next year. It can’t be. It’s just human nature. It’s not that they didn’t want to win still. It’s just that the environment changed.

“It’s like one year lightning struck. Having it strike the same place twice in a row is tough.”

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Indians manager Terry Francona aired out his team earlier this year when he didn’t see the same focus and grinding nature he saw in 2016. Francona talked about how easy it is for a young player to rise to the thrill of the postseason, in front of packed houses and national television when every pitch matters, and then how coming back to half-empty stadiums and the safety net of a 162-game season causes them to lose their edge and urgency.

His team has since pulled together, proving once again that in today’s game the next season is easier for the World Series loser than it is for the World Series winner. Part of it is the mega-marketing that goes on in today’s game. Clubs leverage a World Series title to the max. What used to be an off-season celebration has become a year-long celebration, with special patches on the jerseys, constant video highlights on the scoreboard and individual marketing opportunities. It’s as if the championship season never ended, but plays on a loop through the next year.

The loser has no such external influences. Losers gladly and quickly turn the page. Royals manager Ned Yost tells a great story about his spring training camp the year after losing the 2014 World Series to San Francisco. When he wanted to end routine drills, such as relays and baserunning, his players overruled him and kept going; they wanted to work harder and longer.

Fifteen straight World Series winners have failed to repeat, the longest such streak in history. But what we’re seeing in recent years is a trend that cuts deeper: The difference between winning and losing the World Series is gigantic in that following season.

Over the previous seven years, World Series winners have averaged only 83 wins, and none of them have won their division. World Series losers? They have averaged 93 wins, and five of them have won their division, with the other two returning to the playoffs via a wild card. The difference in these numbers is striking.

Champion Next year finish win difference
2009 Yankees 95-67 2nd in AL East (won wild card) -8
2010 Giants 86-76 2nd in NL West -6
2011 Cardinals 88-74 2nd in NL Central (won wild card) -2
2012 Giants 76-86 3rd in NL West -18
2013 Red Sox 71-91 5th in AL East -26
2014 Giants 84-78 2nd in NL West -4
2015 Royals 81-81 3rd in AL Central -14

That's an average record of 83–79, 11 wins worse than their title season, with none of them having won the division and neither of the wild-card winners making it to the World Series. Now check out how the losers have done.

runner-up next year finish win difference
2009 Phillies 95-67 1st in NL East +4
2010 Rangers 96-66 1st in AL West +6
2011 Rangers 93-69 2nd in AL West (won wild card) -3
2012 Tigers 93-69 1st in AL Central +5
2013 Cardinals 90-72 1st in NL Central -7
2014 Royals 95-67 1st in AL Central +6
2015 Mets 87-75 2nd in NL East (won wild card) -3

Those teams averaged just under 93 wins per season, 10 more than the teams that beat them in the World Series. Five of the seven won their divisions, and the two that didn't both made it back to the playoffs anyway.

With a 10-game lead in the AL Central, the Indians are well on their way to making it eight in a row. The Cubs are in good position to get back as well, with a 92% chance of reaching the postseason, according to Baseball Prospectus. But let’s face it: Chicago haven’t been challenged this year. Okay, the Cubs were 5 1/2 games back at the All-Star break, but they trailed only an inexperienced Milwaukee team in a tepid league in which 11 of the 15 teams had losing records. They recently took control of the Central with a 14–5 “run,” but all their wins came against a chain of losers: the Reds, Blue Jays, Phillies, Braves and Pirates. It’s part of a furlough in which Chicago won’t see a single winning team for 25 straight days.

The Cubs are playing just well enough to win a poor division. They are on pace to win 89 games, a decline of 14 wins from last year.

The rotation isn’t nearly as sturdy as it was in 2016. Jon Lester is showing wear on his treads: He hasn’t cracked 96 mph with a single pitch for the first time in his career, and his quality start percentage has dropped from 81.3% to 55.6% versus a year ago. Jake Arrieta left his start Monday with a leg injury. Kyle Hendricks’ fastball is down three ticks to the 85–86 mph range, though he has found the touch on his changeup in the second half.

The offense, while scoring slightly more runs per game, has its holes. Kyle Schwarber lost the hitting rhythm in his hands and is getting bullied with four-seam fastballs (.192) and out-of-the-zone sliders (.095). Jason Heyward is only marginally better after a mechanical overhaul, with an 83 OPS+ that is up from 68 last year but still well below league average. At 36, Ben Zobrist no longer eats up velocity the way he did.

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When the Cubs won the World Series, manager Joe Maddon’s words about the youth of his team were lost. He was excited because he saw the growth still out there for his young hitters. A ballplayer, Maddon reasoned, has his baserunning and defensive skills fairly set by the time he reaches the big leagues, but offense is where the growth occurs. But offensive growth isn’t linear, as Schwarber and Addison Russell can attest.

But Maddon is right: This team is still very young. The Cubs have almost 500 more plate appearances by players 25 and under than any other club in baseball. They have more home runs by players 25 and under (129) than any team but the 2007 Milwaukee Brewers (152).

Chicago is good, and it should be good enough to survive its seven games remaining with the Brewers, beginning with a three-game series this weekend at Wrigley Field. And if the Cubs should stagger to a division title with 89 wins, that actually would be an accomplishment in defiance of recent history.