Here’s how to win the pennant

I’m a big fan of thrift stores and garage sales. The top reason why is because I love the idea that somebody once paid retail price for something, and I’m picking up the same item for a quarter or 50 cents or, if it’s really a nice item, one dollar. It’s not very glamorous to be stalking the aisles at a Salvation Army store, but nobody ever thinks about where a book was purchased, do they?

Late last week, I found myself driving past a Salvation Army store, and I made a quick detour to see what they had to offer. I hadn’t ever been to the store, although I’ve driven past it a hundred times, because I’m usually on my way to get somewhere else. But this time, I was on my way home and had a few minutes to spare.

I walked in, headed for the book section, and found a book called Essential Cubs by Doug Myers. It was published in the immediate aftermath of the 1998 season (Sosa, Kerry Wood, and all of that), so I was spared having to relive the unfortunate events of this century. But as it is, it’s 300 pages of Cubs stories, statistics, and lore for 50 cents. I couldn’t be any happier.

The first thing I started to look for is the past successes the Cubs have had. It’s well-known that the Cubs haven’t won a National League pennant since 1945. But they have won ten pennants, all before my time, and so I wanted to get some insight into how they came about. So I set up a chart listing each of the Cubs’ pennant-winning seasons on the y-axis (1906, 1907, 1908, 1910, 1918, 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938, and 1945, if you didn’t already know), and six team categories (runs per game, home runs, and batting average for the offense, and strikeouts, shutouts, and ERA for the pitching stats) on the x-axis.

Baseball’s a team game, and Sammy Sosa or Ryne Sandberg had some great years in one category or another, but the team itself didn’t rise to their level. I was looking for the team stats in this exercise. When the team hits well, the individual numbers don’t mean so very much.

In 1906, when the Cubs dominated the National League like nobody ever has, they led the National League in five of the six categories (all except home runs).

In 1907, they led the NL in shutouts and ERA.

In 1908, they lead in strikeouts and shutouts.

In 1910, the last year of their only dynasty, they led in home runs, shutouts, and ERA.

This would be easier to see if I inserted a chart, but the point itself is pretty easily grasped. In each of the four National League championships from that era, the Cubs led the National League in at least two team pitching categories. Team hitting championships were far more unusual, with just three titles captured over the four seasons. The early suggestion is that top-notch pitching will lead to pennants, more so than good hitting will.

I can hear the objections already. “Those pennants were from the West Side Grounds, rather than Wrigley Field. Fair enough. So let’s have a look at the six pennants won in the Wrigley Field Era (or WFE for short), to see what they might be able to tell us.

Three of the Cubs’ pennants in the WFE (1918, 1929, and 1935) came as the result of the National League’s best runs/game average. None of the six pennants came on the heels of leading the NL in   home runs, and two pennants were the result of team batting titles (1935 and 1945). The Cubs average of fewer than one league-leader per championship season (four titles over six years) is in line with the dynasty years of the early 20th century.

On the pitching side, the National league strikeout championship for a team was won by the Cubs in 1918 and again in 1938. The shutouts titles came in 1918, 1929, and 1938. And the ERA championship was nearly a necessity in these pennant-winning years, with 1929 standing out as the Cubs’ lone failure to capture both the National League pennant and the team ERA title in the same season.

The Cubs have never won a National League pennant without leading the league in at least one of these three pitching categories for that year. Conversely, four of the Cubs ten pennants have come without the benefit of a league hitting title in at least one of these three categories.

In more than a century of Cubs baseball, the single most reliable indicator of winning the National League pennant, as far as these team statistics go, is ERA (80% of the pennant winners had the lowest team ERA in the National league). This is followed by shutouts (70% of pennant winners), strikeouts  and runs per game (40% each), batting average (30%) and home runs (just 10% of the pennant-winning teams).

I’m certain that the new Cubs brass knows all about this, and it seems intuitive  that the best results come from having the best pitching. So go ahead and develop Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson in the minors, but history reveals that the Cubs will need to have more pitching arms if they are going to get back to baseball’s  promised land.

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