The calendar will soon flip to September, bringing darker nights and cooler winds. That old familiar canvas of October baseball will present itself, reminding us why we love this peculiar game so much. Red, white and blue bunting will adorn the walls. Fans will bundle up in heavy coats, their breath forming clouds in the still air. And this year, the world will focus on Wrigley Field, where the Chicago Cubs are actually expected to win the World Series.
Just writing that sentence feels disconcerting. After all, the Cubbies are underdogs incarnate. Everyone knows the narrative by now. No world championship since 1908. No pennant since 1945. Just four postseason series wins in 141 years of existence. But this time, all of that has been turned on its head. We’re experiencing a most unusual baseball season, characterised by the Yankees selling and the Indians buying. Yet the grandest story of all emanates from Chicago’s North Side, where the Cubs, so often doomed to mediocrity, are by far the best team in either league. That creates a different kind of pressure and instils a whole new layer of intrigue to this ancient quest for glory. One way or the other, it will be captivating to watch.
The Cubs currently have a record of 83-47. In terms of wins, this is already their 44th most successful season ever, with 32 games remaining. When all is said and done, the Cubs may top 100 wins for just the sixth time in franchise history. The Cardinals are currently 14 games behind in the Central, with Pittsburgh a further game and a half adrift. Texas has the second most wins in baseball with 78, while Washington, the second best National League team, is seven and a half games back of Chicago.
Beyond those headline numbers, the extent of Cub dominance becomes apparent. Only two teams have scored more runs. Only one has a greater on-base percentage. No other team has a better collective earned run average. The Cubs also lead in WHIP and defensive runs saved, while their baserunning ranks seventh, according to Fangraphs. Whichever way you dice it, this is a relentless club capable of excelling in every facet of the game, and right now, very few teams can compete with their incredible quality in depth.
The roster is crammed with elite talent. Kris Bryant has slammed 35 home runs, maintained a .305 batting average, produced a .402 OBP and played immaculate defence all over the diamond to contend for MVP honours. Anthony Rizzo has launched 25 bombs as the indispensable team leader. And a cast of strong characters has followed their example, with Ben Zobrist and Dexter Fowler and Addison Russell contributing to a relentless starting lineup.
On the mound, Jake Arrieta has righted the ship and maintained a sub-3.00 ERA; Jon Lester has been the bulldog everyone envisaged when Chicago signed him for big money; and Kyle Hendricks has been a total aberration, pitching to a 2.19 ERA and 1.000 WHIP as the burgeoning ace. In the bullpen, Aroldis Chapman lurks with intent, while Hector Rendon and Pedro Strop provide a potent setup punch when healthy.
This hulking mass of talent, this churning machine of dominance, has a 19.1 percent chance of winning the World Series, according to Fangraphs. At first glance, that may not seem like a lot, but it’s a pretty big achievement in August, upon further reflection. The next best team in this regard is Washington at 13.9 percent, far behind the Cubs. The best American League team is Toronto at just 13 percent.
After years of planning and dreaming, Tom Ricketts, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod will be glad to see those odds. In the past two years, their vision has morphed into reality, as a homegrown core has been supplemented with external reinforcements to create a juggernaut. Following a slightly unexpected run to the Championship Series last year under the masterful stewardship of Joe Maddon, that process has been expedited somewhat this season, with win-now transactions for Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Chapman changing the outlook. Rather than planning for tomorrow, the Cubs are focused on today. They hope it ends with a parade.
That, in itself, heaps more pressure on this team of apparent destiny. After going full bore for a World Series title and dominating so thoroughly all season, what happens if the Cubs don’t win it all this year? Yes, they’re built with a very solid foundation of young players and the window for sustainable contention will remain open for many years. And yes, Epstein is the ideal figurehead to make subtle changes should things go wrong. But the Cubs have never been so dominant, and they’ve scarcely had a greater chance to win the World Series. If they fail now, when all logic suggests they’re the best team, people are bound to question whether they can ever break the hex. As Theo said himself recently: If not now, when?
For so long, the Chicago Cubs have been sweet underdogs fighting long odds. Even in 2003, when they came five outs away from reaching the Fall Classic before disaster struck, the Cubs weren’t prohibitive favourites. The year before, they lost 95 games and finished 30 games out of first place. It was a similar story in 2007, when a raft of free agent arrivals vaulted the Cubs into semi-unexpected contention. Perhaps 2008 was a year of epic expectation, but the Phillies were also strong and the American League was loaded. So you could make a decent case that the Cubs haven’t dealt with this kind of front-running pressure for many decades.
So, as the final weeks of this mesmeric ballad round into view, intrigue abounds. The Cubs have played so well in 2016 that, no matter how the season ends, baseball writers will be left to tell a monumental story. Whether it’s one of continued dominance or acute failure, fresh joy or familiar agony, only time will tell. But either way, the stretch run is here, and the Cubs are about to do something that will make the baseball world grind to a halt. Rarely has a team encountered such a complex maelstrom of possibility.