The Cubs Aren't a Bad Team, They're Just Bad at Winning

The Cubs Aren't a Bad Team, They're Just Bad at Winning
Have the Cubs turned the corner? Just ask Starlin Castro.

Forgive me if this comes across like an Onion headline or appears similar to the post I wrote last week, but I was thinking about the topic again after hearing a conversation on a local radio show. I had just finished up a short afternoon of volunteering at my daughter's elementary school's Field Day and was unwinding in the parking lot of my local home brew supply store, Great Fermentations.

I was listening to Dan Dakich's conversation with a voice to which a name had not yet been supplied when the conversation turned to the Cubs. Well now they had me hooked; Indy radio isn't necessarily a hotbed for Cubs talk, particularly when the team is as bad as it is right now. But Coach Dakich is a former Region Rat and an unrepentant Cubs fan, so he'll sneak the North Siders in from time to time.

I eventually found out that the guest was Dan Katz (@barstoolbigcat) of Barstool Sports Chicago, but I was really being drawn in by this guy's views from the start. Sure, that's mostly because they mirrored mine, particularly his support for the video board. But it's something he said to Coach early in the conversation that resonated with me.

My title paraphrases it as closely as my recollection will allow, but that falls somewhat in line with what I wrote earlier. As I said then too, luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity and the Cubs have been an incredibly inopportune team this season.

But what does it even mean to say the Cubs are "bad at winning?" And if you continue to lose over and over, how in the blue hell can you become good at winning? I may have bitten off more than I can chew with those two questions, but here goes; first things first.

I've been on teams that are bad at winning. Now, these have primarily been church or work league softball teams, but the concept applies. You've typically got a core group that wants to be there, to compete at a high level and that is intrinsically motivated to perform well no matter what. Then you've got the group that's just happy to be there, to show up and play the game with no real concern for the outcome.

The Cubs have been mired for years, by design I might add, with a mix of those two groups. There is a small core of permanent players, around which a cadre of replaceable parts floats in seemingly random orbital patterns. But part of the problem is that the core itself is in a state of flux, at least for the time being.

Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo seem to have re-established themselves as viable major league hitters, and Junior Lake continues to show alternating flashes of brilliance and incompetence. Likewise, Mike Olt continues to do his best Dave Kingman and Rob Deer impersonations at the plate. Lately though, he's looked a little more like a deer in the headlights.

As with any sport or endeavor, consistency is the key to improvement. Would any of you care to stand up and claim that the Cubs have been anywhere near consistent over the past few seasons? They simply haven't put themselves in position to win very often and, as a result, they haven't really learned how to do it.

Okay, so how do you become good at winning? For all the advanced metrics in the world, we really don't have one that measures confidence, or swagger, if you will. That drive to win above all else, the knowledge that you're better than the next guy or the next team; that's what the Cubs are lacking and what they need to either buy or grow.

Funny thing about confidence too: it's more contagious than a yawn. If the quack sports psychologist from The Natural was right about losing being a disease, then swagger is the world's most powerful antigen. And that doesn't have to come from experience at the big league level; in fact, it quite often comes in the form of youthful exuberance.

Players like Yasiel Puig and Bryce Harper provided an injection of excitement into their respective teams that went far beyond the box score. Fans were lining up at the gates to see them, teammates raved about them, and opposing players got their panties in all kinds of bunches over the young guys' antics.

And look at what George Springer has done in his short time in Houston. His 10 home runs in May absolutely electrified the moribund Astros, propelling them to 7 straight wins at one point. Tell me the Cubs can't get the same kind of results from the success of one of their young farmhands.

Now, I do want to qualify that: I'm not jumping out to take the reins of the "Promote Kris Bryant" bandwagon. I'm just drawing a correlation. After all, even with said surge, the Astros sit 10 games under .500 and 12.5 out of first place. The excitement is nice for the fans, but moving the needle closer to mediocrity might actually hurt the team's development in the long run.

In the end, I believe the path to becoming good at winning is two-fold. First, you need to get some guys that have been there before, players who have experience with successful teams. Second, and perhaps more importantly, you need to get some kids who are simply too young and naive to know any better. Now you've got smart baseball that's also fun to watch.

I may be speaking way too soon, but back-to-back comeback wins by the Cubs could be a sign that they're starting to learn what it takes to win a game that isn't a flukey blowout. Of course, they could just as easily turn around now and drop the next 5. But as much as you'd like for the team to act like it's been there before, the dogpile and shaving cream pie showed that this team is still having fun.

The Cubs are now 5-10 in 1-run games, a real measure of their aptitude for winning. Keep an eye on that record, because its improvement will directly correlate to the team's growth. Every division-leading team in baseball (and 9 of the 14 teams over .500) has a positive mark in 1-run contests.

I won't be surprised if Kris Bryant and Javier Baez get even more seasoning in the minors, but I'll be even less surprised if one or both of them (among others) arrive in Wrigley with same impact of the young players mentioned above. That said, the Cubs becoming good at winning might be closer than you think.

Follow me on Twitter: @DEvanAltman

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  • I hope your right that it is closer than I think. I desperatly hope your right.

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    In reply to disappointed:

    Good news for you: I'm never wrong. Well, okay, maybe once in a while. You can see it in the approach of some of these guys at the plate and in some of the bullpen pitchers when they come in. They're just not letting the game come to them, they're playing tight. There's no bona fide superstar on this team, but I believe that changes soon. Baez was getting all the headlines early, but I don't think it'll be him.

    Kris Bryant is the clear pick for superstar of the future, but it's not just hit bat either. He's the type of kid who can literally be the face of the franchise. That's the guy who will be on billboards, his jersey will fly off shelves, fans will be swooning left and right. One player can't carry a baseball team for the whole season, but he can certainly change the mentality.

  • Other than the W-L record or a tendency to blow games in the late innings, I don't know how one can quantify the psychology.

    Maybe this one from last night summarizes the Cubs, though. After making an error that resulted in 3 unearned runs, JD said that Castro should redeem himself at bat. He got one RBI on that AB, and 2 on the next, so I guess he redeemed himself by that definition. However, he still shouldn't have made the error.

    Similarly, Jackson left with 0 earned runs, but both he and DiceK looked pretty bad and threw an excessive amount of pitches. And if one wants to talk about Theo in his past life, how did DiceK, who cost Boston over $100 million,* turn out to be another journeyman pitcher? Can't be just not knowing how to win.

    *$50 million just to get negotiating rights, plus a $52 million contract.

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    In reply to jack:

    A) Theo got the green light to blow away the field on Dice-K; they weren't the only team in on him, but they had gotten burned by Yankees on IFAs in past, weren't about to let it happen.

    2) Dice-K was very good when he started out, but injuries derailed his career. It's a testament to both his ability and his perseverance that he's still around today.

    D) Dice-K has a WS ring, which is the ultimate sign of knowing how to win. He was young then, but part of a team with some great vets.

  • In reply to Evan Altman:

    Dempster also has a WS ring, but I don't recall him doing much to earn it.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to jack:

    Dice-K did win Game 3 AND drove in 2 runs with a base hit in the 2007 WS.

    I'm pretty sure you're throwing some of this stuff out there for the sake of being contrarian and ruffling feathers, which is fine I guess. In a way, that's what I'm doing by replying back too, so I suppose I should just shut up.

  • Good piece Evan.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to givejonadollar:

    Thanks, do I really have to pay you?

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