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Put stock in Cubs' positive run differential?

5/23/2014

One statistic regarding the 2014 Chicago Cubs you may hear more about is run differential. After Thursday's 5-1 victory over the San Diego Padres, the Cubs have scored four more runs (179 to 175) than they've let up this season. That sounds surprising for a 17-28 team.

It's also better than some teams with better records like the reigning National League West champion Los Angeles Dodgers, who are 25-23 with just a plus-1 run differential.

Are there positives to be had from such a statistic? Not really.

Could the Cubs claim they are better than their record? Again, the answer is no.

Does it at least mean the wins will come if they keep up that kind of scoring/giving up pace?

The answer there might be yes, but the Cubs won't keep up that pace once trading season is upon us and that makes the statistic even more meaningless since we'll be talking about a different team once the Cubs front office starts flipping veterans.

On May 23, 2013 the Cubs' run differential was "only" minus-5, again not all that bad for a team that was 18-27 at the time. The Cubs went on to win 66 games after getting within seven games of .500 in mid-July. Trading veterans such as Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano probably had something to do with their final record -- and final run differential -- as it fell to minus-87 by season's end.

This year's run differential is aided by the fact the Cubs have had a 12-run victory and two seven-run wins while never losing a game by more than six. There's your discrepancy in the run differential and win/loss record. Those big wins are nice, but they only count once in the standings.

The reason the Cubs haven't won more, while their run differential has been decent early-on in the last two seasons, is their record in close games. The Cubs' winning percentage in one-run games this season is .181 (2-9). Last year at this time it was .333 (6-12). Both are pretty dismal. Adding to that narrative is the fact the Cubs are also 2-9 in two-run games this season. Again, it adds up to a decent run differential but a bad record.

Close doesn't get you anything in sports, and if you lose enough close ones it only confirms what you know: Your team isn't very good. Without looking at final scores or even watching games you could probably guess what's kept them respectable in runs scored versus runs given up. The Cubs have decent pitching. That's not their major weakness. Their team ERA (3.43) is eighth in baseball. That keeps you close to your opponent but still doesn't guarantee you a win.

If the Cubs want to tell themselves they battle until they end and keep things close that's fine. It might help morale. But until the team has more talent don't put stock into their positive run differential other than to be happy the pitching staff has done its job, at least until Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija are traded. Then the Cubs run differential is bound to coincide better with their win/loss record.