North Side, South Side: Comparing the Hot Starts of the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Cubs

It’s been awhile since baseball was a winning sport all across Chicago. The Chicago White Sox won the city a title back in ‘05, but they haven’t made much noise since beyond a couple seasons around the 90-win mark. The Chicago Cubs have had three or four “next year is this year” teases in the past fifteen years; they have famously failed the hopes of their fans each time, most infamously in 2003 (sprinkles holy water on self). However, for the first time since 1917 (pictured above), both Chicago baseball teams were the first to 15 wins in their respective leagues, good for first place in both. Entering this season, their expectations couldn’t have been more different. The Cubs have been repeatedly picked to win the NL Central, make it to the World Series, and topped preseason power rankings. The Sox, by comparison, were ranked towards the middle of all teams in kinder lists (17 in Sports Illustrated and 22 in Comcast SportsNet Chicago, for example). Given the historic hot start, let’s take a look at just how this is happening and compare the North Siders and the South Siders.

White Sox

The Sox batting, while enough to win games, has been middling at best so far this season. As of today, (4/29/2016), their offensive stats are as follows:

Batting Av. OBP OPS BB/Game R/Game
Stat (Rank) .240 (18th) .307(23rd) .684(23rd) 2.96(19th) 3.65(23rd)

All things considered, not great, but that’s not how they’re winning games. The pitching staff for the Sox has been nothing short of stellar so far this year, particularly their top three. Here’s the team pitching ranks:

ERA K/9 WHIP HR/9 K/BB
Stat (Rank) 2.55(2nd) 7.81(21st) 1.083(3rd) .61(3rd) 2.92(8th)

Not only that, but ESPN’s Cy Young Predictor (small sample size warning, but still) features three Sox pitchers. Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Mat Latos are all top five in pitching WAR at 1.3 and tied at 1.2, respectively. They’ve got a great closer in Robertson too, who is second in the league in saves at 8 so far. While they’ve all been great, Sale is still the star of the show, with one of the nastiest sliders in baseball. They say pitching wins championships–so far, it’s certainly won the South Siders plenty of games despite bottom-third team offensive output. We can argue until we’re blue in the face about regression to the mean, but the story remains that Sox pitchers dusted opposing lineups so far this year. If they can maintain this performance with even close to a similar level throughout, or if they regress a bit and the offense picks up, this squad could make real waves and seriously overperform. The AL Central was figured to be a closer division this year, and they could very much be in the mix. Overestimation on the part of fans is dangerous, but underestimation is even worse on the part of an opponent. There’s real danger here, much more than anyone saw coming beyond Sale.

 

Cubs

The lovable losers aren’t losing anymore, and probably won’t be for a few years at least. In a night and day difference from the White Sox, the Cubs entered this season with crushing weight of expectation on them. So far, they’ve lived up to it and more. The offense has been great in most games, the worst outing coming in a 13-5 beating by the Cincinnati Reds. Here’s their team offense so far this season:

Batting Av. OBP OPS BB/Game R/Game
Stat (Rank) .255(11th) .362(2nd) .795(5th) 5.43(1st) 6.19(2nd)

The Cubs lineup is a minefield of power hitters and patience for opposing pitchers, and they’ve performed as well as expected or better. Each hitter in the lineup sees quite a few pitches, and they get on base a lot. This is all despite cooler starts by star hitters Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. They’re having some problems with leaving runners in scoring position and still ranking in the top five in most team batting metrics. In short, they’re raking and they’re walking. Hell, even the pitchers are hitting. These guys can score, and do it in a hurry.

 

While not quite on the current level of the Sox, Cubs pitching has been great too. Here’s the stats on that:

ERA K/9 WHIP HR/9 K/BB
Stat(Rank) 2.56(3rd) 8.97(6th) .980(1st) .68(4th) 3.58(4th)

Impressive numbers across the board. Not to mention that Jake Arrieta just no-hit a hot-start Cincinnati team, before which his stats looked like this across his 24 previous starts. They’ve got two guys in the top 5 for pitching WAR, Arrieta and Jason Hammel at 1.7 and 1.2 respectively. Arrieta’s no fluke and no joke, with excellent pitches top to bottom including this changeup (his 4th best pitch). Their staff was good last year, but this is a new level, especially with the addition of John Lackey. Not to mention the improvement of their defensive outfield by signing Jason Heyward.

Playing Devil’s Advocate

The biggest argument you can make against either of these teams is schedule; they’ve both played quite a few games against underwhelming teams like Milwaukee, Colorado, Minnesota, Cleveland, and Tampa Bay. Both have only played one series against a team currently over .500: the Sox swept the Texas Rangers (and Toronto right after, currently at 10-13, but still offensively powerful), and the Cubs went 2-for-3 against the St. Louis Cardinals, who currently feature the top offense in baseball despite starting half of last year’s injury lineup and a gently used paper towel holder called up from AAA ball that’s probably batting like .600 or something. Overall, the collective records of Sox and Cubs opponents so far are 84-89 and 61-71 respectively. Take out their wins, and a lot of those teams look better (the Reds looked good before the Cubs beat up on them, Toronto was over .500 before the Sox swept them, and oh boy did the Angels really get it from both).

 

That being said, wins matter. A huge part of any season is beating contenders, and we’ll know how they fare against the real tests later in the year. For now, though, let’s focus on the other important component of a great season: winning the games that you should. Taking care of business when it would be easy to take it easy is how teams end up a couple games out of the division or home field advantage in October, like the Cubs getting swept by the Phillies last year. For the time being, both Chicago teams are winning the winnable games. That matters.

 

Bias aside, I’d pick the Cubs’ success as more sustainable because their offense is stronger; if the Sox pitching has a bad day, it doesn’t have nearly as much scoring power to fall back on. Whether that will actually happen remains to be seen. If your pitchers completely suffocate the opposing offense, getting 8 runs is nice but doesn’t really matter; the result is the same as getting 1, and you come out looking exactly the same in the only column that really matters: wins (and not the stupid pitcher stat).
I honestly can’t tell whether it would be a good thing for both teams to sustain their success, or even meet in a World Series. It’d probably be the most destructive thing to happen to Chicago since Ms. O’Leary’s cow. Either way, winning baseball in the Windy City is a good thing, and I’d love to see it continue (so long as the Cubs win the last game of the year).

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