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The extreme 2015 Cubs

This past campaign looks like the start of many good years for the Chicago Cubs, but their in-season performance was notably strange.

Look at this guy.
Look at this guy.
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

What defines a team? I don't mean spiritually or philosophically, but from an analytic perspective. I started thinking about this during the ALCS, when the Royals and Blue Jays faced off in what felt like a real clash of styles. The Royals, as everyone knows, are a speed-and-defense crew, while the Blue Jays are characterized by power, and tons of it. For both those teams, the go-to description ignores their pitching. It makes sense, because for both it was entirely unremarkable, but for other teams, such as the Cubs and Mets, pitching was their thing. Other teams don't so much have a thing but a nega-thing. If I say "2015 Mariners," you probably think of something like this:

or this:

(from 1:14 to 1:40 of this video). They've got a defining characteristic, just as much as the Royals or Blue Jays, just not one to be proud of.

I needed a reason to use the above screenshots in an article, so I selected eight stats that seemed to truly differentiate between teams: baserunning, fielding, hitting walk rate, hitting strikeout rate, ISO, pitching walk rate, pitching strikeout rate, and pitching HR/9, all available at FanGraphs. I tried to pick unique categories, with ideas that could reasonably fit into the sentence: "[Team] is a _______ ballclub." That said, most of these aren't mutually exclusive; baserunning and defense often go together, at least in the public conception, and strikeout rate and ISO are certainly correlated, but I do think they get the idea across.

Having done that, I converted each team's measure in those categories to the number of standard deviations away from the mean, known as a z-score. This allows for comparisons between unrelated stats, like the fact that the Mariners' baserunning was even further to the negative than their defense in relation to the rest of the league. More to the point, it also allows for a total "extremity" score for each team, calculated by adding the absolute values of the z-scores across each category.

One can imagine a team that's totally average in all eight categories, which would have a score of zero. Alternately, a team that excelled in every regard, or a team that was great in some areas and terrible in others, would have a much higher score. I didn't call it this, because it's a bit of a value judgment, but as I was making this, I thought of it as a "fun" score. I'd much rather watch a team that is great at lots of things, or a team that is truly terrible at lots of things, than a team that is mediocre at everything. You don't have to agree with that, but in any case, this is a measurement of how different a team is in all respects. It ignores skill by design, and treats the very good the same as the very bad.

The following chart shows every team's extremity score in 2015:

Originally, I was planning to center this piece on the Royals, because there's a sense that they're quite strange, never striking out, never walking, and catching any fly ball within ten miles. And they are weird, with their fourth-place ranking driven by extreme scores in BB% (-1.6), K% (-2.6), and defense (2.3), but held back by very neutral pitching scores (all between -1.0 and 1.0) and, somewhat surprisingly, completely average baserunning. As a result, they are absolutely blown away by the Cubs.

The 2015 Cubs were weird. Their pitching? Very good, striking out 23.9% of batters, walking 6.8%, and giving up .83 HR/9, leading to scores of 1.8, -1.1, and -1.5, respectively. Their defense? Solid, at 17.4 runs above average, a score of 1.1. Their baserunning? Excellent, second-best in the league at 15.8 runs above average, for a score of 1.5. And their hitting? Bizarre, with a league-average ISO, but a very high walk rate (9.1% and a score of 1.7, tied with the Blue Jays for second in the league) and a verrry high strikeout rate (24.5% and a score of 2.4, highest in the league by a sizable margin and fifth-highest score of the last ten years). The 2015 Cubs were weird.

Other teams had one or two things they're weird at — the Blue Jays had an insane ISO of .188 for a score of 2.4, but were pretty neutral in every other category — while the Cubs had five or six. This is semi-historic levels of weirdness, even; in the last ten years, the Cubs are second on this scale. Here, briefly, are the four other teams that round out the top 5, from 2006-2015.

5. 2014 Rockies

The Rockies get a somewhat unfair advantage from their ballpark, but if the rough goal of this metric is to find teams that do lots of strange things and are therefore fun to watch, that's not really an unfair advantage at all. They pushed in the expected categories, for the most part, but to a remarkable degree. Despite a league-average K% and defense, their terrible baserunning (score of -1.3), hatred of walks (-1.5), altitude-aided power (2.3), and abominable pitching (K% score of -1.9, BB% score of 1.3, and HR/9 score of 2.1) pushed them into the top-5. Watching games at Coors must be a blast, as long as you don't actually want to see the Rockies win.

4. 2009 Giants

The Giants were not bad this year, with 88 wins and inhabiting the spot that would soon be filled by a second Wild Card. This feels like an appropriate team for this list, because not only were they weird, they were weird in a weird way. They basically never walked (score of -2.4) and hit for no power (-1.3), but did strike out slightly more often than average (0.7). Their pitching, though, led by Tim Lincecum in his second consecutive 7-win season, was especially strange, striking out lots of batters (1.9) and keeping the ball in the park (-1.3), but also walking lots (1.1). Randy Johnson was on this team! That doesn't count toward the weirdness score, which might be a mistake.

3. 2010 Diamondbacks

Starting pitchers for the 2010 Diamondbacks, a selection: Rodrigo Lopez, 200 IP with an ERA of 5.00; Dan Haren, not terrible but traded midseason; Edwin Jackson, also not terrible, also traded midseason; Joe Saunders, pretty terrible, came to the Diamondbacks midseason; and Dontrelle Willis for five starts. This team kind of puts the idea that extremity score = fun to bed, since they mostly make the list on the back of their insanely dinger-prone pitching staff, giving up 1.3 HR/9. I guess that could be fun? Probably not, though.

1. 2013 Astros

And finally, topping the list, another really, really bad team. By design, yes, but still: good lord. They were bad at literally everything. Baserunning score: -0.8. BB%: -1.0. K%: 2.9. ISO: -0.5. Defense: -1.6. Pitching K%: -1.8. Pitching BB%: 2.6. Pitching HR/9: 1.5. This is how a team loses 111 games. Again, I just can't imagine there was anything fun about watching this team, and the mere act of talking about them makes me kind of sad.

So, congratulations Cubs! You appear to have bucked the trend somewhat, by being both very, very weird and pretty good. Don't mess it up!

. . .

Henry Druschel is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.