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The Cubs are trying to buck history

As the Cubs continue to stay in the NL playoff race, how well have teams with so many young players performed in the past?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I'm a frequent listener to Chicago radio station WSCR 670 The Score, and about a week or so ago, the Boers and Bernstein Show wondered if any team with four rookie position players had ever made the playoffs. Since I love researching questions like this, and since I also write about the Cubs at a different site, I jumped right on it and checked it out. You can read my post, which reached this conclusion--not only has no team ever made the playoffs while using four rookie position players, it's hard enough for them to have a winning record.

I broadened my outlook to what the Cubs really are this year, a team full of young position players. In addition to their Core Four rookies of Kris Bryant (23), Jorge Soler (23), Addison Russell (21), and Kyle Schwarber (22), they have Anthony Rizzo (who turned 26 on August 8th) and Starlin Castro (25). In other words, their catcher, entire infield, and one outfielder are 25 or younger. Rizzo and Castro are in their fifth and six years in the majors, respectively, but even so, how successful have teams this young been?

Assuming you didn't read the other post, I define a significant contribution as 300 plate appearances. There is a very real chance Schwarber won't meet this threshold (he should, but that's an entirely different post), but even without him, this leaves five others who will. As such, that was my threshold--five or more players 25 and younger. This table shows the results with explanation to follow:

Years Team Yrs 5+ 25 Tms Slots Teams Expanded Teams
1903-1968 1086 65 130 5 260 14
1969-2011 1140 86 336 7 420 18
2012-2014 120 4 30 0 30 0

Does not include 1904 or 1994, years in which no World Series was played. Age used is age as of June 30th of a given year.

The break in years indicates the introduction of the playoffs after the 1969 season. From 1903 to 1968, a total of almost 1,100 team-seasons were played, and 65 teams had five or more position players with 300+ PA, of which five made the playoffs out of 130 playoff slots. The Expanded column is my attempt to reflect the expanded playoffs of today--from 1903-1968, if the format of two teams per league making the playoffs were used (i.e., the format from 1969-1993), a total of 14 teams would have made the playoffs. From 1969-2015, if today's format of five teams per league were used, a total of 18 teams with key contributions from five or more players 25 and under would have made the playoffs.

There are two concurrent trends--the first is that few teams are constructed with a significant number of their key position players under 25. The second is that teams like this don't necessarily have to be a sign of an expansion team or an otherwise bad team, since around 20 percent of these teams could have made an expanded playoff format.

This table shows all teams since 2000 that meet this criteria:

Team Year Num W L PO POp
Cubs 2015 5 58 48
Astros 2014 6 70 92
Rockies 2014 5 66 96
Mariners 2012 5 75 87
Padres 2012 5 76 86
Indians 2010 5 69 93
Pirates 2010 5 57 105
Diamondbacks 2009 5 70 92
Twins 2008 5 88 75
Braves 2007 5 84 78
Brewers 2007 5 83 79
Indians 2003 5 68 94
Twins 2001 5 85 77 1
Athletics 2000 5 91 70 1 1
Expos 2000 5 67 95
Marlins 2000 5 79 82

Just one playoff team on this list, and even then it was 15 years ago. The 2001 Twins would have gained the second wild card slot in 2001, so even though it's possible, it hasn't occurred often in recent history. This Google Doc sheet shows all the underlying data and has two tabs--the first (Teams) shows all the teams since 1903 with at least five players who meet the criteria, and the second (Players) shows who these players were. There are some intriguing trends (for example, this seemed to be far more prevalent in the 1970s), but suffice it to say teams constructed like this are both rare and not often in playoff contention.

So what makes this year's Cubs so different? Part of it is the approach Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took to bringing back the team from the dead. They consciously decided not to go after big-name free agents, preferring instead to develop from within and trust their own instincts. They took the long view, often stating their goal was to be competitive by 2016, and that no matter what they weren't going to rush things.

Several things happened last year that appeared to accelerate the schedule. Their wealth of talent in the minor leagues all seemed to develop at the same time, Joe Maddon fell into their laps during the offseason, and the acquisition of Jon Lester in free agency signaled at least an understanding that their fortunes might be turning a bit faster than anticipated.

Circumstances (in theory) dictated bringing up Kris Bryant in early April, and despite his recent slump (batting only .190 since July 1st), he's been everything Cubs fans expected. The Cubs began the year trying to use Arismendy Alcantara in a Ben Zobrist-type of role, but his hitting wasn't enough to keep him up. Injuries to middle infielders necessitated the call-up of Addison Russell, who's fielding has been nothing less than stellar (take your pick, either BP Fielding Runs Above Average or FanGraphs UZR/150).

The Cubs aren't taking advantage of a weak division, since a solid argument can be made the Cardinals and Pirates are the best teams in the NL, if not all of baseball. It's been a rocky road--here's their record by month through Sunday, August 9th:

Month W L hW hL rW rL
April 12 8 7 6 5 2
May 14 14 7 6 7 8
June 14 13 8 10 6 3
July 15 12 9 7 6 5
August 6 1 5 0 1 1
Total 62 48 37 29 25 19

At the other site I write for, you'll find a post discussing the odd home/road splits the Cubs have this year, but generally speaking the Cubs aren't playing like a team filled with young players. It remains to be seen how they'll handle the pressure as September nears. Baseball Prospectus projects them with a 78 percent chance of making the playoffs (through Saturday), much higher than the Giants and Nationals, their primary competition for the last playoff spot.

It's not impossible for young teams to make the playoffs, just extremely rare. The Cubs are probably ahead of schedule and built to contend for years to come. In many ways, while making the coin-flip game (likely as the visiting team, no less) would be nice, the world won't end if these young Cubs falter down the stretch. They'll have plenty of time (and plenty of help that hasn't even been mentioned, like Javier Baez, Billy McKinney, and Albert Almora) to make up for it.

Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.