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Read too many blogs explaining the art of disavowing backlinks based on the referring site’s link metrics and now just ready to pull out your hair? Before you do you may benefit from getting back to the important stuff…the basics:
In addition to being one of the great sports stories of the 21st century — breaking a 108-year championship drought in extra innings of World Series Game 7 — the 2016 Chicago Cubs were legitimately one of the best baseball teams of all time. With a championship core of young talent that included Kris Bryant (age 24),1 Anthony Rizzo (26), Kyle Hendricks (26), Addison Russell (22), Javier Baez (23), Kyle Schwarber (23), Willson Contreras (24) and Jason Heyward (26), Chicago seemed poised to follow up that magical run by becoming a dynasty in the coming seasons.
That’s not quite how things have played out. The 2017 Cubs stumbled out of the gate and never quite clicked, eventually losing to the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. The 2018 version squandered the five-game division lead they held over the Brewers on Sept. 1, lost the division tiebreaker in Game 163 of the regular season and then promptly lost the wild-card game against Colorado. And the Cubs’ grip on the Central figures to loosen even further this season. According to a preliminary version of our 2019 MLB Projections, we give Chicago only the third-best projected record (84 wins) in the division, with a mere 24 percent chance of winning it.
|Avg. Simulated Season||Chance to…|
|Team||Elo Rating||Wins||Losses||Run Diff.||Make Playoffs||Win Division||Win World Series|
How is it possible that the Cubs went from dynasty in the making in 2016 to a team struggling to stay atop its own division in less than three years? The answer lies in part with the team’s declining core and team president Theo Epstein’s inability to supplement it with effective reinforcements from the outside — particularly when it comes to pitching.
Few teams have ever undergone an overhaul as extreme as the Cubs did in the four years leading up to their championship season. Chicago improved from 16.6 wins above replacement2 during their dreadful 61-win 2012 to 56.8 WAR in 2016, with essentially all of those gains coming via newly acquired talent (rather than improvements from existing holdovers). As part of that process, Epstein made a number of shrewd trades, drafted several key contributors and increased Chicago’s payroll by 169 percent relative to the MLB average.
It all came together as a textbook example of tearing down and rebuilding a franchise. The 2016 Cubs had baseball’s third-most-valuable pitchers by WAR (including the No. 1 starting rotation) and the best defense by a country mile, on top of an offense that tied for the NL lead in adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage. The pitching side was expensive and creaky — one of the oldest ever to win a World Series, in fact — but Epstein and the Cubs seemed to be winning the battle of ideas about where to invest in order to build a ballclub with perennial championship aspirations.
Since 2016, though, the formula has broken down. The team’s net WAR on arrivals and departures — in which Chicago topped baseball from 2012 to 2016 — has dropped to eighth-worst in MLB. The Cubs haven’t added very many new faces, and what few acquisitions the team has made have largely flopped, particularly on the mound. Starters Tyler Chatwood, Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish all badly underperformed their established performance levels as members of the Cubs, for instance. As a result, Chicago has mainly had to rely on its existing core to keep the team in contention.
This makes some sense, to a certain extent. The natural maturation process of a championship team is to add talent in the lead-up to contention, then shift toward maintaining it once the roster finally reaches the top of the heap. But that hasn’t really happened, either. Not only have the new players underperformed, the team’s nexus of homegrown talent has, too. The Cubs’ holdovers are a net -14.8 WAR since 2016, which ranks fourth-worst in MLB. The multiyear plan to build a great core and then set it loose doesn’t work when that core regresses.
|Net WAR from…|
|Season||Previous WAR||+||Arrivals||–||Departures||+||Holdovers||=||Season WAR|
The 2018 Cubs shared some of the strengths of the 2016 club — both had top-5 defenses by WAR — but Chicago slipped to 14th in WAR from its starting rotation and was basically average offensively according to adjusted OPS. An injury to Bryant cost him 60 games, while Rizzo’s performance declined for reasons mostly unknown.
Bryzzo wasn’t alone in its combined downturn. Sixteen players appeared on the 2016, 2017 and 2018 Cubs. Some of them — such as Contreras, Baez and Schwarber — have flourished in expanded roles since 2016. But in more cases than not, this core group has produced less despite being asked to carry more of the load over time:3
|Carl Edwards Jr.||P||1.1||2.4||1.8||0.4||1.2||1.2|
|Tommy La Stella||IF||1.7||1.5||1.8||0.6||0.5||0.1|
It also bears mentioning that Epstein and the Cubs have been hamstrung in how much outside talent they can add by a massive payroll bill, which has affected the team’s depth all across the diamond. In terms of marginal payroll per WAR, Chicago went from being the second-most cost-effective playoff team of 2016 to the least cost-effective playoff team of 2018.
Trade pickup Cole Hamels was one of the few pitchers who didn’t underwhelm in Chicago (he was very good upon joining the Cubs at last year’s deadline). And in the field, rookie David Bote was a pleasant surprise last season. Both will be back for 2019, along with practically all the rest of the aforementioned core.4 The Cubs were briefly rumored to be in on the Bryce Harper derby, but for now Chicago’s biggest offseason acquisition is utilityman Daniel Descalso. And the lack of upgrades is part of the problem heading into 2019.
Although FanGraphs projects the Cubs to have a top-5 lineup, the site sees the pitching staff dropping outside MLB’s top 10 — and with an 88-win prediction for the Cubs, FanGraphs is one of the forecasters most bullish on Chicago’s chances. If the Brewers caught the Cubs on talent last season, the Cardinals might have passed them both by now. Meanwhile, manager Joe Maddon is in the final year of his contract, with no extension in place going forward. From team leadership to the core of the roster, many of the factors that played a key role in Chicago’s rise now look shockingly uncertain three years later.
The good news for Chicago, though, is that the potential still exists for an exciting summer at Wrigley Field. Even if 2016 was an outlier, a team as talented as the 2017 and 2018 Cubs — which was, after all, good enough for an average of 93.5 wins per season — remains a contender. It might not be the kind of dynasty that either Epstein or fans on the North Side had in mind when they were celebrating their curse-breaking World Series victory. But hey, at least it’s far better than all the bad Cub teams of the 1980s and ’90s that many of us grew up watching on WGN.
Jay Boice contributed research.
President Trump has declared a national emergency to obtain funding to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, after lawmakers did not approve the $5.7 billion he’d requested. And in doing so, he has sparked a debate on whether the executive branch can — or should — use its power to unilaterally achieve a policy goal. The president does have an enormous amount of latitude to declare national emergencies, but Trump’s use of the power in this way is unusual and could have far-reaching consequences.
“A Democratic president can declare emergencies as well,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned Republicans on Thursday. “So the precedent that the president is setting here is something that should be met with great unease and dismay by the Republicans.”
The action raises problems of both principle and precedent for some right-leaning and libertarian legal specialists. But others argue that Trump’s action is probably legal or say they’re not especially worried about potential consequences down the line.
First of all, some legal experts see a fundamental problem with Republicans’ endorsement of a potentially dramatic expansion of executive power. There is a potential case to be made that Trump’s action, regardless of what it means for the future, violates basic principles of limited-government conservatism, which is generally opposed to executive overreach and supportive of a strong separation of powers. “I think it’s problematic in general, regardless of the legality, for the president to stretch his authority under these broad statutory delegations in ways that haven’t been done before,” said David Bernstein, a professor of law at George Mason University. “It gives the president more power to act unilaterally, and that’s not the way our system is supposed to work.”
Bernstein added that he blames former President Barack Obama for beginning this trend. First in 2012 and then again in 2014, Obama issued sweeping executive orders that protected young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children. But he said Republicans shouldn’t allow this kind of executive overreach to continue, particularly for an expensive project like the wall. “It’s not just that overly broad executive power is being endorsed here — it’s being endorsed for a quintessential big-government boondoggle,” he said.
The question of property rights is another potentially sticky issue for conservatives, because Trump will likely need to use eminent domain — the government’s power to take private property and put it to public use — to seize much of the land he needs for the wall, according to Ilya Somin, who is a law professor at George Mason and identifies as a libertarian. Conservatives and libertarians both tend to be critical of eminent domain in general, and members of his own party have criticized Trump in the past for his history of support for the tactic and his attempt to use it in a real estate project. “Building this wall will require the seizure of a large amount of private property without congressional authorization,” Somin said. “To the extent that Republicans support Trump on this, they deserve censure for that.”
Others, however, pointed out that Trump isn’t drawing on powers that don’t exist — he’s acting within the broad authority that was given to the president by Congress. “This is not the president making stuff up,” said Josh Blackman, a professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston. But Blackman said that just because Trump’s action may be legal, that doesn’t mean Congress has to go along with it — and he thinks they shouldn’t. “The president asked for the authority to build this wall, Congress said no, and now he’s trying to go around Congress,” he said. “Do I think that’s a good idea? No. But I think the president probably has the authority to do this.”
John Malcolm, a senior legal fellow at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, said he’s “not overly concerned” about future Democratic presidents declaring a national emergency to achieve their own policy goals because the declaration would need to be grounded in a statute and he doesn’t think there is an obvious candidate to use for something like climate change. “The president doesn’t get to declare a national emergency about anything,” he said. “I think creative presidents might try to do various things along these lines in the future, but they won’t necessarily be successful.”
He added that he’s inclined to trust Trump when he says there’s an emergency that justifies immediate action. “I think there’s no doubt that the threats the president is describing along our southern border are real,” he said. “The real shame is that Congress hasn’t worked with him to come up with a more workable solution that responds to those threats. It seems to me that they’re not doing that because they just don’t like this president.”
But Somin and Bernstein both said they thought Trump was setting a dangerous precedent — future Democratic presidents might want to declare a national emergency of their own over something like gun violence or climate change. “This is how slippery slopes work,” Bernstein said. “One president breaches the norm, then another president breaches it more, and it just keeps going.”
Trump’s declaration of a national emergency is now headed for what will almost certainly be a lengthy court battle. The more immediate question is how Republican politicians will respond. Congress has the power to terminate a president’s emergency declaration through a joint resolution of disapproval, but the resolution would need to pass with veto-proof majorities in both chambers to be successful.
Some Senate Republicans have already voiced concerns similar to Pelosi’s. Sen. Marco Rubio said that “today’s national emergency is border security” but also said that a future Democratic president “may use this exact same tactic to impose the Green New Deal,” a policy framework recently proposed by Democrats that calls for large public investments to combat climate change. But other Republicans — including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — have changed their public positions; after originally opposing a national emergency declaration, they are now lining up behind the president. In the coming days and weeks, they’ll have a tough choice: whether to back the president or rebuke him.
From ABC News:
Players in the NHL are scoring at a prodigious pace. Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov is on pace to score 125 points, which would be tied for the highest point tally of the new millennium. If they keep up their current clip, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid would score 122 points, Chicago’s Patrick Kane 119 points and Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen 117 points. All of these point totals would smash each player’s previous career high. This makes sense given the climate of the NHL this season — it’s the highest-scoring season since the one that took place immediately after the lockout of 2004-05. There are currently 40 players scoring at least a point per game.1 If the season ended today, it would be the highest number since 1995-96, when 42 finished the season with a point per game or better. This is excellent news for a league that’s constantly tinkering with its rulebook to increase scoring.
For the first time in more than a decade, the average goals scored per NHL game has surpassed 6. But unlike previous spikes in scoring, there weren’t any sweeping changes made to the rulebook before the season,2 so what exactly is going on?
An obvious stat to look at is the average number of power-play opportunities teams are getting each game. More man advantages, it would seem, might lead to more quality scoring opportunities. But power-play opportunities per game have actually decreased steadily since the lockout of 2004-05 and are static when compared with last season, when the average goals scored per game was below 6.
Shooters do appear to be taking better shots in five-on-five scenarios. The average for the league in expected goals per 60 minutes per team3 is 2.38, according to data from Corsica Hockey — up from 2.19 in 2015-16. And shooters are actually performing better than the expected goals model suggests they should be: The league average goals per 60 minutes per team is 2.49. A 10th of a goal may not seem like a lot, but it translates to about 254 more goals scored per season. Shots against per game have remained fairly stable since the lockout of 2004-05, which makes it somewhat difficult to explain the sudden glut.
It could be that the ongoing analytics boom in hockey has affected a change in the old “get the puck to the net however possible” evangelism that once was pre-eminent. It’s true that the puck won’t go into the net unless it’s guided toward the net, but not all shots are created equal: An unimpeded shot from between the dots has a much better chance of hitting the twine than a shot taken from the blue line and directed toward a bunch of traffic in front of the net, for example. If expected goals are any indication, players are taking smarter shots — not more shots — than they did in the past, and that’s leading to more goals.
We might expect that slumping goaltending could also provide part of the answer. The average save percentage (.908) across the NHL is the lowest it’s been in a decade. But if we isolate goaltenders who were roughly in their prime (between the ages 25 and 31) in both 2015-16 and 2018-19 — presumably a group whose inherent skills haven’t changed very much even as the NHL’s goals-per-game average has — their average save percentage has dipped by an astounding 12 points over that span.
By comparison, the overall league average in save percentage is down by only 7 points, which indicates that goaltenders who were not in the goalie population in 2015-16 are having a better time adjusting to the league than goalies who were already around — even ones still in their primes. It’s fair to conclude, then, that goaltending has gotten demonstrably more difficult in a short period of time, and veteran goalies appear to have had a hard time adapting to shooters who have figured out how to take smarter and more dangerous shots.
This is all in sharp contrast to the amount of scoring that occurred in the past decade-plus. In the past, changes to the NHL rulebook have had a bubble effect: Scoring increases immediately but regresses within a season or two. That was certainly the case in 2005-06, which was defined by a spate of rule changes and a cadre of whistle-happy referees. That season, the size of goaltender equipment was reduced; the two-line offsides rule was abolished; the neutral zone was reduced by 4 feet, expanding the space each team had to mount an offensive zone attack; and goaltenders were no longer allowed to play the puck anywhere they wanted behind the goal line, instead restricted to a trapezoid behind their own net. Power-play opportunities skyrocketed to 5.85 per team per game, up by 1.61 from 2003-04.
This all meant that scoring jumped from 5.14 goals per game in 2003-04 to 6.16 goals per game in 2005-06. The boost was short-lived, however. Scoring dipped beneath 6 goals per game the following season, and as the decade post-lockout progressed, scoring continued to suffer. Power-play opportunities declined drastically, goaltenders got better, and the average goals scored per game stayed below 6 for a dozen seasons. Until this season.
Whether the scoring uptick can be attributed to a culmination of rule changes, smarter shot selection, worse goaltending or evolved tactics — or some combination of all of that — one thing is certain: The NHL is a scorer’s league again, and the 2018-19 iteration is the most entertaining in nearly three decades.