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"Hey Ben and Sam,

How many runs would the Cubs have to spot their opponents to be a .500 team going forward? Meaning instead of 0-0, the score starts at opposition x – 0 cubs. My guess is 1. These always matter more than we think, otherwise I'd say 2 or 3."

We answered this question on the podcast today—we said two runs—but we did it on the fly. I wanted to test it.

First, this question isn't interesting unless we assume the Cubs are some like historically good team, so we'll invite your backlash and set that as a premise. Maybe the Cubs are really a 96-win team, but then who cares about this question? So, we're going to say that the Cubs are as good as the 2001 Mariners, who won 116 games with a run differential of 109. (Nate Silver tweeted this weekend that his new projections put the Cubs at 107 wins. PECOTA's sims had them at 99 wins entering today.) Let's say that the Cubs, these Cubs, are going to score 950 runs and allow 650; that would give them a Pythag record of 109-53, which, incidentally, is basically what the Mariners did: They scored 927 and allowed 627. So, simply speaking, we've got a +300 run differential over 162 games, or, roughly, two runs per game.

But of course not all runs are of equal importance. More games are decided by one run than any other margin, and in those games two runs tilts the outcome entirely. If a team were to give away two runs in every game, those two runs would be far more impactful than if, say, the team gave up an extra 40 runs every 20th game.

Alright, then. I took the 2001 Mariners. I added two runs to their opponents' score. If the game went into extra innings, I ignored the final score and gave the Mariners an automatic loss. If the game, with the two-run bequeathment, now ends up in a tie, I give the Mariners .56 wins, because that's the winning percentage of World Series winners in extra-inning games since 2000. Otherwise, it's simple: Whoever has the most adjusted runs wins.

The outcome: The 2001 Mariners, spotting their opponents two runs, would have gone 74-75 in games ending after nine innings, and 7-6 in extra innings. Or: 81-81.

Maybe this oversimplifies things, by ignoring all the strategic decisions that are affected by score. Maybe a winning team would find ways to win even more. But at a basic level, we can say that the Mariners could have started every game they played down 2-0 and still had a .500 record. And maybe, maybe, the 2016 Cubs could, too. Probably not, but maybe. If you retroactively add two runs to their opponents' tally this year, the Cubs would still be 20-12. Which is amazing. Which is the point.

Thank you for reading

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bryanherr
5/12
This is a fun exercise.