It was the best of times…it was the worst of times
Two phrases that anyone who grew up as a Chicago sports fan could utter all in the same day. I live in the Chicagoland area, and the dynamic between the fans of our two Chicago baseball teams is…well…it’s interesting, depending on who you ask.
In my experience, the Cubs are pretty universally seen as the vastly superior franchise. They are the favorite son. How could you hate the Cubs? A franchise that was cursed and could never win it all. They regularly ran into the worst luck and always came so close to winning it all, only to break your heart in the most painful way. Who doesn’t like to root for the underdog? Of course, as we all know, the Cubs finally broke the curse in 2016 and won the World Series. But this has not changed their “underdog” status in the eyes of fans.
Anyone and everyone loves to make the trek to Wrigleyville on the north side of Chicago. It really doesn’t matter if the Cubs are winning or if they are in the basement of the division. You can spend the whole day taking in the sights, sounds, and history of it all. The environment vibes as so wholesome and fun, and the players seem to match. It is truly an experience every baseball fan should partake in.
The White Sox are a completely different type of team and have a very different fan base. Located on the south side of Chicago, the Sox sit in a more gritty and blue collar locale and offer a team with an attitude to match. The players on this club all seem to have an edge to them and so do the fans. Going to a game at Comiskey Park (or Guaranteed Rate, if you’d rather) just feels different than catching one at Wrigley. Fans genuinely seem to be impassioned about their team and take a real sense of pride in being a White Sox fan.
It’s difficult to explain if you didn’t grow up around here, but I once heard it explained in a way that made perfect sense to me. Cubs games and fandom are more about having fun at the game and being entertained by the team. It can feel like going to a frat party. White Sox games and fans are more about a culture of winning at all costs. Both can get rowdy and be a lot of fun, but for very different reasons.
As of today, both Chicago baseball teams sit atop their respective divisions and both look like good bets to hold on to that spot (or at least be shoe-ins for the playoffs) down the stretch.
Heading into this season it was pretty easy to take a look at both the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Cubs and be convinced that one team had an easier path to the playoffs for a variety of reasons. One team had a roster of All-Star caliber bats, starting pitchers with valuable MLB experience, and a more recent history of playoff success. That’s the Cubs, of course.
The Sox, on the other hand, have been a pretty abysmal franchise for the last decade. Poor player management and development, awful trades (James Shields for Fernando Tatis Jr. anyone?!), and a division that looked to be a two-horse race between Cleveland and Minnesota.
The narrative was all too easy to write, and I’m not sure anyone would have fought you on it during the lead up to spring training. Here we sit though, with 15 games left for the Cubs and 17 games for the Sox, and they are both atop their respective divisions. This is not what many would have predicted.
Granted, the season has introduced variables that are also completely unique. It is a whole lot easier for a team to benefit from a hot streak when you are only accounting for 60 games. So the question I have is, are these teams actually for real? Let’s take a look under the hood and see what we find.
Cubs 2020 Team Rankings (26-19)
White Sox 2020 Team Rankings (27-16)
First, let’s look at the Cubs. More specifically, let’s look at how they got to where they are in the standings.
The Cubs lineup has some names that elicit a certain level of respect and expectation. First baseman Anthony Rizzo, shortstop Javier Báez, and third baseman Kris Bryant headline an offense that led their franchise to a World Series win not that long ago. Considering their experience and relative youth, one would expect their offense to be clicking on all cylinders. As you can see from their league-wide offensive rankings, though, they’ve been anything but that. These guys have been floundering at the plate.
Just look at their triple slash lines this year compared to last year:
So their bats aren’t the carrying force for their success so far… Does that mean their pitching has been lights out? Not exactly. Yu Darvish has been lights out to the tune of 7 Wins and a 1.77 ERA, and Kyle Hendricks has been a decent second option with 5 wins and a 3.41 ERA. After them, the rotation looks like a mess. Starters have been all over the place with their performance, and more often than not the bullpen has been called on to mop things up before they usually would be expected to.
This begs the question, how are the Cubs leading their division? There are a lot of factors at play here. One of the main pieces to this puzzle is the overall quality of the division they play in. The Cardinals are the only other team over .500 in the NL Central, and that’s with them still needing to catch up on 6 games that were postponed for COVID reasons.
In the spring, the White Sox were a team that some pegged as a dark horse, but when push came to shove the AL Central still looked like it was a two-horse race between the Indians and the Twins. Look at them now in all their glory! Their offense sits in the top-10 in every category except for stolen bases. They have been going bonkers this year.
The White Sox went out this offseason and paid big money for Yasmani Grandal. He’s been good, but the real breakouts in the lineup have come from Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez. Both of these guys have 11 HR on the short season and both have provided a life and spark that was unheard of for the White Sox outfield last year. Lest we forget, they trotted out the worst offensive OF in the entire MLB.
Even more surprising than the success of their bats, their rotation has been solid from the front to the back. It’s easy to point out Lucas Giolito, but he is not the only player who deserves some credit on this staff. Dylan Cease, Dane Dunning, and Dallas Keuchel have all put up quality innings and with excellent ERAs. Most importantly they’ve kept the home run totals down compared to where it had been.
For the record, I am a White Sox fan through and through. However, I am not the type of fan that actively wishes for the demise of the Cubs. I like both of these teams. It is amazing to see both of these teams doing well and I would love to see a World Series between these two cross-town rivals. That would be amazing!
The question is, how likely is that?
The Cubs have been aided by a weak division, and specifically the underperforming Brewers and Reds clubs. They have squeaked out some really close games, and I wouldn’t say that’s all luck. There is a certain skill to being able to win a close game as opposed to always losing it. They just really need for their bats to figure things out. It’s like they all got the yips at the same time. The only reassurance I can give is that they have done it before, but in a year when everything has been placed in a pressure cooker, how much does that matter?
Heading into this shortened season, I had said that for the White Sox to succeed they would need to out-slug the other teams in their division to even stand a chance. I could definitely have foreseen their offense taking the step forward that they did, but not even in my wildest dreams would I have foreseen their pitching staff being this solid. It makes me wonder, in a year with as much craziness as we are experiencing, maybe the White Sox could actually win it all!
If I were a betting man (which I’m not), I would give the White Sox greater odds to make some noise in the playoffs than the Cubs. Either way, as a Chicago sports fan, it’s time to enjoy the ride and watch how things unfold, while hoping for a Chicago World Series.
(Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire)