Over the last couple of seasons, the Chicago Cubs have earned a reputation for always trotting out a very reliable bullpen. From 2016 through the end of the 2017 season, the Cubs’ bullpen owned the sixth best bullpen ERA (3.69) in the majors. To back that up, that group also sported the tenth best FIP, third best K/9 and sixth best left-on-base percentage in 1,029.2 innings spanning those two seasons.
Obviously, the success of the Cubs’ bullpen has been supplemented by trades and signings that shaped the group into one ready to compete at an extremely high level. At the 2016 trade deadline, the Cubs shipped a bundle of prospects, headlined by Gleyber Torres, to the New York Yankees for the best available bullpen arm that summer, Aroldis Chapman. In 28 games for the Cubs to finish that season, Chapman lived up to the billing, posting a 1.01 ERA in 26.2 innings and playing a key role in the Cubs’ World Series run.
To begin the 2017 season, the Cubs inked left-hander Brian Duensing to a one-year, $2 million deal more as a flyer on a pitcher who had posted back-to-back seasons with an ERA north of four. Despite his struggles, Duensing pitched very well for the Cubs, posting a 2.74 ERA and appearing in the third most games (68) out of the Cubs’ bullpen.
To further add to their bullpen for the 2017 season, the Cubs swung a December trade, sending Jorge Soler to Kansas City for closer Wade Davis. Davis, who was coming off back-to-back All-Star Game selections, posted a 2.30 ERA in 58.2 innings while saving 32 out of 33 games for the Cubs and becoming their lone All-Star representative that season.
Cubs’ Bullpen Loaded with Talent in 2018
Prior to kicking off the 2018 season in Miami, the Cubs spent some time in crafting their bullpen. With Davis pitching in Colorado, the Cubs knew they needed a new closer. Brandon Morrow, who posted a 2.06 ERA across 43.2 innings for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017, seemed to fit that bill quite nicely despite having saved only 18 games in his career prior to the 2018 season.
In addition to Morrow, the Cubs brought in side-arming Steve Cishek on a two-year deal. Cishek logged a 2.01 ERA in 44.2 innings between two teams during the 2017 season, a year after posting a 2.81 mark in 64 innings for the Seattle Mariners.
To cap things off, the Cubs brought Duensing back on a two-year, team friendly contract, rewarding him for his stellar performance the year prior.
Breaking camp with that group, plus the ridiculous amount of talent elsewhere on the roster, the Cubs must have felt pretty good about their chances in make it back to October.
Injuries Threaten Cubs’ Bullpen
Through the first month-plus of the season, it seemed the Cubs would continue their dominant bullpen ways. Across 95 innings through the end of April, Cubs’ relievers pitched to a 2.56 ERA (fourth best in the majors). To go along with that, their bullpen posted the seventh lowest BABIP (.276) and fourth best left-on-base percentage (79.3 percent) in the league.
Despite that solid start, the Cubs were quickly forced to deal with injuries that threatened to derail their season. On April 20, just weeks into the season, Butler was placed on the disabled list with a groin strain that would keep him out until after the All-Star break. In addition to that, the Cubs placed their set-up man, Carl Edwards Jr., on the shelf in late May with right shoulder inflammation as closer Brandon Morrow joined him on the DL less than a month later with back tightness.
At the same time this was happening, Yu Darvish also went down with injuries of his own. On May 5, the right-hander was placed on the DL with the flu, just three weeks ahead of his placement back on the disabled list with right triceps tendinitis that has caused him to miss 60 games and counting.
With their top back-end of the bullpen guys on the mend, plus Mike Montgomery filling in for Darvish in the rotation, the Cubs were forced to rely on a slew of Triple-A relievers to eat innings. In total, the Cubs have called upon nine different relievers who started the season in the minors to pitch at the major league level.
While some sample sizes are bigger than others, for example, Randy Rosario‘s 32 innings and Luke Farrell‘s 25.1 innings versus Dillon Maples‘ 3.1 or Alec Mills‘ two innings of work, the entire sample size has been great.
Those nine relievers have combined to pitch 109.1 innings this season, yielding 34 earned runs. That equates to a 2.80 ERA, a number that would be welcome in any bullpen, let alone one decimated by injuries.
Bullpen Begins to Fade
Into the month of May, the Cubs’ bullpen continued to be a strength of the club. That month, Cubs’ relievers posted the third best ERA (2.79) in the majors while at the same time logging the fifth best ground ball rate (46.2 percent) and ninth best left-on-base percentage (79.6 percent).
Leading the way for the ‘pen that month were some more regular relievers as the injuries had yet to fully take hold. Justin Wilson posted a 0.71 ERA in 12.2 innings while averaging 9.24 K/9 and yielding just six hits. To go along with that, Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop also recorded ERA’s south of one while Rosario, Rob Zastryzny and Cory Mazzoni pitched a combined nine innings of scoreless baseball.
While the bullpen held up for much of May, the same can not be said for the month of June. Across 101 innings, the Cubs’ bullpen posted the 17th best ERA in the majors at 4.01 while at the same time logging the fourth highest BB/9 rate (4.72) in the majors.
Much of that lackluster performance, contrary to popular belief, did not come from the crop of Triple-A relievers gracing the bullpen, but rather from the more regular, reliable bullpen arms.
Duensing, who had been solid up until June, posted a 17.28 ERA, allowing 16 earned runs, nine walks and two home runs in 8.1 innings. Coupled with that, Strop recorded a 5.06 ERA across 10.2 innings, allowing seven his and six earned runs.
While the fill-in Triple-A guys pitched well in June, Theo Epstein and the Cubs’ front office realized relievers with little big experience would not hold up in high pressure situations late in the regular season and into the postseason. Instead, it would take one or two more veteran relievers to upgrade the Cubs’ bullpen and make it ready for postseason baseball.
New Additions Add to Solid Bullpen
As July rolled around, the Cubs’ bullpen got it’s health back. Edwards came off the DL on July 6 and Duensing, who was placed briefly on the disabled list, was activated on the 13th. Still, Duensing’s time on the shelf did little to help the left-hander get back on track. In six outings since his return, the southpaw has posted an 8.44 ERA and yielded two home runs and five walks over 5.1 innings.
Despite that, the Cubs’ bullpen posted the eighth best ERA in the majors for the month of July at 3.46 behind the once again solid play of Strop, Rosario, Edwards and Cishek.
That solid play, however, has come at a price as Cishek, Strop and Wilson have all appeared in at least 44 games this season. Cishek, who leads that trio with 52 appearances, has already racked up 49.1 innings this season. That puts him on pace to eclipse his previous career-high in innings, 69.2, set back in 2013.
For that reason and the fact the Cubs’ bullpen has eaten the eighth most innings (395.2) in the majors this season largely without Montgomery, the Cubs felt it was necessary to make a trade.
On July 20, the Cubs dealt a minor league pitcher to the Texas Rangers for right-handed swing-man Jesse Chavez. The 34-year-old had pitched for many different teams before joining the Cubs to shore up the void left by Montgomery. In his time with those different organizations, Chavez has racked up over 300 big league appearances with 70 of those being starts.
With a starting rotation that has struggled to find consistency this season, perhaps we could see Chavez make a spot start or two as Montgomery nears a career-high in innings pitched. If it came to that, Chavez has proven capable of handling that role. Across 398 innings as a starter, the veteran owns a 4.45 ERA while averaging more than 2.50 strikeouts per walk. In addition, opposing batters are sporting a .753 OPS off Chavez when he starts games while hitting a solid .266.
While the numbers do not blow anyone away, Chavez’s ability to start in a pinch provides the Cubs with much-needed depth.
On the reliever side of things, Chavez has been almost the same pitcher. In 410 innings out of the bullpen, the right-hander is sporting a 4.65 career ERA with better than 2.80 strikeouts per walk. To go along with that, hitters are managing a .771 OPS and .268 batting average off the reliever version of Chavez thus far in his career.
Despite what equate to less-than-savory numbers, Chavez has been a better pitcher this year than his career numbers suggest. Entering 2018, Chavez had not posted a walk rate lower than 6.4 percent while averaging a strikeout rate somewhere around 20 percent. This season, his walk rate has dipped under five percent while his strikeout rate is the second highest of his career at 22.6 percent. To go along with that, Chavez’s batting average against (.246), WHIP (1.15), BABIP (.286) and left-on-base percentage (85.3 percent) are all better this season than his career numbers might suggest. In fact, if those numbers hold, Chavez’s WHIP and left-on-base percentage would be the best of his career.
It’s safe to say the Cubs received a pitcher that is enjoying a career year. So far, Chavez’s numbers in a Cub uniform have backed up that statement. The right-hander has appeared in six games for the Cubs this season, living up to his billing by eating more than one inning in two of those outings. Across nine total innings for the North Sider’s, Chavez has yet to yield a run while allowing just four hits and one walk. At the same time, the right-hander has struck out 10 batters, posting a 0.556 WHIP.
While it remains unclear if Chavez will take a roster spot in the postseason, especially with the Cubs most recent addition, the right-hander will no doubt play a huge role in keeping a bullpen that has been largely overworked fresh for October baseball.
In a more traditional trade deadline move (time-wise), the Cubs swung a deal with the Washington Nationals on Tuesday to send right-hander Brandon Kintzler to Chicago. This deal, like the Chavez one, only cost a minor league pitcher, a small price to pay for a reliever of Kintzler’s caliber.
Kintzler, like Chavez, is a veteran pitcher, having been in the league since 2010. Unlike Chavez, Kintzler has zero starts under his belt, instead racking up 48 career saves, the bulk of which came in 2017 with the Minnesota Twins.
In his career that has spanned nine seasons, the 34-year-old has earned the reputation of not being a strikeout pitcher. For his career, the right-hander owns a 16.7 percent strikeout rate, a number that sits at 17.7 percent this season. To back that up, Kintzler has also been able to keep his walk totals low. In 2016 and 2017, the veteran owned walk rates of 3.6 and 5.6 percent respectively before kicking that number up to 7.4 percent this season. Still, Kintzler’s BB/9 rate for this seasons sits close to his career average while his K/9 is solidly better than his career number.
As stated above, Kintzler is not a strikeout pitcher, instead relying mostly on soft contact to make a living. In his lone All-Star season of 2017, the right-hander posted a soft contact rate of 19.1 percent while at the same time getting 54.9 percent of balls in play on the ground. Those two numbers are a great combination and something Kintzler has carried over into this season.
While slightly lower than his 2017 mark, Kintzler has posted a 48 percent ground ball rate while his line-drive and fly ball rates have increased very little. Despite a near seven percent reduction in ground balls, the right-hander has increased his soft contact percentage to 25.8 percent, more than five percent better than his career average of 20.7 percent.
Overall, Kintzler is having a down season compared to the last two campaigns. Still, the veteran has been more than serviceable toward the back-end of the Nationals’ bullpen. In 45 appearances, Kintzler has racked up 42.2 innings, posting a 3.59 ERA while striking out 13 batters. Perhaps the most important statistic is the two home runs allowed by the right-hander this season, a good sign for a pitcher that will be working in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
The Cubs Have a Scary Good Bullpen Moving Forward
With these two trades, the Cubs have shored up their bullpen moving forward. Currently, the Cubs have Strop, Edwards, Cishek and Kintzler patrolling the back-end of the bullpen. That does not even include Morrow who has missed 12 games since going on the DL on July 18 with inflammation in his right shoulder.
Morrow’s injury history, Montgomery’s need in the starting rotation and the ineffectiveness of Duensing prompted the Cubs to make these two moves to fortify their bullpen. With Tyler Chatwood now relegated to the bullpen and the addition of Chavez, the Cubs once again have two long-men in their bullpen.
When and if Darvish comes back this season, some tough decisions will have to be made about who gets shipped off the roster. Montgomery would no doubt go back into the bullpen with either Duensing or Rosario being optioned or designated for assignment.
Nevertheless, the Cubs have taken a potential area of weakness moving forward and turned it into yet another testament of their depth. Now, all that’s left to do for the Cubs’ bullpen is for those relievers to pitch as well as their track records suggest they can. If that happens, the Cubs will not have a problem going deep into October once again.
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