There are no two ways about it, the 2018 season did not go the Chicago Cubs’ way. A successful regular season boiled down to the final two games of the year, a Game 163 to decide the National League Central division and the Wild Card Game in which the Cubs lost 2-1 at the hands of the Colorado Rockies.
That loss — a 13-inning thriller that saw the Cubs leave 10 men on base and record just one hit with runners in scoring position — sent Chicago to an early off-season, one in which they will need to answer many questions. Most of them center around their offense, a group that collapsed down the stretch, leaving fans to wonder not about if the Cubs would sign either Manny Machado or Bryce Harper but rather which one would be wearing pinstripes in 2019.
While the question marks surrounding a young offensive group run deeper than that, the Cubs do face challenges elsewhere within their club. A potential 2019 rotation of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish, Jose Quintana and Cole Hamels looms while a bullpen weakened by injuries for much of 2018 will look to continue their success into the 2019 campaign.
Despite an offensive break-down that cost them their season, the Cubs’ relievers did enough to keep their club in the mix. Through injuries and hardships, Chicago’s group of relievers posted the second best ERA in the majors (3.35) while at the same time recording the seventh best left-on-base percentage (76.4 percent) and ground ball rate (45.3 percent).
A key cog in that machine was Justin Wilson. In his first full season with the Cubs after being acquired in a trade with the Detroit Tigers during the summer of 2017, Wilson finally flashed the potential that propelled Theo Epstein and company to ship prospects to Detroit for the southpaw. While last season did not pan out for Wilson in a Cubs uniform (5.09 ERA in 17.2 innings), 2018 proved to be a much better return on investment.
For much of his career, Wilson has proven to be a reliable option out of the bullpen, no matter what team he played for. Following his horrible tenure with the Cubs in 2017, as outlined above, Wilson once again returned to his former picture of consistency.
Across 54.2 innings, the southpaw posted a strong 3.46 ERA, backing that number up with a 3.64 FIP. Additionally, Wilson recorded better than career average numbers in strikeout rate (29.2 percent) and left-on-base percentage (78.9 percent) while at the same time struggling with the free pass (14 percent walk rate) and long ball (0.82 HR/9).
While a rough final month-plus of the season –7.50 ERA in six innings from September 1 through Game 163 — did nothing to help Wilson’s overall numbers, the southpaw excelled in some very important areas.
First off, Wilson did his job as a left-handed pitcher, getting left-handed batters out. In 22.1 innings against southpaw batters, Wilson held them to a .188/.301/.342 slash line, while also limiting them to a .283 wOBA. Against left-handed batters, the 31-year-old notched up his strikeout rate, posting a 34.4 percent mark versus the 25.9 percent mark when facing right-handed hitters.
Despite posting the same lofty walk rate of 14 percent against both left- and right-handed batters, Wilson actually allowed home runs to left-handed batters more than twice as often, racking up a HR/9 rate of 1.21 versus southpaws, opposed to the 0.56 mark against righties.
Perhaps the most important facet to Wilson’s game in 2018 was his work in high-leverage situations. Of his 54.2 total innings during the 2018 season, 10.1 of those were classified as high-leverage by fangraphs.com.
The 50 batters Wilson faced in that situations logged a batting average just south of .200 while at the same time posting an on-base percentage of .340 and a slugging percentage well under .400. To go along with that, Wilson struck out 28 percent of those batters, working a BABIP of .269 and a FIP of 4.32. Even with those solid numbers, Wilson’s pitfalls continued to plague him, especially in high-leverage moments. His walk rate was at its highest in high-leverage situations, clocking in at an unacceptable 18 percent, a number that led to a lofty 1.65 WHIP.
For perspective, in low-leverage moments, Wilson threw a ball outside of the strike zone 34.6 percent of the time, a number that decreased to 32.9 percent in medium-leverage situations. As one might expect, a pitcher’s control can degrade as the pressure increases and Wilson was not immune to that notion. In high-leverage situations, Wilson threw a ball 39.2 percent of the time, logging 87 of them in 222 total pitches.
Left-Handed Options This Winter
Wilson’s struggles as a Cub will make for an interesting winter as the southpaw becomes one of many left-handed relievers available on the free agent market. Without Wilson under contract for 2019, the Cubs currently have Brian Duensing, Randy Rosario, Drew Smyly and Mike Montgomery as southpaw options out of their bullpen, with Jorge De La Rosa and Jaime Garcia‘s deals also expiring.
For that reason, the Cubs will be in need of a reliable left-handed pitcher, one used primarily for high-leverage work who also carries a solid track record of success. Luckily, there are a handful of players available that fit that bill, starting with a left-hander dealt at the same time the Cubs acquired their own fire-balling southpaw two years ago.
While the Cubs were trading for Aroldis Chapman (and winning a World Series with the flame-thrower), the Cleveland Indians were also swinging a deal for their own high-impact, late-inning reliever. His name was Andrew Miller and his 1.55 ERA across 29 innings following the trade to the Indians helped Cleveland reach the World Series in 2016, just to be turned away by the curse-ending Cubs.
Miller’s run with the Indians two years ago put the finishing touches on an outstanding season, one in which the now 33-year-old went 10-1 with a 1.45 ERA across 74.1 innings. His ERA-plus of 304 in 2016 was topped only by his 319 mark one year ago, efforts that earned the veteran back-to-back All-Star Game bids and a top-ten finish in the American League Cy Young voting in 2016.
Between ’16 and ’17, Miller logged 137 innings while appearing in 127 games, 29 of which he finished while recording a save in 14 of those contests. Used as a do-everything man for the Indians, Miller posted a 1.45 ERA while allowing just 30 free passes and racking up 218 strikeouts. Those numbers equate to a BB/9 rate of just 2.0 and a K/9 rate of 14.3, cementing Miller’s name as one of the better left-handed relievers in the game.
Like most good things, Miller’s success quickly came to an end in 2018 as the southpaw battled shoulder issues, appearing in just 37 games for Cleveland. Perhaps as a result of his injury riddled season, Miller returned to earth, posting an ERA-plus of 104 while at the same time logging a 4.24 ERA in 34 innings.
Even though it was not the 38.9 percent or 44.7 percent marks he posted during the last two seasons, Miller’s strikeout rate of 29.2 percent in 2018 was still above league and his career averages. However, Miller saw an uptick in his walk rate, an increase from 3.3 percent two years ago to 8.6 percent in 2017 to a more career-average 10.4 percent in 2018. Additionally, Miller’s hard contact rate spiked in 2018, sitting at 41.4 percent after hovering in the low-20’s during his most dominant years. That increase led to Miller’s increase in hits per nine, a rate that jumped from 4.5 just one year ago to a much more lofty 8.2 in 2018.
Overall, 2018 was a very turbulent year for Miller as he fought to stay healthy for long periods of time. Despite his struggles in the free pass department, Miller still flashed the ability to strike opposing batters out at a high clip, a valuable trait in a late-inning reliever. To go along with that, Miller never wavered in his ability to pitch at a high level in the biggest moments. Even in his down season, Miller still held opposing hitters to a .184/.298/.367 slash line in high-leverage moments, by far his best numbers in any situation during the 2018 campaign.
Like Miller, fellow left-hander Zach Britton hit the free agent market as soon as the final pitch of the World Series was thrown on Sunday. Also like Miller, Britton has a long track record of success at the highest level in the game.
Just two years ago, Britton was in the discussion for the AL Cy Young Award after posting a 0.54 ERA and saving 47 games for the Baltimore Orioles. Instead, Britton finished fourth in the voting and went on to log another sub-3.00 ERA the following season.
In fact, Britton’s run of success superseded 2016 as the left-hander has been dominating opposing hitters since 2014. That was the season he made the full-time transition to the bullpen, a role he accepted with great success. From 2014 through 2017, Britton was at the top of his game, amassing a 1.61 ERA across 242 games and 246.1 innings. Additionally, Britton racked up 135 saves while allowing just nine home runs and 73 walks. His HR/9 rate of 0.3 was accompanied by a stellar 2.7 BB/9 mark and a rather underwhelming 8.9 K/9 rate.
What Britton lacked in strikeout numbers, he has more than made for in the ground ball department. Every year since 2014, the southpaw has owned a ground ball rate north of 70 percent, topping out at 80 percent two years away and bottoming out at 72.6 percent in 2017. That elite ground ball rate and ability to keep the ball off opposing batters’ barrels (23.9 percent career hard contact rate), will have teams clamoring for Britton’s services this winter.
A step back for the veteran should not have any bearing on where he lands this off-season. After a pre-season injury forced a late start to his 2018 season, Britton still managed a 3.10 ERA between the Orioles and New York Yankees across 40.2 innings. Even though his hard contact rate ticked up to 28.8 percent, Britton maintained a healthy ground ball rate (73 percent) while improving upon his strikeout rate from a year ago.
Unlike Miller, Britton struggled with high-leverage moments during the 2018 season. Across nine innings defined as high-leverage by fangraphs.com, opposing hitters slashed .294/.385/.455 off the left-hander as 10 of the 14 total earned runs he allowed came in those situations.
Looking past Britton’s struggles in big moments in 2018, he remains one of the three best bullpen options from the left side that will be available this winter. The other two names on that list, Miller and Wilson, both have had their pitfalls, making it an interesting choice as to who the best one of that group might be.
Right now, it would seem Wilson has the best chance of being on the Cubs’ 2019 roster of the three names listed. That is just because the Cubs can offer the southpaw a qualifying offer, an offer that would sit just shy of $18 million. For a pitcher who has been as up-and-down as Wilson in his time with the Cubs, that would be a steep price to pay, especially when someone like Miller can be had for a seemingly ‘discounted’ price following a down season.
Nevertheless, the Cubs’ need for a late-inning, high-impact left-handed reliever is immense. Wilson, Miller and Britton represent the three best options soon-to-be available on the free agent market. However, there are other names who will be void of a team, names like: Oliver Perez (career 4.39 ERA), Jonny Venters (was out of baseball from 2013-2017) and Jake Diekman (4.73 ERA in 2018). While those guys are available, none of them sport the same track records of success like the three names mentioned at length.
For that reason, the Cubs would be wise to ink either Wilson, Miller or Britton for 2019 and beyond. Such a move would only continue to fortify a portion of this club that has been a great strength for the last handful of years.
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