It is really easy to sit on the couch at home, watch the bullpen enter the game, squander the lead by allowing 2 or 3 runs to score, and blame the relief core for blowing the game. Sometimes, that’s exactly how it works. Sometimes, a starter comes out and shuts down an opposing team for 6.2 or 7 innings and the pen just blows it. And there are times where the opposing team is rejuvenated just by seeing a starter who had it all working get off the mound. That’s baseball.
This season, the bullpen has been a source of soreness for the Cubs. The use of Brian Schlitter was lamented, repeatedly, because he would enter the game and pitch poorly. In fact, he did so every other day for two weeks. He allowed runs in 4 of his 7 appearances between April 10 and April 23. But one of Schlitter’s redeeming qualities is that he has a rubber arm, of sorts. He is very often available. And in four of those 7 appearances, he was coming into the game in the 6th inning. He is the personification of all of the ailments of the bullpen this season, but the fact that he was consistently coming into the game in the 6th or 7th inning (6 of 7 outings), lies squarely at the feet of the starting rotation.
At the moment, only 2 Cubs starters are averaging 6 innings per start. Jake Arrieta (6.17 innings/ start) and Jason Hammel (6.27 innings/ start) are the extent of it. Newly acquired ace, Jon Lester, is showing some signs of breaking out after a slow start, but even with back-to-back 7 innings outings, Lester is still averaging only 5.94 innings per start. In many ways, that number is skewed by the 4 1/3 inning Opening Night start. Lester has had his issues, but should not remain a source of concern going forward. It is the back end of the rotation that has had problems. Travis Wood (5.73 innings/ start) and Kyle Hendricks (5.13 innings/ start) are leaving the bullpen in tough spots just about every time out.
Sources of concern for the rotation are home runs and hard hit balls. Jon Lester is giving up a 30.6% line drive rate against a career rate of 19.6%. That high line drive rate and the 37.3% of balls (against 32.0% career) of balls hit to center field are fueling a .343 BABIP against him. Lester has shown some positive signs of rounding back into his career norm, which make these early season numbers appear to be an anomaly. The real concerns for the rotation rest on the back end. Travis Wood is allowing about 12% of his fly balls to leave the park, in addition to a 26.9% line drive rate. Kyle Hendricks is striking out more than he has been known to, making his 7.01 K/9 look more like his minor league track record, but he is also walking more batters and allowing a 10.3 HR/FB percentage, which is over double the 4.9 he posted after his 2014 call.
One of the more unfortunate aspects of these short outings early in the season is that the conditions the Cubs have been playing in have been ripe for starting pitching to work 6 or 6+ innings to help save the bullpen. The cooler temperatures both hinder the ability to score runs and favor a pitcher’s ability to work longer without tiring under warmer temperature, increased humidity or the summer sun. At a time where it should have been expected that the starters get off to a fast start and save an injury plagued bullpen, they’ve failed. While some of those issues have been related to bad luck and some positive regression is to be expected, there are still trouble spots that have caused short outings.
Although the numbers don’t look great, the core players in the bullpen have been solid. Hector Rondon has picked up where he left off last season, allowing only 2 earned in 12 innings. That’s good for a 1.50 ERA, which is in line with his 1.66 FIP and a little better than his 2.51 SIERA. Along the same lines, Pedro Strop has been nearly as good. He didn’t allow a run in any of his first 12 appearances, and hasn’t allowed any of the 3 of his inherited runners to score. It’s been his last three outings, numbers 13-15 in only 27 games, that have been a problem spot for Strop.
At this early stage, the Cubs have 5 relievers with 10 or more appearances, including Zac Rosscup, who wasn’t on the Opening Night roster, and didn’t make an appearance until the team’s 7th game of the season. In his 21 with the club, he’s appeared in half. 7 of his 10 outings have come with 0 or 1 day of rest. 9 of Strop’s 15 have come in the same amount of time. Aside from Rondon, Strop, and Rosscup, Jason Motte (13) and Phil Coke (14) have also appeared in more than 10 games for the Cubs. And because the Cubs are much improved this season, those innings are increasingly higher leverage and put more strain on these pitchers who are being worked at a high rate at this early stage in the season. For the most part, these players have delivered just about every time they’ve been called. While some of the raw numbers don’t looks great (like Jason Motte’s ERA), a look at game logs and the peripheral numbers say the pen will be fine going forward, as long as they’re not forced to pitch 2 of every 3 games.
With much of the early season data being a legitimate source of concern for the Cubs, there are some important takeaways. First, in spite of the injuries in the pen and the uneven performance of the rotation, the Cubs are still a game over .500 at the moment. As the performance and injuries level off, the team should benefit from the increased consistency. The second important takeaway is that there has been a lot of rotten luck that has skewed results and make the performance look worse than it is. Everything is not roses on the Cubs’ pitching staff right now, but it’s not all fertilizer, either. It’s important to note that there is still a ton of small sample size bias at work.
Even with takeaways pointing at a more level and consistent performance down the line, the Cubs cannot continue to get short starts and expect the offense to bail them out because the bullpen is too overused to slam the door. In large part, the pen has been pretty good, with some notable exceptions and injuries. It is a dangerous game, though, that this team is playing. The offense put up 9 and 4 runs in the first two games against the Cardinals, and lost both. 11 of the 14 wins have come when the offense scores 5 or more runs, in 12 games. They have do better than a .222 winning percentage in games where they score 2-4 runs in order to stay toward the top of the NL Central standings.
In short, the rotation needs to step up. It is not as deep as was projected at the start of the season. It may require a move to be made to add an outside arm. But it cannot continue to leave the game early and put the bullpen in the position of having to shut teams down for more than 3 innings, consistently. And when the offense scores 5 in the first, it should not be a 1 run game again in the 2nd. Lester’s snapping out of it. Arrieta has been really good, for the most part. Jason Hammel is being Jason Hammel. Wood and Hendricks are questions…and they need to be answered.