The Chicago Cubs Bullpen: way more reliable than you thought they were

Bullpens are a little bit like NFL kickers: the screen time is minimal, the glory only as deep as your last appearance, and you’re mostly ignored…unless you screw it up.

For the last month, the Chicago Cubs bullpen hasn’t been screwing it up.

In June, the Cubs bullpen has pitched the 4th most innings in the majors (82.1), but has given up the second fewest runs (15). That works out to a sparkling 1.42 ERA –the best in the majors

It’s an impressive bunch of pitchers. And when you analyze the bullpen arm for arm (as opposed to as a collective number), there aren’t many players who you find yourself cringing over when they step to the rubber. Even Edwin Jackson –long the black sheep of the Cubs roster– has looked passably strong, only surrendering two runs in 14 innings of work. It helps that he’s often used in mop-up duty, but either way, the Cubs have found a viable purpose for Jackson on this roster.

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 27:  Justin Grimm #52 of the Chicago Cubs pitches against the Washington Nationals at Wrigley Field on June 27, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs defeated the Nationals 7-2.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
 (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Justin Grimm looks absolutely devastating, despite his minor struggles in the team’s loss to the St. Louis Cardinals Friday night. Over the last month, he’s sporting a 11.42 K/9. Though he’s giving up a .400 average on balls in play, it makes him a fairly easy pitcher to forecast: when he’s striking guys out, he’s on his game; when he’s not, he’s off it.

As a brief aside, how good does the 2013 Matt Garza trade look right now for the Cubs? When they traded Garza to the Texas Rangers, they somehow got Grimm, Neil Ramirez, C.J. Edwards, and the “I-look-more-and-more-like-a-bust-by-the-day” Mike Olt. That might end up being better than Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. And it definitely takes the sting out of losing Chris Archer when the Cubs traded for Garza back in 2011. Though, that trade also yielded Zach Rosscup, who has shown some potential at the major league level. However, Archer looks like a Cy Young candidate for the Tampa Bay Rays. You win some, you lose some.

It’s easy to miss the Cubs’ bullpen success over the last month because they were wildly inconsistent the month before. Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon were especially guilty, and since they were the Cubs’ designated eighth and ninth inning pitchers respectively, it made sure the unit’s inconsistency was on full display –Strop, like Friday night, still seems to struggle from that inconsistency. For a few weeks in May, it felt like the bullpen was coughing up every other game.

Despite the bullpen’s success across the month of June, a few of the advanced stats paint a slightly darker picture. With the exception of the seemingly ever-filthy Grimm, every Cubs reliever’s FIP (here’s the definition if you are not familiar with the stat) is measurably higher than their ERA. If you subscribe to the statistical breakdown, it ultimately points to the Cubs bullpen pitchers simply benefiting from a little luck across this last month in terms of the types of balls being hit.

Cubs pitchers being lucky? A high-five to anyone who ever thought they’d mutter that phrase.

You can always number crunch to get an idea of what a player’s performance looks like, but the bottom line is that the stats illustrate just how fickle bullpen play can be. As a collective, you’re asking several players to perform well over the same stretch. As individuals, you’re asking for telling results in small sample sizes. It’s kind of a lose-lose venture.

But whatever the numbers do or don’t suggest, you can’t argue that the Cubs bullpen hasn’t been a strength of the team in recent weeks.

And at 39-33, it’s been a strength that is yielding tangible results: Wins.

And that’s the sweetest stat of all.


Brian Davis

I'm a writer and a musician who happens to have a great affinity for Chicago sports.

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