“What’s the deal with the Cubs’ bullpen?”
That might have been a common query in barrooms and basements all over Chicagoland after Friday afternoon’s result at Wrigley Field, when Brett Gardner turned a Cubs win into a victory for the visiting New York Yankees with a two-out, go-ahead home run off Hector Rondon in the ninth inning.
But a better question is this: “What’s the deal with the Cubs’ starting rotation?”
No, it wasn’t Kyle Hendricks who coughed up that two-run lead Friday. But once again a Cubs starter failed to get out of the sixth inning. Through the first 29 games of this season, every Cubs starter is averaging fewer than six innings an outing. That cumulative total of short work by the starting pitchers is having a detrimental effect on the relief corps, says Cubs manager Joe Maddon. And it’s the biggest issue on a team that while still in first place isn’t exactly setting the world on fire the same way it did last spring.
“The biggest thing for me is just to get our starters more deeply into the game,” Maddon said ahead of Saturday’s game against the Yankees. “As of right now, if you look at our bullpen, actually look at the numbers, easily the best bullpen in the National League on a lot of different fronts. And they’ve actually been pitching too often, and that was personified yesterday by the fact we didn’t have enough guys left for that game.
“So really to get this all right, we’ve got to get our starting pitching straightened out. Last year, if you remember, the bullpen didn’t pitch a whole lot because the starters were so good, and I thought that’s what kept the bullpen really solid through the course of the season. And with the starting pitching pitching so well, there was not as much emphasis of having to score so many runs. They were that good.
“I think it all starts with the starting pitching. When we get these guys back on solid ground being like they can be, the hitting’s going to show up and the bullpen won’t be utilized so much. That’s always, for me, the equation for success. ... At the end of the day, you’ve got to starting pitch well to really play this game properly.”
As Maddon pointed out, the Cubs’ bullpen has been one of baseball’s best. The team entered Saturday’s game with the best relief ERA in the NL, at 2.84. And no relief corps in baseball is holding opposing hitters to a lower batting average than the minuscule .191 mark batters are putting up against the guys dispatched from underneath the left-field bleachers.
But Cubs starters rank just 19th in baseball in innings pitched (159.1), while Cubs relievers have thrown the seventh-most innings in the game (104.2).
“When people have always talked in the past about pitchers who throw 200 innings, ‘Why is that so important?’ Everything we’re talking about is the complementary positive effects of starting pitchers pitching more innings,” Maddon said. “You’re able to do what you want to do at the latter part of the game and you don’t wear people out. But when they’re called upon, the relievers, to do more than that consistently, it makes it difficult.”
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There’s been no better evidence of that than this week. Brett Anderson, also Saturday night’s starter, recorded just four outs before exiting Monday’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies. Jon Lester and John Lackey went just five innings in their respective starts in that series with Philadelphia, and Hendricks went just 5.1 innings Friday against the Yankees. That’s a lot of innings for the bullpen to pick up. Throw in the offense’s penchant for scoring late and playing close games, and the late-inning portion of the Cubs’ bullpen gets more work, too. Closer Wade Davis pitched Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Koji Uehara pitched Wednesday and Thursday. Pedro Strop pitched Thursday and Friday. Carl Edwards pitched Tuesday and Thursday.
That kind of usage limits Maddon’s options late in games like Friday’s. So even if he did want to give Rondon some help after he put two men on base ahead of Gardner, the option wasn’t there.
The Cubs swapped Justin Grimm for Felix Pena before Friday’s game. They added another arm to the bullpen before Saturday’s, bringing up Rob Zastryzny and designating outfielder Matt Szczur for assignment.
It all stems from the starting pitchers getting early hooks.
“That’s the perfect example, not having enough guys available to really work the end of that game,” Maddon said. “But that’s just the way it happens sometimes. And that’s based on starting pitching not getting deeply and having to utilize too many folks.
“It’s part of the nature of the game over the course of the season. But we expect that good number from the starting pitching on a consistent basis. I see this working its way through. The innings are going to pick up.”
What's the solution?
Maddon preached patience, which isn’t bad advice in a 162-game season. He went through the list of Cubs’ starting pitchers and said he didn’t see much difference between last season’s championship campaign and this season. Only Hendricks, whose dip in velocity has been well chronicled in the early going of 2017, warranted a mention.
And while one could understand any fatigue from back-to-back runs through October, Maddon said it’s not that either. He’s willing to ride things out. And considering three of the Cubs’ five starters have finished in the top three in Cy Young voting in the past two seasons, it seems like a perfectly reasonable strategy.
“We’re in May, so I think we’re OK by now. I think they’re fine,” Maddon said. “I don’t think they’re beat up mentally, I don’t think they’ve been pushed physically. It’s always a concern when you play — not only just last year but two seasons in a row — deeply that you have that among your pitchers, no doubt. But I’m not seeing, even speaking to them I’m not hearing wear and tear.
“I’m just going to be patient and see it evolve back to what it’s supposed to look like.”