Cubs' pitching problem isn't the bullpen, it's quick-to-exit starters, per Joe Maddon

Cubs' pitching problem isn't the bullpen, it's quick-to-exit starters, per Joe Maddon

“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.”

Cubs' 'super frightening' close call in St. Louis shows how fragile season is

Cubs' 'super frightening' close call in St. Louis shows how fragile season is

All the Cubs wanted before leaving for the ballpark in St. Louis on Friday was “just reassurance” before playing one of the two teams in the majors that had endured a major COVID-19 outbreak.

“And they assured us they were going to communicate every detail of why we should be on the field,” Cubs manager David Ross said.

Ross spoke Saturday morning via Zoom from Chicago — that fact itself a reminder of the details that started pin-balling from all the wrong directions Friday morning.

“It’s just another one of those reminders of how quick things can get out of control right now in this environment,” said Ross, whose team learned early enough to avoid even showing up at Busch Stadium and to reschedule its charter to land at O’Hare before 8 p.m. Friday.

Ross called the communication from Major League Baseball and the Cardinals “outstanding.”

But he paused when asked about just how close their near-miss with the coronavirus was this weekend.

As in: What if the three Cardinals who tested positive Friday (after reportedly being exposed Wednesday) hadn’t gotten their positive results until Saturday instead — after spending Friday night in the same building and on the field with the Cubs?

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“I hadn’t looked at it like that,” Ross said. “It shows how fast it can get out of control. That part of the virus is super frightening.”

At least two of the 16 Cardinals players and staff known to have tested positive in the last 10 days are said to have symptoms, the severity of which are unclear.

But even beyond that reminder of the health-risk roll of the dice for each individual (and his family), Friday’s close call for the Cubs underscores just how fragile baseball’s attempt at a two-month season is.

“We send our best to the Cardinals and those players. It’s a scary time,” Ross said, “and we all want baseball to move forward and guys to be healthy.”

The Cubs are the only team in the league, through at least Friday, who have not had a player test positive.

Two teams, including the Marlins, already have had major outbreaks, with the Cardinals into their second week of postponed series and sleepless nights for their president of baseball operations.

“I don’t know what really our future looks like at this point,” Cards president John Mozeliak said, according to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Experts who we consulted with gave us advice that we could take that next step forward. I don’t know what the right answer is. Is it two days? Is it five days? Is it 10 days? Or is it two weeks?

“The whole country, the whole world, is facing these same questions. We’re just caught in the middle of it.”

Along with everybody else in baseball.

The Cardinals have played only five games, and their next series, against Pittsburgh, reportedly is on the verge of being postponed as well.

The Cubs’ next opponent, Cleveland, has 16 games in the books with Saturday’s game against the White Sox.

Fifty days remain in the scheduled 60-game season after Saturday.

The 10-3 Cubs have it better than most, even with the lost series against the Cardinals — a postponement that for now looks more like a cause to celebrate than for disappointment.

But what does the league do if the virus doesn’t allow the Cardinals to play by the end of the week? And what if a third team — or a fourth — experiences an outbreak.

And just how close did the Cubs come to becoming that third team if they had played a game or two of that series with asymptomatic, infected Cardinals unwittingly on the same field.

When the Cardinals’ outbreak initially unfolded while the team was in Milwaukee last weekend, one result was Brewers star center fielder Lorenzo Cain becoming one of four players in a two-day span to opt out of playing the rest of the season.

RELATED: Tracking MLB players who have opted out or declined to play

“It’s 2020, where we know we’ve got to take it one day at a time,” Ross said. “We’ve talked about that from the start.”

The Cubs and almost everybody in the league — including Mozeliak’s Cardinals — seem to have taken the health risk and hyper-contagious nature of COVID-19 seriously enough for most of the schedule to be played so far.

The Cardinals, in fact, invested in equipment years ago they have used since to sanitize visiting clubhouses on the road ahead of players occupying them.

The Cubs have exceeded MLB standard safety protocols with impressive enough results that other teams have reached out to discuss their methods.

And yet the Cardinals’ season hangs by a thread. And the Cubs, for all their precautions, might have sidestepped direct exposure by a matter of a few hours, a few reliable tests, and luck.

By extension, if not by definition, the league’s season also hangs by a thread.

“I think we all know that this season is just really a year of who can adjust to a little bit of adversity and some change,” Ross said. “And that’s going to be throughout the season. We know that. And we’ll continue to push forward.”


How David Ross plans to keep Cubs 'sharp' after Cardinals series postponed

How David Ross plans to keep Cubs 'sharp' after Cardinals series postponed

One phone call Friday morning set in motion a reversal of the Cubs’ weekend plans. Instead of battling the Cardinals in a three-game series at Busch Stadium, they were heading home to Chicago and had four off days to fill before their next game.

“I think it's a little bit of a reset for us,” Cubs manager David Ross said Saturday, “ … and we’ve got continue to try to stay as sharp as we possibly can, get back to maybe work on a few things we might want to clean up in this downtime, and use it to our advantage as best we can.”

With the Cubs’ weekend series against the Cardinals postponed, due to three more members of the Cardinals organization testing positive for COVID-19, Ross said he gave the Cubs position players the option to take Saturday off. For the pitchers, it was a light workout day, a chance to throw a bullpen.

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The Cubs plan to play a simulated game Sunday and have a “fun” competition on Monday, Ross said.

Other aspects of the Cubs’ path forward remain unclear, like when will they make up the postponed series. And even more pressing, which pitcher will start on Tuesday at Cleveland?

Ross said he and his coaches have talked about how the schedule adjustment will affect the starting rotation, but there are still discussions to be had with the pitching staff.

Left-hander Jon Lester, who was supposed to start on Friday, was among those scheduled to throw a bullpen session Saturday.

“Jon especially, a veteran guy, knows how to take care of himself and knows how to back off or give a little more,” Ross said. “…There's no substitute for competition. I think we all know that. And getting out there against another jersey is important. It is important to stay sharp, physically and mentally, and staying ready. But we have a ton of professionals.”

He pointed to the almost four months of off time between the cancellation of Spring Training and the start of the regular season.

 Kyle Hendricks, for example, prepared for the accelerated summer camp so well that he threw a complete game on Opening Day. Any reshuffling of the rotation’s schedule couldn’t be nearly as much of a challenge.

“It's 2020, where we know we've got to take it one day at a time,” Ross said. “… We were planning to play St. Louis, they told us we weren't, so we came home and we adjusted. And we'll do that as best we can to continue this season.”

Ross had been hoping for a different kind of phone call on Friday morning. The Cardinals traveling party produced no new positive COVID-19 tests for consecutive days before MLB cleared the team to return to St. Louis and resume their schedule. The week prior, 13 players and staff members had tested positive.

“Going into it, with all that was going on, we were hoping to hear some news that morning, or just a reassurance,” Ross said, “and they had assured us that they were going to communicate every detail of why they thought we should be on the field.”

Instead, the Cubs received word that Friday’s game had been postponed. Ross described Major League Baseball’s communication as “outstanding.”

The Cubs support staff adjusted on the fly. Director of Major League travel and clubhouse operations Vijay Tekchandani contacted United Airlines to set up a return flight. Team dietitian Jordan Brown arranged for meals at the hotel that weren’t originally on the schedule.

“A lot of adjustments on their part,” Ross said, “and making sure everybody was comfortable and had some downtime but had some space to just get out of their room.”

Tekchandani had chosen a hotel with an outdoor patio that the players could use without running into other hotel guests and while practicing social distancing.

Around 5 p.m., the team learned that the rest of the series had been canceled. Less than an hour later, a bus was at the hotel to take the Cubs to the airport. They were back in Chicago before 8 p.m..

“Everybody was good yesterday,” Ross said of the players. “If I go back to my playing days, no matter what, you kind of welcome an off day in the middle of a long stretch. So, the first off day is always nice, nice and relaxing.”

The Cubs were off to a 10-3 start, in what was originally scheduled to be 17 straight games without an off day. Between a rainout in Cincinnati and the COVID-19 related postponement this weekend, that hasn’t been the case.

Now, the Cubs face a different kind of challenge: carrying momentum through a weekend off.