Justin Wilson

Are the Cubs doomed to repeat history with a dynamic bullpen?

Are the Cubs doomed to repeat history with a dynamic bullpen?

There were several reasons why the Cubs ran into a wall in the National League Championship Series last fall, but maybe none moreso than the ineffectiveness of the bullpen.

In fact, well before the 2017 postseason even started, the Cubs bullpen was already wearing down.

They posted a 4.48 ERA in the second half, including a 4.96 ERA in August and a 4.36 ERA in September. That coming after a 3.26 ERA from the unit before the All-Star Break.

The main reason for the downturn in performance — by the own admission of Joe Maddon and the Cubs front office — is how heavily the team needed to lean on that bullpen.

It's still early May, but it appears the 2018 Cubs are doomed to repeat history.

This year's bullpen ranks third in baseball with a 2.71 ERA, but at what cost?

Here is the list of Cubs relievers on pace to set a new career high in appearances this season:

1. Brandon Morrow
2. Carl Edwards Jr.
3. Pedro Strop
4. Brian Duensing
5. Steve Cishek
6. Mike Montgomery

Edwards, Strop and Cishek are also on track to set new career highs in innings pitched, as well.

The Cubs have been very careful with Morrow, who has had injury issues each year since 2011.

Still, the new Chicago closer is on track for 67 games and 62 innings pitched. He's only touched 60 appearances in a season one time in his career — back in 2007. He last threw more than 62 innings in a season in 2012 when he threw 124.2 innings as a starting pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Edwards is on pace for 76 games and 81 innings, up from his career marks of 73 games and 66.1 innings set last year.

Strop (pace of 71 games, 71 innings) last made 70 appearances in 2012, the same year he set a career high in innings pitched (66.1).

Cishek's workload is even more worrisome, on pace for 81 games and 76.2 innings, well above his career mark of 69 games and 69.2 innings (both in 2013). He's worked in half the Cubs games this year already.

The main culprit for the overworked bullpen is a starting staff that ranks 24th in baseball in innings pitched as of Thursday morning.

Simply, the rotation has not worked deep enough into games on a consistent basis either because of inefficency (racking up 100 pitches in only 5 or 6 innings) or ineffectiveness.

It's also the nature of the game nowadays, with every organization "woke" to the idea that starting pitchers struggle when facing a batting order for the third time.

And it's hard for Maddon not to want to turn to a bullpen that features five guys with an ERA under 2.20 (Duensing, Edwards, Morrow, Strop, Cishek).

"The bullpen's actually coming on right now," Maddon said. "If we can continue to parcel out the work and not beat anybody up, I think we can continue to see them get even better. You're gonna see velocity numbers up."

The Cubs are currently using their eighth and final spot in the bullpen as a shuttle from Triple-A Iowa, bringing up guys who can give them innings and permit more rest for the main guys.

The Cubs bullpen could also receive an overall boost if Justin Wilson continues to find his form.

Wilson is used to the workload he's on pace for (67 games, 62.1 innings) out of the 'pen and has really come on strong lately. After walking 11 batters in his first 8.2 innings in 2018, the veteran lefty has not walked a batter the last five times out, permitting only a run on five hits in that span (4.2 innings).

When the Cubs traded for Wilson last summer, there was talk of him joining the conversation as the 2018 closer. But head-scratching control issues have plagued him since.

If he can be more like the pitcher he was in Detroit or Pittsburgh, Wilson can take pressure off guys like Cishek, Strop, Edwards and Morrow in tight games.

"You look at Wilson — that's what I'm talking about," Maddon said. "You saw with Justin [Tuesday]. That's so intriguing. He's been like that the last couple times out.

"If he's able to nail it down like that, he gives us so many more late-inning options, which he's done before. I believe it's there and it's going to happen, so I've said it before — he's a linchpin.

"If he really gets to that point — that strike-throwing with that incredibly lively stuff at home plate — he can make a big difference."

Mr. Underrated: Pedro Strop just keeps doin' his thing

Mr. Underrated: Pedro Strop just keeps doin' his thing

The Cubs have had four different closers over the last three seasons.

Beyond Aroldis Chapman, Wade Davis, Brandon Morrow and Hector Rondon, they've had a handful of other pitchers who could be "the guy" if an injury befell the back end of the team's bullpen — guys like Carl Edwards Jr. or Koji Uehara or Steve Cishek or even Justin Wilson.

Somehow, Pedro Strop always seems to get overlooked. 

The 32-year-old veteran has been one of the more underrated relievers in the game since he came over as "the other guy" in the Jake Arrieta trade with the Baltimore Orioles in July 2013. 

After two shutout innings Saturday in St. Louis — a ballpark and a team that has haunted him in the past (7.04 ERA, 1.76 WHIP at Busch Stadium, even after Saturday's outing) — Strop now has a 1.93 ERA and 1.07 WHIP on the 2018 campaign.

Overall, he's 16-18 with a 2.68 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 332 strikeouts in 285.2 innings in a Cubs uniform. He has never finished a year in Chicago with an ERA above 2.91.

Since the start of the 2014 season (his first full year with the Cubs), Strop ranks 21st in baseball in ERA among relievers, just behind guys like Cody Allen and Kelvin Herrera and coming in ahead of pitchers like Roberto Osuna, David Robertson and Greg Holland. In that same span, he ranks 13th in baseball in appearances (278), more than stud relievers Kenley Jansen and Andrew Miller.

This year, Maddon is using Strop more than ever, as he's on pace for 71 innings, which would represent a career high.

Even despite the consistency and regular season numbers, Strop still found himself outside Joe Maddon's Circle of Trust during the 2016 playoff run. However, that was more due to a knee injury that sidelined him to end that regular season, leading to a bit of rust entering October.

Pitching in a Cubs uniform on the postseason over the last three years, Strop has only allowed 7 hits in 16.1 innings, sporting a 2.20 ERA and 0.80 WHIP in 19 appearances.

What's led to that consistency?

"I think it's routine," Strop said. "Be professional in what you're doing, even when the day doesn't go well for you. OK, it's in the past, keep looking ahead and just try to do better whenever you get back in there. Stuff like that.

"Little things can change the whole thing. I'm really mentally tough to walk away when things are bad. I think that's been a huge part of me being consistent — just let everything go and keep going."

Strop has admitted he hasn't always been very good at letting the bad stuff go.

The only reason he was even available in the deal five summers ago was because he had posted a 7.25 ERA in 29 games in Baltimore after looking like one of the game's bright young relief stars the previous two seasons (2.34 ERA).

Strop has spent a lot of time learning from other veterans in his career and has now gotten to the point where he's now one of the seasoned, wise vets in the Cubs bullpen, lending counsel to younger guys like Edwards.

"I've been learning a lot and I think [the mental aspect] is a really important part, especially for relievers," Strop said. "You don't have as much time to be thinking about bad outings. You just gotta put it away and get back in there the next day.

"I don't want to say starting is easier, but when you have a bad outing as a starter, you have another five days to put everything together in bullpens and stuff. But as a reliever, you gotta be ready the next day."

The art of the walk-up song: How Cubs choose their music


The art of the walk-up song: How Cubs choose their music

Kyle Hendricks may not show emotion on the mound, but smiles come easily when he's not between the foul lines.

Especially when he's talking about his walk-up song.

The always-self-aware Hendricks understands the running joke about his expressionless demeanor and comes out to Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion" when pitching or hitting at Wrigley Field.

He'll use the same song again in 2018.

"No reason to change it now," he said, smirking. "Gotta give the people what they want."

Walk-up songs have become a huge deal at the corner of Clark and Addison in recent years.

Back before the video boards were installed in the 2015 season, players didn't have the luxury of choosing their own music and injecting some of their personality into the middle of the game experience at Wrigley Field.

2018 will be the fourth year in which players have walk-up songs, meaning it's the only life players like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell have ever known at the corner of Clark and Addison.

"It's just something that I like to hear whenever I'm walking up to the plate," Russell said. "It gets me goin'. You're able to express yourself a little bit in your music choice and what you like to put out there for everyone to hear.

"It's definitely a fun process for selecting the song that you want out there."

Music and dancing are everywhere around Wrigley Field, from bullpen dancing after home runs to the Seventh Inning Stretch to organist Gary Pressy to the walk-up songs that are now a staple at "The Friendly Confines."

Walk-up songs are also a great way for players to endear themselves to fans, like Hendricks having fun with "Sweet Emotion" or Anthony Rizzo playing Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez/Kygo ("It ain't me") last year.

David Ross — aka "Grandpa Rossy" — used "Forever Young" as his walk-up song when he played and now Cubs fans associate the Alphaville track with him.

Starlin Castro's walk-up song at Wrigley became an entire chill-inducing experience with 42,000 people clapping and stomping along with the rhythm of "Ando En La Versace":

Ben Zobrist uses the opportunity to promote his wife's music, using Julianna Zobrist's rendition of "Benny and the Jets" the last couple years. Julianna is signing the National Anthem before Sunday's game and her husband acknowledged he would be using more of her music as his walk-up songs in 2018...though may throw a curveball in there, too.

Rizzo changes it up every at-bat. Kyle Schwarber may do the same thing this year, though he said he plans on sticking with "Thuggish Ruggish Bone" as one of the songs. 

The Cubs slugger has used the Bone Thugs-n-Harmony song as part of his lineup since making his big-league debut in 2015, honoring the hip hop group that hails from his home state of Ohio. The funny part about the song, however, is it was released in 1994, the year after Schwarber was born.

Russell may mix it up, too, using different songs for different at-bats or rotation through a cycle over the course of the season.

"It's a song that I like, a song I can relate to, something that gets me going," Russell said. "I think I'm gonna have a few this year. I think I might repeat one, but at a different point in the song.

"For the most part, it's just all about what I dig, what's kinda hot at the time. Just something to get me pumped up as I get into the box."

The song choice can be a strong motivational factor for each player. Music can trigger a bunch of different emotions and thoughts for different people and thus a walk-up song can serve as a mental trigger for professional athletes.

A well-selected song can also inject feelings of relaxation and mental clarity into the situation, as is the case with veteran reliever Steve Cishek, who's about to make his Cubs Wrigley Field debut this week.

"I always choose a song that fires me up and that I've listened to that gets my blood pumping a bit," Cishek said. "This year, I kinda went a different route because I know I'm gonna be fired up going into Wrigley.

"I tried to pick a little bit of a slower song to calm down a little. Who knows? I might change it through the season if I need some extra jice. But whatever gets the adrenaline pumping. Some songs just tend to do that for me."

Some players don't really give it much thought ahead of time, like reliever Justin Wilson, who hadn't yet decided on a walk-up/out song after the first week of play.

Newcomer Tyler Chatwood will be the first Cub of the 2018 season to have his walk-up/out song played at Wrigley Field when he takes the ball to start the first inning of the home opener Monday (weather permitting).

As each Cubs player's walk-up song is played throughout the homestand, we'll keep a running list:

Albert Almora Jr. —  “Greenlight” by Pitbull, Flo Rida & LunchMoney Lewis
Javier Baez — "Chambea" by Bad Bunny
Kris Bryant — "Warm it Up" by Kris Kross*
Eddie Butler — "Dirt on my Boots" by Jon Pardi
Victor Caratini — "Escapate Commingo" by Wisin
Tyler Chatwood — "Rollin" by Calvin Harris, Future & Khalid
Steve Cishek — "Song of Deliverance" by Zach Williams
Willson Contreras — "Dura" by Daddy Yankee
Yu Darvish — "Crank That" by Soulja Boy
Brian Duensing — "Mutt" by Blink 182*
Carl Edwards Jr. — "What you Know" by T.I.
Ian Happ — "Welcome Back" by Mase
Kyle Hendricks — "Sweet Emotion" by Aerosmith
Jason Heyward — "This Girl" by Kungs vs Cookin’ on 3 Burners*
Tommy La Stella — "Bridges and Tunnels" by Chris Rusu
Jon Lester — "Gonna Know We Were Here" by Jason Aldean* and "Barefoot Blue Jean Night" by Jake Owen*
Mike Montgomery — "The Show Goes On" by Lupe Fiasco*
Brandon Morrow — "Whatever it takes" by Imagine Dragons
Jose Quintana — 
Anthony Rizzo — "Intoxicated" by Martin Solveig & GTA* and "Bad Blood" by Taylor Swift*
Addison Russell — "Lemon" by Rihanna/N.E.R.D.
Kyle Schwarber — "Thuggish Ruggish Bone" by Bone Thugs n Harmony*
Pedro Strop — "Rasputin" by El Alfa El Jefe ft. Liro Shaq
Justin Wilson — "Sucker for Pain" by Lil Wayne, Wiz Khalifa & Imagine Dragons
Ben Zobrist — "Benny and the Jets" + "Alive" by his wife, Julianna*

*indicates same song as 2017 season