Pedro Strop has had a tough go of it lately, but that doesn't mean it's time to panic on one of the most consistent relievers in Cubs history.
After blowing the game Monday night in San Francisco — his third blown save of the month — Strop now has a 5.47 ERA on the year and an 8.22 mark in July alone. In fact, nearly half the runs he's allowed in 2019 have come this month — 7 of 16.
But Strop has been pitching better than his ERA indicates — his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is nearly a full run lower than his ERA this season. His strikeout rate (27.4 percent) and walk rate (8.5 percent) are the lowest they've been since 2016.
That being said, the 34-year-old has also seen a precipitous spike in hard contact rate and his soft contact percentage is way down. He's been plagued by the home run ball this year more than ever before, serving up 1.7 dingers per 9 innings, the highest rate of his career (though the same can be said for many pitchers this season).
So Strop clearly hasn't been his typical dominant self this year, but he also deserves a better fate than he's had to this point in the season.
Take Monday night, for example.
Strop came on to pitch the eighth inning of a game the Cubs were leading 4-2 and promptly gave up a leadoff double to Pablo Sandoval. On paper, that's obviously not a great start, but look at where this pitch was when the Giants third baseman hit it:
Strop followed that by striking out Stephen Vogt before executing a nice pitch to Brandon Crawford and inducing a groundball...only to see it sneak through the infield for an RBI hit:
Then came a groundout before Austin Slater's game-tying double that came just inches away from Albert Almora Jr.'s glove in center field.
The final blow was the go-ahead double by Joe Panik...on a ball that was higher than Strop would've liked it, but still not a bad pitch off the plate outside:
These are not bad pitches; it's not like Strop was leaving the ball over the heart of the plate all inning.
How's this for bad luck — the Sandoval double was pegged for just a .070 expected batting average.
Crawford's single was hit at 89.7 mph and had an expected batting average of .360. By comparison, Kyle Schwarber hit a grounder in the top of the inning at 102.9 mph with an expected batting average of .630 and it was an out. It was simply a matter of Crawford's ball finding a hole while Schwarber hit his right at a defender.
No matter which way you slice it, this was a tough luck outing for the veteran setup man.
But bad luck or not, Strop still hasn't been getting the consistent results the Cubs need in crucial innings of a tight playoff race, so it's understandable manager Joe Maddon was asked about the bullpen usage on his weekly appearance with 670 The Score Tuesday afternoon:
"When Pedro's in the game, I really feel good about it," Maddon said. "We all do. I think last night, it was more about pitch selection than it was necessarily about stuff. He was one pitch away from getting out of that thing.
"If you replay and look at it, you see the hit by Sandoval — that ball literally almost bounced. It really did and it almost hit his back foot. I don't know how he kept that ball fair, but he did. Good for him. And then Crawford hits a slow ground ball up the middle that gets between two guys that are outstanding infielders and that's a hit."
Maddon went on to say the last hit — Panik's double — was the more concerning one because it was a sinker that just didn't drop enough. Maddon said he'd rather see Strop go to his wicked slider in that situation than lean on a pitch (the sinker/fastball) that has seen a dip in velocity and value this season.
"I don't think Pedro's that far off," Maddon said. "Maybe the velocity's down a little bit more than anything. To utilize his cutter/slider and really get that to where he wants it — those are the devastating pitches. So that was my bigger concern last night."
Moving forward, it doesn't sound as if Maddon will shy away from utilizing Strop in high-leverage situations again, but the Cubs also have the luxury of a pretty deep bullpen where they could utilize some other arms (Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler) to pitch the eighth inning and help bridge the gap to closer Craig Kimbrel.
Strop is 34 now and has dealt with some health issues over the last calendar year, but he has such a long track record of success that it wouldn't be surprising to see him once again emerge as a lights-out reliever before the season ends.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream
Fresh off the heels of the Cubs’ worst series at home in nearly two years, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki tackle the most important topics surrounding this team right now.
0:30 – CubsTalk Podcast from an alternate universe where Nicholas Castellanos’ 10th-inning fly ball was actually a walk-off.
2:00 – A tale of two offenses.
5:00 – What’s the cure for what ails the Cubs lineup?
7:00 – Cole Hamels looks to be rounding into form.
9:00 – The Mets are shaping up to be another formidable matchup for the Cubs this week in New York.
11:00 – An update on Anthony Rizzo and his back injury.
13:30 – The Cubs badly need Javy Baez to get hot.
15:00 – Wrapping up with some positives, including Craig Kimbrel and the Cubs defense.
Listen here or in the embedded player below:
Cubs Talk Podcast
It's going to be awfully difficult for the Cubs to win the division with their lineup still flashing their Jekyll and Hyde ways.
After Wednesday's "season-defining" 12-11 win over the Giants, the Cubs managed to score just 1 run in Thursday's win, couldn't score until the ninth inning of Friday's loss, were unable to mount a comeback against the worst bullpen in the NL in Saturday's defeat and had to rely too much on the home run in Sunday's loss.
The end result was a three-game sweep at the hands of the red-hot Washington Nationals — the first time the Cubs were swept in a three-game series at Wrigley Field in nearly two years (September 2017).
All weekend, the Nationals lineup served as a perfect example of what the Cubs want to be offensively.
Both teams hit three homers over the three games, but the Nationals scored 23 runs while the Cubs managed just 10. Washington struck out just 21 times and drew 16 walks while the Cubs whiffed 33 times and worked only 11 free passes.
"The big difference is they weren't chasing out of the zone and we were," Joe Maddon said. "That's the difference in the series, primarily."
The Cubs deserve credit for never giving in Sunday, fighting back from a deficit three different times throughout the course of the game. But they were too reliant upon the home run and never led throughout the entire series.
Saturday's game was particularly troublesome as the offense had its chances, but failed to cash in during prime chances. They had runners at second and third with nobody out in the fourth inning of a 5-1 game, but both Kyle Schwarber and Victor Cartaini struck out and after a walk, Ian Happ did the same on a controversial pitch.
Ian Happ was ejected from today's game for arguing this strike 3 call.— Cubs Talk (@NBCSCubs) August 24, 2019
Feel free to sound off with your thoughts ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/gPkCXAUkJM
The next inning, after Jonathan Lucroy had doubled home a run to draw the Cubs closer at 5-2 and posit runners on second and third with only one out, the lineup failed to capitalize once again (Javy Baez struck out and then Schwarber popped out).
"Even if there's nobody out and a runner on third, I like that first guy to get it done," Maddon said. "Sometimes in the back of your mind, it's like, 'oh, there's zero outs, if he doesn't do it, the next guy will.' It's been my experience when the first guy doesn't get it done, it probably does [trickle down] in some way to certain people, impact them differently. But I always want the first guy that gets the chance with zero outs to get this run in and take it from there.
"But it's nothing new. We've had this problem in the past. [Saturday] was not a unique moment for us. It's something we have to continue to work at, to move the ball, score runs with outs. There was second and third, nobody out — a ground ball to second base, you score a run and get the other guy to third base. Scoring runs with outs is an art form that we have to accomplish, too."
Sure, those are huge momentum swings — particularly the Happ at-bat — but the game was far from over at that point against a group of Nationals relievers that came into the day sporting a 6.00 ERA (only the Baltimore Orioles had a worse mark).
Instead, here's the result of each Cubs plate appearance to end the game:
*inning ended when Kyle Ryan was thrown out trying to advance to third on a wild pitch*
The Cubs failed to even put a ball in play for more than two innings and eight of the 14 plate appearances resulted in strikeouts.
Maddon has continually said the Cubs' best chance at going on a strong run down the stretch will hinge on the offense's ability to put it all together on consistent basis for an extended stretch.
The manager, ever the optimist, thinks there is still time to do that.
"Oh yeah. I absolutely believe that to be true," Maddon said Sunday morning. "And then you have some guys coming back, which is gonna make that better. Javy's just been in a little bit of a slump. Javy's not gonna be that way the rest of the season. I really believe that, 100 percent.
"I think Happer looks better right now. I think Lucroy, like he came off the bench [Saturday]. The ingredients are there. We just obviously gotta go do it. But yeah, I've been involved in teams that all the sudden click at the right time of the year and everything takes off. I do anticipate that happening, but it's only gonna happen if you keep pushing and believing. If you don't, it's not gonna happen."
Maddon's right — the Cubs do have all the necessary ingredients to settle into an offensive groove and getting guys like Willson Contreras and Ben Zobrist back from the injured list and restricted list will help.
But with only five weeks left in the season and the gap with the Cardinals widening, now would be the perfect time for this lineup to find that groove, especially over the next week — facing Marcus Stroman, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard in New York before the Brewers come to town for a three-game series.
There are many reasons to point to for why this offense — even with the red-hot Nicholas Castellanos in town — is so inconsistent, but one of the biggest issues lately has been Baez's slump.
Baez finished second in NL MVP voting last season and earned the nod as the starting shortstop for the All-Star team this summer. However, he's struggled since the break.
Entering Sunday, here were his season splits:
First half: .289/.324/.556 (.880 OPS)
Second half: .261/.288/.471 (.759 OPS)
He's been particularly cold over the last couple weeks, without a homer since Aug. 5 and slashing .213/.246/.295 (.541 OPS) in that time with 6 RBI in 17 games.
But he isn't slumping in the way you'd think. Baez is a free-swinger who often chase pitches out of the strike zone, which can lead to a huge spike in strikeouts, especially during cold streaks.
However, he's striking out just 24.3 percent of the time since the All-Star Break and that number is only 21.5 percent since Aug. 5.
His season strikeout rate is 27.3 percent, so he's making contact more lately than he has all year, but to worse offensive results.
"It's just missing his pitch and really, he's gonna be out of the zone anyways, but a lot of times when he's out of the zone, the ball still gets on the fat part of the bat," Joe Maddon said. "That just hasn't been as frequent. ... He's just been off a little bit. It's just not getting to the barrel as often, but it will.
"When I see a situation like this with a guy like that, I believe we're gonna benefit when it really matters moving forward. But otherwise, I think he's playing really well."
Maddon also believes the downturn could be related to Baez simply being worn down, playing essentially every inning of the Cubs season. He always plays hard, but this year, he's had to contend with a heel injury suffered in late-May while also playing shortstop full-time for the first time in his big-league career and ranging all over the outfield grass as the central figure in the Cubs' shifting techniques.
They were able to get him out of the second half of the game in Saturday's blowout for a half-day off and then he will get a rest Monday for the team's off-day.
"More than anything, the guy can definitely use a rest and I gotta make sure we stay on top of that," Maddon said. "It's just him playing hard. Man, he hit some weak ground balls, but he ran hard to first base and I really appreciate that. His defense has been outstanding in spite of all that."
Baez's defense has been elite (FanGraphs credits him with 16 Defensive Runs Saved so far this season), but rest will be hard to come by down the stretch (the Cubs only have one off-day after Sept. 4) and this lineup needs him in top form if they're going to put it all together and achieve the consistent production they're striving for.