Kenley Jansen

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."

Dodgers look like the perfect landing spot for Jake Arrieta

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USA TODAY

Dodgers look like the perfect landing spot for Jake Arrieta

Super-agent Scott Boras already has the metaphor ready for Jake Arrieta, trying to sell his client as an updated version of Jon Lester, someone with big-game experience, proven durability and the presence to energize an entire clubhouse.   

“He’s a big squirrel,” Boras said. “He has a lot of nuts in his tree.”

That’s exactly what the Los Angeles Dodgers need now after their super-team broke down against the Houston Astros. Losing a World Series Game 7 could create a new sense of urgency and push even the most analytical organization outside its comfort zone.  

You didn’t need to be sitting in the Boras Corporation’s front-row seats at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night to see what could be coming next. One year after the Cubs finally won the World Series, Arrieta is now a free agent with the perfect landing spot already cleared in Los Angeles.  

Watching Yu Darvish get 10 outs combined in two World Series losses reinforced the perception that Arrieta is the best starting pitcher on the open market and the Dodgers whiffed by not signing Max Scherzer three years ago or trading for Justin Verlander last winter or this summer.

The Dodgers built a 104-win team with a lot of mix-and-match pieces, layering depth and versatility into the roster, elements that kept showing up across a 162-game season.

But there are lingering questions about Clayton Kershaw’s playoff performances – 7-7 with a 4.35 ERA in 122 career innings – and the three-time Cy Young Award winner can opt out of the final two years of his $215 million contract after the 2018 season.     

The Dodgers didn’t let Rich Hill go longer than five innings in any of his four playoff starts this year, allowing him to only face 18 or 19 hitters each time. Kenta Maeda didn’t get nearly as much exposure to lineups, reinventing himself as a bullpen weapon this October.

The Dodgers paid roughly $37 million to Brandon McCarthy, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Scott Kazmir this season and got almost 220 innings combined and zero playoff starts out of those investments. Julio Urias, the elite pitching prospect once compared to Fernando Valenzuela, underwent season-ending surgery on his left shoulder in June.   

Arrieta is already playoff-tested after dominating the Pittsburgh Pirates with a complete-game shutout in the 2015 National League wild-card game, beating the Cleveland Indians twice on the road during last year’s World Series and putting up a 3.08 ERA in nine postseason starts.

Arrieta will be 32 next season, but Boras will point to his relatively low pitching odometer (1,161 career big-league innings) and how that compares to Scherzer when he signed his seven-year, $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals (almost 1,240 innings).   

A sprawling Los Angeles front office saturated with Big Data should appreciate Arrieta’s numbers across the last four seasons when compared to all major-league pitchers: third in ERA (2.67) and batting average against (.201); tied for fifth in WAR (18.5) and soft-contact percentage (22); and sixth in WHIP (1.03).

Five years in a row, the Dodgers have won the NL West, a division that featured two other playoff teams this year (the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies) and a franchise that has won three World Series titles since 2010 (the San Francisco Giants).

Arrieta would help the Dodgers stay ahead in that arms race and could be the missing piece for October. It’s not 108 years, but the Dodgers haven’t won a World Series since 1988, or the year Kershaw was born. That sense of history would appeal to Arrieta’s ego and sense of purpose.

So would iconic Dodger Stadium, an ideal pitching environment where Arrieta threw a no-hitter on national TV during his 2015 Cy Young Award campaign and walked into the postgame press conference wearing a onesie covered in moustaches.

Arrieta is someone who dropped into Second City improv classes, posed nude for ESPN the Magazine’s body issue, developed his own Pilates/nutrition program and lives in Austin, Texas, during the offseason. Think Hollywood opportunities and the Southern California lifestyle might be more attractive than, say, living in St. Louis for the next five seasons and playing under The Cardinal Way?  

The Dodgers also have a core of 20-something hitters – Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Chris Taylor, Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson, Enrique Hernandez, Austin Barnes – to go with widely respected manager Dave Roberts and All-Star closer Kenley Jansen.    

After splitting the last two NL Championship Series – while also looking like contenders for years to come – imagine Arrieta returning to Wrigley Field next October in Dodger blue.   

'The better team won': Cubs had plenty of problems, but Dodgers' championship formula should look familiar to Cubs fans

'The better team won': Cubs had plenty of problems, but Dodgers' championship formula should look familiar to Cubs fans

For the second year in a row, the National League champs celebrated a pennant at Wrigley Field.

A dominating, 100-win club that had the championship formula of elite starting pitching, a lights-out closer and a fearsome lineup lifted a trophy Thursday night on the North Side and look destined to lift another before this postseason is over.

Sound familiar, Cubs fans?

The Cubs’ quest to repeat as World Series champs ended Thursday, and instead the Los Angeles Dodgers got to party, getting their revenge after the Cubs eliminated them here last October.

The next few months’ worth of conversation in Wrigleyville will center — and not inappropriately so — on the Cubs’ shortcomings this postseason. They couldn’t hit. The bullpen was woefully unreliable. And the starting pitching, particularly Jose Quintana in a two-inning, seven-run outing in Game 5, was not what it was last fall.

But if you hear that laundry list of offenses over the course of the next few days, weeks and months, remember to give some credit where credit is due, because these Dodgers look a lot like last year’s Cubs.

“The better team won over the course of these five games,” Joe Maddon said after his team’s season came to a close. “They played really well. They kind of out-pitched us and everything else. So give them credit.

“You know what it feels like coming off of last year, we were celebrating versus them in this exact same spot. So they've had themselves a spectacular year.”

The Dodgers have the elite starting pitching, as evidenced throughout this series and most specifically in two of the three games here on the North Side, where Yu Darvish (Game 3) and Clayton Kershaw (Game 5) showed why they’re two of the top pitchers in the game.

Thursday night, Kershaw did what he couldn’t do to the Cubs last October, stifling that slumping lineup with six innings of one-run ball, the only run surrendered (and just one of the three hits surrendered) a meaningless Kris Bryant home run with the Cubs down 9-0.

Altogether, Dodger pitching posted a jaw-dropping 1.64 ERA in this series. Starting pitchers were the only ones to give up runs, and they gave up just eight of them in 27 innings. The four starters’ ERA was a fantastic 2.67.

And so there’s another part of the Dodgers’ championship combination: that stellar bullpen. The Cubs got just two hits and no runs against the relief corps in the entire five-game series. In 17 shutout innings, the Dodger bullpen was pretty much unhittable.

No one shone more than Kenley Jansen, who faced 13 batters and recorded 13 outs. Cubs fans will remember how big a weapon Aroldis Chapman was out of last year’s bullpen. Well Jansen is just as incredible — and just as meaningful to this postseason run.

Now obviously the Cubs’ hitting woes weren’t exclusively the result of facing Dodger pitching. They carried over from the NLDS — another series featuring some sensational pitching from the opposition — and without the mega-slumps of Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Ben Zobrist and practically everyone else to swing a bat for the Cubs, things would have been incredibly different. But there’s something to shutting down a lineup with superior pitching, and that’s what the Dodgers did.

And then there’s the Dodgers’ offense, which has its own Bryzzo in Chris Taylor and Justin Turner, who were named the NLCS co-MVPs after combining to go 12-for-37 with four homers, 10 RBIs and eight runs scored in five games. Cody Bellinger and Yasiel Puig are mighty good hitters. And then there’s what Enrique Hernandez did Thursday night: three homers and seven RBIs in the 11-1 mauling.

That’s a fearsome lineup, and while Quintana should’ve gone longer than two-plus innings, you can’t entirely blame Cubs pitching for not being able to quiet these guys over the past four games. Moments like John Lackey giving up that walk-off homer to Turner in Game 2 will live in infamy in the collective memory of Cubs fans, but the guy’s an MVP candidate. Seeing him do something like that isn’t unexpected.

“Sometimes in our game,” Maddon said before Game 5, “there is more of an attempt to vilify as opposed to glorify. In other words, when Turner hits a home run, it's because Turner is good, not because the pitcher is bad or wrong. So I think it's been shifting in a sense that people want to blame somebody as opposed to giving somebody credit. I see a lot of that.”

So yes, there’s no doubting that the Cubs had their problems — big ones — during the 10 postseason games they played this month. And those problems will have huge effects on the offseason and how Theo Epstein & Co. construct the 2018 edition of this team.

But sometimes, as Cubs fans well know from last season’s championship run, there’s one of those teams that has that magic formula. The Cubs were that team in 2016. The Dodgers seem to fit that bill now.

"Oh I absolutely think they played better," Ben Zobrist said Thursday night. "They played better, I wouldn't say they're the better team. They were the better team in 2017. They played better in the regular season, they beat us in the postseason. They were the better team in 2017, but are we capable of being better than we were? Absolutely.

"We didn't execute, they did this series. They played phenomenal baseball and we didn't and that's why they're moving on and we're not."