Moar Pitchings! How Cubs Could Quickly get out of the Cellar (if they wanted)

Moar Pitchings! How Cubs Could Quickly get out of the Cellar (if they wanted)

"This is a simple game. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball."

Broadly, there are only three things a baseball team can try to get better at from year to year: pitching, hitting, and defense.

So how did the Cubs rate at each of those components in 2013? I'll use Fangraphs' WAR estimates to assess.

Team Batting WAR: ranked 21st (hey, not bad!)
Team Defensive Runs Saved: ranked 3rd (what what what?!?)
Team Pitching WAR: ranked 26th (I see.)

(Before I get into talking about pitching, recall that Starlin Castro hit .245/.284/.347 last year. He was essentially a replacement level player, despite posting 8 WAR over the prior three seasons. So even though they haven't added any big free agent bats, the Cubs might hit better in 2014 if just that one guy can turn some things around.)

OK, so pitching. It's sort of nice that this is the thing the Cubs are particularly bad at, because there's an obvious way to get an even closer look at a team's pitching performance: starters vs. relievers.

Cubs starters ranked 20th in WAR last year -- neat! Of the Cubs that started at least one game, not one pitcher ended the season with an ERA above 5 (yes, sort of a high bar there but still noteworthy). And only three Cub starters ended the year with an ERA above 4. So, that's groovy.

Now let's look at the bullpen rank: the Cubs were 29th out of 30 teams there. Oh no!

Do you recall how poor the Cubs' overall record was throughout the season last year in relation to their expected (i.e. Pythagorean) record? When teams underperform their expected Win%, it usually comes down to clutch hitting and relief pitching.

And Cubs relievers were definitely bad last year. They rated 27th in BB/9, 28th in K/BB, 27th in blown saves (with 26), and 25th in ERA. (Interestingly, the Cubs bullpen had the lowest GB% of any unit. Did that lead to too many home runs and doubles, not enough GIDPs?)

It's also interesting to look at some of the WAR totals other teams' bullpens racked up. For example, the Texas Rangers bullpen was worth 7.6 WAR! In all, 13 teams got at least 4 WAR out of their bullpens last year, and more than half of all teams were at least above 3.5. The Cubs bullpen actually had a *negative* WAR last year.

Having said all this, there's an obvious question: will the Cubs bullpen be better in 2014 than in 2013? Let's start by listing the relief corps the Cubs brought to Pittsburgh on Opening Day of last year.

2013: Fujikawa, Bowden, Russell, Takahashi, Camp, Rondon, Marmol

Oh my god that group is so bad!!!!! My jaw is, like, on the floor from having just written that out. Ahhhhh!!!!!

And here are 10 or so guys that might start out this season as Cubs relievers:

Veras, Strop, Russell, Villanueva, Parker, Grimm, Rosscup, Cabrera, Rondon, Vizcaino?!?!?!

Few sure things in that set, but it'll be hard to do worse than last year's crew.



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    Nowhere to go but up, right?

  • In reply to Evan Altman:

    Not necessarily. The only reason the Cubs weren't the worst team in town is that they swept the Crosstown series.

  • Another take-away is how sketchy the "defensive runs saved" stat is. Our shortstop led the NL in errors. Our pitchers led the majors in errors. Our catchers led the NL in errors (although we are told by some Castillo is an elite defensive catcher because he is good at blocking pitches). Our backup catcher helped set a ML record for wild pitches in one inning (5). And very little team speed and mostly average range, including in the outfield. Even Barney -- whose raw fielding percentage stats suggested a very good defensive year -- had a surprising increase in mental errors and seemed to botch more double pivots than the previous year. (Yes this last one is more subjective than stat based.) As with most stats like "defensive runs saved," the devil is in the detail, meaning the weighted equation. But just the idea the Cubs are loaded with all of these standout defensive players is enough to make one question the value of the stat.

  • In reply to SkitSketchJeff:

    On the one hand I agree, there are some reasons to think that stat doesn't make sense. But if it's any consolation, hitting and pitching are way way more important than defense.

  • In reply to ajwalsh08:

    Very true, although defense and pitching are often closely tied. The better the defense, the lower starters' pitch counts and fewer innings pitched by lower quality bullpen arms. But I agree. I would take strong pitching and hitting over any other combination of two... as the Giants proved winning the 2012 World Series and the Cardinals in 2011.

  • In reply to SkitSketchJeff:

    One other thing on defense: Cubs BABIP allowed was 3rd lowest. Part of that is pitch type but part of that is making outs when the ball is put into play.

  • I had forgotten the bullpen sucked that badly last year until I read this.

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