Is the Chicago Cubs Bullpen Absolutely Terrible, Or Something Else?

Is the Chicago Cubs Bullpen Absolutely Terrible, Or Something Else?

Wednesday's Cubs loss was fairly typical, which is to say it was totally agonizing. The Cubs had a three-run lead in the top of the 9th and somehow lost the game. Relievers issued too many walks despite having a decent cushion of a lead. Like I said, fairly typical.

Afterward, I got into it a bit with @sahadevsharma, who is very smart and should be followed by all Cubs fans on Twitter, about the quality of the Cubs' bullpen. I said they stink; he said they're not that bad.

Actually, it wasn't that simple, and I don't want to put words in Sahadev's timeline, so let's sort of forget his stance and just ask a simple question: how good are the Cubs' relief pitchers?

Let's walk through a few quantifiable things and see if we can't decide. I'm writing this on Wednesday night, so if you're reading during or after Thursday's game, those performances won't have been added to the stat sheets.

1. Strikeouts

Good pitchers get outs, and a strikeout is the best kind of out. So, how are the Cubs when it comes to the K?

In fact, they are 22nd in K% (if you want to know why this is better than K/9 just ask in the comments). As a unit, the bullpen has struck out 20 percent of the batters it has faced. The Braves lead the league at nearly 30 percent, and the White Sox are last at about half that.

Four Cubs pitchers have struck out more than 20 percent of the batters they've faced, led by Pedro Strop, who boasts a K% of 32.3 percent. That's pretty good. Grimm, Rondon, and Russell are the other three. Incidentally, each of these four pitchers was called upon to close out Wednesday's game.

Grimm has as many strikeouts (13) as all the other Cubs relievers used so far this season that we have not yet mentioned -- Veras (5), Wright (4), Rosscup, Rusin, Schlitter, Villanueva (1 each) and Parker (0).

2. Walks

To get a lot of swings-and-misses, you have to be willing to throw out of the zone. But go outside it too often and you'll issue too many walks. Are the Cubs walking too many batters?

The Cubs are currently 27th in BB% (lower is better), at 13 percent. Only three teams' bullpens -- the Reds, Blue Jays, and White Sox -- have walked a larger share of the batters they've faced. (Man, the White Sox need relief help!) Three other teams' bullpens -- the Red Sox, Brewers, and Tigers -- have walked fewer than 6 percent of the batters they've faced, and 16 teams are under 10 percent.

It shouldn't shock you to read that Jose Veras is the main culprit in making this relief corps look walk-happy -- he's walked 30 percent of the batters he's faced! Also unsurprising, the same four guys that are above the team average in K%, are also above team average in BB%.

So how about K/BB then -- are the walky guys getting enough strikeouts to justify their loose ways? Four Cubs pitchers have at least twice as many Ks as BBs: again Strop, Grimm, and Rondon, but this time it's Wright, not Russell, rounding out the group. James has a K/BB of just 1.17, which is not very good.

Intermission - a caveat

Here are two sentences that mean different things.

1. The Cubs bullpen has performed poorly to date.

2. The Cubs bullpen will be bad for the rest of the year.

There's probably some correlation between the two -- if 1 can be shown to be true, it becomes more likely that 2 will also end up being accurate. But I just want to say that I realize they're not the same claim.

And so we resume our consideration with a look at...

3. Velocity

Rather than focus on outcomes thus far, let's take a minute to look at stuff -- that is, the quality of the pitches being thrown by Cubs' relievers.

The Cubs rank 27th in average fastball velocity for all pitches thrown by relievers. Although, since the White Sox actually lead in this metric, perhaps it's a bad one to look at. Still, I think it's informative.

The team's average fastball velocity for relief pitchers has been just under 91 mph so far. Strop, Rondon, and Grimm have each been better than that, while most everyone else of note has been sitting below 88 on average.

Okay I think I'm done looking at performance to date now. Let's switch to projections.

When I want to know what the data says about what a guy is going to do, I look at two projections (they're both included on each player's Fangraphs page!): ZiPS, and Steamer.

These numbers are actually pretty weird for relief pitchers (and ZiPS still thinks Grimm is a starter). But the two systems seem to agree on a few things: for example, they both like Blake Parker pretty well, and they both think Wesley Wright will be okay.

There's one other guy on whom the two systems are in agreement: both ZiPS and Steamer project James Russell to be very, very bad the rest of the way. ZiPS has him at -0.3 fWAR, and Steamer has him at -0.4.

Okay enough talking, please just tell me what my opinion should be.

To date, the Cubs bullpen has been freaking terrible. As I said earlier, "has been bad" is not the same as "will be bad." But I don't expect Jose Veras to suddenly be great tomorrow.

That said, the team does appear to have a trio of good-if-not-great, live-armed, right-handed relievers in Rondon, Grimm, and Strop. None will be mistaken for Koji Uehara this season (for a number of reasons), but each has enough velocity to present a challenge to any major league hitter.

The trouble is on the left side. Ricky Renteria appears to have less than zero trust in Wesley Wright, for whatever reason, and James Russell is just meh, if not actively bad. One of these two -- or Zac Rosscup, or even Tsuyoshi Wada -- will need to step up if the Cubs hope to win more than 70 games this year.

In conclusion...

I kinda can't believe I just wrote 1,000 words about this bullpen. This is a bad team, they're not gonna win many games, and frankly, the quality of their left-handed relief pitching should be the least of their concerns. And, to Sahadev's credit, it's true that Rondon-Grimm-Strop has the potential to be a pretty nice trio, with a handful of intriguing arms lurking just behind them (Rosscup, Parker).

Can we both be right? Man I hope I didn't just waste everyone's time.


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  • So, the Cubs bullpen is pretty consistent at 27th out of 30.

    The Sox bullpen stinks, but a difference seems to be that while their minor league pitching roster seems depleted, they still have someone to call up (although Leesman sure wasn't prepared). Given the constraints Theo and Jed have placed on calling anyone up, what do they do if one of these nonperformers goes on the DL?

    However, the Cub bullpen is probably in the top 5 in mullets.

  • Let's hear the BB% vs BB/9 argument! I'm curious.

  • In reply to justinjabs:

    Unlike ERA, if there are multiple walks and the relief pitcher can't get anyone out, there isn't any AB or third of an inning. Some textbook from the U of I for high school math said that you can't divide by zero, so the pitcher has to pitch real well to get BB/9 out of the hole. On the other hand, there are integral numbers of strikeouts and bases on balls that one can put into the percentage, once the batter has made an appearance.

  • In reply to justinjabs:

    On further reflection, maybe like ERA if a pitcher walks a batter who eventually scores and is yanked immediately after the walk. However, in the case of a relief pitcher, the risk of a zero divisor seems higher with respect to BB/9.

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