Is Cubs Bullpen October-Ready?

I’ve enjoyed watching this edition of October playoff baseball.

With the Cubs absent for a bit of a stretch from the postseason activities (so many activities!), I usually watch through the lens of a fan. Yet I often find myself analyzing, comparing these teams to the Cubs in terms of what elements they already may posses and what they still lack to be able to play on the big stage.

In doing so, there is one area where I feel confident the Cubs are already well equipped for October: the bullpen.

Wait, did I actually just suggest that the bullpen is a strength for the Cubs?

The ‘pen is always under the spotlight, but come October it gets even hotter under the bigger lights and the eyes of a national audience. Looking around at this October’s participants, there are some standout units that have really shined. On the flip side, it’s hard to dispute that the loaded Tigers squad’s undoing wasn’t their leaky pen.

Don’t look now, but the young guns in the Cubs bullpen can actually hang with stellar relief corps like the Orioles, Royals, Cardinals, and Nationals. So what does make a good bullpen these days?

Well, it seems you have to have a multitude of fellas that can throw heat. Check that box for the Cubs, as they feature the likes of Hector Rondon, Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop, Neil Ramirez, Aroydis Vizciano, all of whom can bring it 95-plus. Armando Rivera should enhance that group next year as well.

How else do you measure a good bullpen? Strikeout rate and walk rate, tells me our AJ Walsh, so I looked that up.

Broadly, the Cubs don’t really stand out with regard to these stats: they were in the middle of the MLB pack (15th) with a 22.5% K rate, and tied at 10 by posting a 8.9% walk rate. But two key pieces of the bullpen rate very highly in terms of K%/BB%, which many argue is the best way of measuring strike zone control. For the 2014 season (min. 60 relief innings pitched), Pedro Strop was 29th in MLB in K/BB and Hector Rondon was 30th.

These young arms should get even stronger next season with more experience, and the Cubs should be beyond the days of having to hand money out to the Jose Veras of the world. Investing big money in your bullpen has proven to be the riskiest of propositions. Meanwhile, the Cardinals, the team the Cubs need to get past, have pretty much mastered the art of putting together stellar pens with young, inexpensive options. They really piss me off.

The Cubs, however, could be in the market for one more veteran left-hander in addition to the pickup of Joe Ortiz yesterday, as the trade of James Russell left a void there. Look for a value signing of sorts.

There was also some earlier speculation that Ramirez and/or Grimm could be stretched back out for a shot at the rotation next season. Theo Epstein squashed that notion at his recent end of the year state of the organization address.

Smart move. The young core the Cubs are putting together for the late innings could be ready for prime time now. The Cubs would be wise to keep this group together and see if it can lead to another area in which they could be set up for dominance.

“I think that’s how you build teams,” Justin Grimm told Mark Gonzalez. “Coming together takes time and experience. You just can’t throw a bunch of guys together and expect them to be a great team. It takes more than that. It takes knowing guys and knowing each other.”

“Those guys are direct results of moves that our front office made and put us in a better position,” pitching coach Chris Bosio says.

True to the cobbled-together feel of this bullpen, a former Rule 5 pick leads the group. Rondon, 26, closed out 29 of his 33 opportunities in 2014.

Strop, 29, meanwhile stabilized the setup duties and posted a 2.21 ERA in 65 appearances. He didn’t allow a home run after April 9 and allowed only two earned runs in his final 20 games. His wildness still scares me, but those are some results right there.

Ramirez, 25, struck out 53 in 43 2/3 innings to go with a 1.44 ERA in 50 appearances. Grimm also showed promise and led the Cubs with 73 appearances. But therein lies a potential problem, as manager Rick Renteria has had his detractors from both inside and outside the organization when it comes to handling his young pen.

Renteria used his relievers a league-high 536 1/3 innings. It got to the point where the front office placed Ramirez on the DL to protect their young asset from being abused. It was a real concern and still is moving forward.

In comparison, fellow rookie skipper Matt Williams used his Nationals pen for only 468 total innings, ranking near the bottom of the league. Let’s also take a look at Renteria’s usage of pitchers on consecutive days, something Fangraphs considers a key barometer to a reliever’s long-term viability.

Williams has asked his relievers to pitch on zero days rest just 56 times – fewest in the MLB.

Craig Stammen and Ross Detwiler have pitched on consecutive days just twice – fewest among all qualified relievers. Jerry Blevins and Drew Storen: just 10 times. Even Rafael Soriano, who was the closer for the majority of the season, pitched on consecutive days just 12 times. The reliever they’ve asked the most of, Tyler Clippard, has thrown on consecutive days 15 times, and even that’s just the league average.

In contrast, Renteria used his relievers on back-to-back outings 108 times, nearly twice as often. Grimm pitched a whopping 19 times on consecutive days, while Rondon (16), Brian Schlitter (16), Wesley Wright (14), and Strop (13) were also in double digits. Even James Russell, who logged only 44 innings before being traded, pitched 9 times with no rest. In a break from the trend, Ramirez only saw action on consecutive days on 5 occasions.

Of the 50 relievers who were asked to throw consecutive innings most often this year, they posted a 2.82 first-half FIP. In the second half, that jumped to 3.36, for a 54-point jump. Of the 50 relievers who were asked to throw consecutive innings least often this year, their FIP remained constant, raising just eight points from 3.62 to 3.70.

So it’s something real to keep your eye on. The Cubs will supposedly go to a 7-man pen next year, as opposed to the 8 they carried this season. Spooky…just in time for Halloween. The Cubs need to protect and enhance this asset, as it can be a fragile and fleeting commodity.

“The second you feel like you’re set, the volatility of relief performance will bite you,” said Epstein.

Hopefully, the Cubs young pen will be able to sink their teeth into October soon.

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