Here’s Why the Cubs Bullpen Pitching isn’t Their Achilles Heal

Pitching tends to be a rather fragile part of baseball, to say the least. It can be, and usually is, the difference between just getting to the playoffs and winning a world series. It’s because of this fragile nature that it must be discussed with outright, look in the mirror, honesty. So it’s under this guise that we look at the Cubs bullpen.

The timing of this post coincides with the melt down we all witnessed last night, when the Dodgers managed to spoil an otherwise sparkling outing by Jake Arrieta. How? By getting to the Cubs bullpen, namely Clayton Richard. So we wanted to take a look at the Cubs’ bullpen year-to-date performance and discuss what the options would look like sans Richard, or if that would even be an option at all.

We’ll look at the bullpen options based on the current 40-man roster (non-DL). Here is a table of those pitchers, separated by major and minor league:

Major League T IP K/9 BB/9 BABIP ERA FIP
Hector Rondon R 17.1 14.0 1.04 .242 1.04 1.10
Pedro Strop R 20 12.6 3.60 .250 2.70 2.32
Justin Grimm R 19.1 9.8 2.79 .234 3.72 4.05
Travis Wood L 19.1 7.5 2.79 .176 2.79 4.57
Adam Warren R 19.1 7.5 5.12 .163 2.79 5.86
Clayton Richard L 9 5.0 3.00 .432 8.00 3.34
Trevor Cahill R 24 9.4 5.25 .238 2.63 5.08
Total 136.0 9.8 3.90 .243 3.18 3.98

note: total innings pitched include pitchers not currently on the Cubs’ 25-man roster, hence these stats will not sum to the totals

Minor League T IP K/9 BB/9 BABIP ERA FIP
Pierce Johnson R 15.2 11.5 4.60 .405 5.17 3.70
Carl Edwards R 19.1 13.0 4.19 .262 1.86 2.20
Spencer Patton R 19 13.7 3.79 .333 1.42 2.23
C.J. Riefenhauser L 12.1 8.8 5.84 .212 7.30 5.24
Giovanni Soto L 16.1 9.4 6.61 .341 4.96 4.38

The Cubs bullpen is currently ranked sixth in the majors based on overall ERA at 3.18. So, they’re very good comparatively speaking. And really, looking at the relievers from top to bottom, there is arguably very little room for criticism. That’s where we come to the elephant in the room, Clayton Richard.

Clayton has not been very good so far this year in his limited exposure to major league hitting. He’s only been used as a situational pitcher in match-ups against left-handed batters. So an admittedly small sample size. But when looking at a guy like Richard, who is really only getting in the game for one, maybe two batters, and will likely only see 25 to 30 total innings, you’re sample size is naturally small. Why? Because the size of the population is small.

I touch on the sample size because there are too many pundits out there that only talk about sample sizes but never mention a word about population sizes, and population absolutely needs to be considered whenever you talk sample sizes. But I digress.

My point to all of this ranting is that you cannot and should not dismiss Clayton Richard’s performance or statistics simply because it relies on a small sample and a small population.

Where we should look is at his very high BABIP. It’s unreasonable to suggest that BABIP stays at that level. In fact, look no further than his FIP of 3.34 and you see that really, Clayton has been pitching fairly well but not having much luck.

Now, let’s look at the alternatives from the Cubs 40-man roster. Since Richard is mainly a lefty match-up pitcher we’d really want to consider only lefties to step in and take over for him. That leaves us with CJ Riefenhauser and Giovanni Soto, who the Cubs recently acquired from the Cleveland Indians.

Looking at those two pitchers, you’d be left taking a flier on Soto who has pitched a total of 3.1 innings in the major leagues for Cleveland. As far as Riefenhauser, he’s had only 19.3 innings of big league experience and is sitting at 5+ ERA during those appearances. So, in all honesty, there really is no good solution to replace the weakest link in the Cubs bullpen.

The good news is that the worst pitcher in an otherwise darn good bullpen is a situational lefty who rarely takes the ball. The bad news is that there are going to be times, like last night’s game, when he comes in and blows things. But, in fairness, the Cubs offense was completely stalled in that game — they had only one hit. If Richard had blown the game with a 3-1 lead, that’d be much worse.

The bottom line is that, while the Cubs bullpen has been very, very good, there are still some weaknesses. When you think about the playoffs and what it takes to succeed there (which is what we need to consider), you still have to feel very right about where this bullpen stands. Any upgrade is likely going to have to come from a trade. And when you’re looking at the 6th best reliever ERA in baseball I just don’t see how you can justify trading anything of value to get a lefty situational guy that’s going to be a big improvement over Richard.

So, to answer the question ‘Is bullpen pitching the Cubs’ achilles heal?’ The answer is a resounding ‘no,’ but I’m sure people will continue looking for the Cubs’ weaknesses under any and every stone.

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