Chicago Cubs: The bullpen and how it all came to this

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

The Chicago Cubs headed into the 2019 season with a bullpen that was among the best in MLB in many key areas.  But there was a weakness, and that weakness exploded at the start of the 2019 season.

As the Chicago Cubs front office sifted through the failure of the 2018 season, it was concluded that problem was the offense.  Theo Epstein clearly felt that way, stating that, “Our offense broke.”

All the attention on offense

No doubt the Cubs bats, hot and cold all season, went silent in September.  Almost all observers agreed that the pitching, especially after the addition of Cole Hamels and Jesse Chavez, had kept the Cubs in the hunt for the postseason.

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But the “broken” offense and the pitching rising to the occasion time and again masked a weakness.  The bullpen.  But why wasn’t that noticed by those who needed to see the problem?

A lurking danger hid in plain sight

In 2018 The Cubs bullpen earned the second-best ERA in all of MLB at 3.35.  Only Houston was better.  In total runs, they ranked third.  In Batting Average Against (BAA), they ranked fourth overall and best in the National League.  In Opponent OPS they ranked second overall and best in the National League as well.

What was there not to like?

WHIP.  And the number of walks, to be precise.  The Cubs bullpen hid a nasty weakness.  It was camouflaged by a bevy of other excellent analytics.  For all the top of MLB and best in the NL stats, the Cubs were middle of the pack in WHIP.

And walks were the central reason. The bullpen was 12th in OBP, 25th in K/BB ratio, and 26th in walks allowed.  The Cubs bullpen was a sieve when came to allowing runners on base.

So why so few runs allowed?  Because they shut down opponent slugging.  They were very, very good at suppressing slugging.  They were the best in baseball at doing that.  They gave up the fewest home runs and the fewest doubles in all of MLB.

What damage can an opponent do if they can’t get all those baserunners in?  And thus a weakness went undiagnosed.  And it waited, biding its time. And its time came.

The run explosion

You can build any container to hold any amount of pressure.  But too much pressure, and boom!  And the Cubs bullpen contained way too much in 2018. It cracked wide open in 2019.

As of this writing, the Cubs bullpen has the second-worst ERA in baseball, in total runs allowed and OPS they are the worst. In BAA they are fourth worst.  In walks, they are even worse than last year, the dead last in MLB.

But all that wouldn’t matter if they contained the slugging.  But they aren’t.  Opponents are slugging an MLB best .617 against the Cubs bullpen.  They are fourth worst in home runs allowed and fifth worst in doubles allowed.  They are pitching batting practice.

And despite last night’s win, they gave up six runs before it was all over including two multi-run blasts that followed at least one walk.  Without that seven-run spasm of scoring by the Cubs, the bullpen would have lost that game, too.

Can this be fixed?

I have no idea.  There, said it.  Will the bullpen suddenly start missing bats and inducing weak contact tomorrow?  I doubt it.  However, this will pass.  They are not THIS bad.  But by the time it does, the damage may be done.

Epstein in no hurry to make moves for bullpen. dark. Next

The bats will not, can not, keep posting double-digit run games to cover the bullpen.  It is impossible.  If the bullpen struggles don’t abate soon, the season will end as soon as bats cool off.