On the fringe of the postseason, the Cubs have found unexpected success from an unexpected source.
The Chicago Cubs struggle began from the onset of a wonky mid-July Opening Day and seemed to go downhill quickly from thereon. Despite early success as a club encapsulated with a 10-3 start, the team’s relief core experienced an ugly start, and it got worse before it got better.
In just the first week of the season, the Cubs ranked dead last amongst all teams in baseball. The relief staff carried a porous 9.55 ERA in its first 21 2/3 innings, an 18.3 percent walk rate, and 6.26 xFIP. Craig Kimbrel, hoping to rebound in a big way using a shortened campaign to his advantage, went about as far the complete opposite direction as anybody could go.
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In his first appearance, Kimbrel tossed just a third of an inning. He walked four and allowed a couple of earned runs to go along with the disaster. Kimbrel’s first four appearances on the season yielded a 23.63 ERA, 12.06 xFIP, and a 25 percent walk rate. The veteran right-hander was not the only problem, however.
Duane Underwood Jr., who the Cubs had high hopes for this season, also struggled. Underwood posted a 9.00 ERA in his first four appearances along with a 28.6 percent HR/FB rate as he couldn’t seem to keep the ball in the yard.
On and on it went as over the first half of the season, the Cubs finished with the fourth-worst bullpen in baseball, limping to a 5.30 ERA and 13 percent walk rate. Things had to get worse before improving, right?
All in all, by the season’s end, the bullpen has elevated itself to a middle-of-the-pack finish. The 4.38 ERA was good enough for a top-15 finish across baseball. The 4.07 xFIP was the third-best in baseball behind only the Milwaukee Brewers (3.72) and Los Angeles Dodgers (3.88). While it is all well and good with a rash of improvement, it is not ending this tale.
Entering the final stretch, the Cubs relief core needed to find strength if they wanted to hold on to their division lead and reach the postseason. They rose to the challenge, finishing with a 2.96 ERA, second-best in baseball behind only the Tampa Bay Rays.
Strikeout rates improved to a staunch 27.7 percent rate while the walk rate dropped to 8.1 percent. The long ball also improved as they allowed a 0.88 HR/9 rate. As the Cubs enter the wild card series at home versus the Miami Marlins, set to begin Wednesday, they will rely on their starting pitching of Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish to get the job done.
If the bullpen factors into the series, as it foreseeably will, they, at least, are in a strong position to make some noise this postseason as they set course to capture their second World Series championship in five seasons.