Can the Chicago Cubs be the latest team to ride a bullpen into October?

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

A lot of the questions about the Chicago Cubs coming into the 2021 season have been answered, and the performance of the bullpen stands out particularly.

The Cubs bullpen has the second-best ERA in baseball at 2.69, and is tied for the Major League lead in bullpen WAR at 2.8, with the New York Mets. Perhaps the most encouraging thing is *who* is giving the Cubs effective innings. Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson, Tommy Nance, Adbert Alzolay and Dillon Maples have all been key contributors at times this season, and Craig Kimbrel is back to being Craig Kimbrel.

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The Cubs’ homegrown talent is a driving force behind all this success, and with all the success, it’s a bullpen that’s ready for October already. The bullpen leads the Majors in strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout percentage. The opponent batting average of .196 is tops in the National League and second in the Majors.

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In today’s game, pitching wins in the playoffs, and more specifically, bullpens. The Tampa Bay Rays have rode their bullpen for years and have had a bunch of success, getting to Game 6 of the World Series in 2020. The Dodgers have been good at everything for years, and that includes the bullpen. The Kansas City Royals won the World Series in 2015 by having a dynamite bullpen.

Shortening games and limiting elite offenses is the way to go, and the Cubs have been really good at it. The bullpen just recently had a streak of 38 consecutive scoreless innings broken by giving up a run against the Reds on Saturday, but they haven’t given up a run since that run. That’s one run over 40+ innings.

A lot of credit needs to be given to Tommy Hottovy and the pitching infrastructure of the organization for figuring out the strengths of these pitchers and sticking to it. David Ross deserves a lot of credit as well for putting these guys in positions to succeed, and knowing his pitcher’s limits.

Thompson is a great example, he has pitched 17 1/3 innings and given up just one earned run on a home run. The 0.52 ERA as a multi-inning reliever speaks to his progression as a pitcher. Ross is limiting him to three innings or so and not letting hitters see him a second time. That’s a great way to build confidence for your pitchers and set them up for success.

Maples has had some trouble with his control over his career, and this year he’s not being used in too many high leverage spots. He has a 1.45 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 18 2/3rd innings. If Maples keeps having success in low leverage spots he can work his way up to high leverage spots in games.

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This group may not be this elite all season, but the success is there, and if the team can make the playoffs and carry the success over, Chicago becomes a dangerous October opponent.