Cubs: The overexposed bullpen has struggled after early success
Cubs starters have logged 309 innings, second least in the majors and ahead only of the Pirates. The overexposed bullpen has accordingly given up a league-worst 44 dingers. Three pitchers account for over a third of that total: Daniel Norris (7), Mychal Givens (5), and Alec Mills (4). (Frank Schwindel has also given up four, but, hey, this isn’t his day job.)
Norris has always been a homer-prone pitcher; the value he brings is lots of strikeouts. At this stage of his career, however, he’s probably better suited to be a LOOGY, but he can’t serve in that role because rules. His homer rate against lefties this year is four percent, a high number, but he’s held lefties overall to an acceptable .657 OPS. Against righties, his homer rate is a stratospheric eight percent with an OPS against of <gulp> .989.
Baseball may have moved on from Norris, and so, perhaps, will the Cubs. Unlike the beginning of the season, Ross now has a second lefty in the pen he can use, Brandon Hughes, who is off to a very solid start (2.87 ERA, 3.38 FIP) in his first 13 innings. Norris still generates a fantastic number of whiffs and his fastball has a good spin rate, so there is some hope he can find himself, but his opportunities may shrink.
As for Givens, the Devil came to collect in 2019. From 2015-18, his first four seasons, he had a homer rate of just two percent. Since then, it’s been a bloated 4.4 percent, exactly what he’s put up this season with the Cubs. Like Norris, Givens misses a lot of bats, but the Cubs haven’t been able to correct his gopheritis. Givens got off to a good start, but Scott Effross has recently put up excellent numbers and has a Statcast page that’s red all over. He may have shouldered past Givens into Ross’ Circle of Trust.
The Cubs’ best hope for Mills and some of the other homer-prone bullpen arms is that the team doesn’t have to rely on them as much in the future. This is less a roster construction problem than a rotation problem. The rotation needs to get healthy and perform better to keep the secondary bullpen pitchers out of harm’s way.
Can the Cubs get the pitching staff down to Earth?
A healthy rotation, a renewed Hendricks, a refined bullpen mix … you don’t have to squint too hard to see the route to a less gopher-riffic staff. The prize, sadly, won’t be a playoff spot: the Cubs have already lost just 13 fewer games than the San Francisco Giants lost in the entire 2021 season, and hockey’s not even done yet. The front office’s goals now are longer term: see which of the younger pitchers can become key cogs in the next playoff machine, and see which of the older ones can either last that long or get flipped for mineable ore.
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Relegation doesn’t exist (yet) in professional baseball, but as teams slide toward playoff oblivion, watching major league games becomes more like watching minor league ones. It’s less about the wins and losses and more about watching who develops and how. The Cubs’ great test this season isn’t whether they can win 68 games or 75, but rather whether they can learn more about maximizing the talent they have.