The Chicago Cubs got off to such a promising start to their 2023 campaign. While it’s always easy to overreact in April, this team seemed to showcase the ability to be a playoff contender with their starting pitching, contact rate on offense, and run differential. However, a whole different side to this group has been brought out in May and serious concerns have now arisen. As David Ross weathers the storm through a 9-18 month of May, we look to find a root cause. Along with the bullpen issues, one of the findings is around a stat known as the ‘clutch factor.’
The biggest pain point that stands out with this team is the bullpen. We know it’s bad when Jed Hoyer himself said ‘It’s on me’ when asked about the bullpen woes so far. The way he’s constructed the bullpen in the past has proven to be effective but with the makeup this year, questions about its sustainability are in question.
Through May, the Cubs own the 5th worst bullpen ERA in baseball with a 4.65. They also rank second-to-last ahead of the woeful A’s in bullpen record (5-15) and saves (6). It doesn’t take much to see this group has held the Cubs back immensely so far in 2023. Without a true closer, the only glimmer of hope for one is the return of Codi Heuer (acquired in the Craig Kimbrel trade with Nick Madrigal).
Another key contributor to the almost disastrous start is the clutch factor. On paper, the Cubs' offense looks fine with a .748 OPS through May, good for 10th in baseball. Also, they owned the 4th best run differential in baseball on May 1 at +43. Surprisingly, they still sit positive on the year at +4 (16th) after the brutal month that dropped them 8 games under .500.
However, when we look under the hood, the offense isn’t in as good of shape as it may seem. One key statistic in baseball is the ‘clutch factor.’ Per FanGraphs, this measures how well a player or team does in high-leverage situations. They measure the average between 1 and -1 and note anything negative is considered below average.
The Cubs own the worst clutch rating in all of baseball at -6.35 through May. The next team is the Minnesota Twins but they’re not even close as they own a -3.57 rating. This is arguably the most concerning figure for this group as it showcases they’ve been unable to step up in the biggest moments so far this season. We like to think positive regression will occur, but this team hasn’t given us much to be hopeful.
We know the potential this group has with the argument there for at least four All-Stars in Nico Hoerner, Dansby Swanson, Justin Steele, and Marcus Stroman. However, this team has shown us that they're not a complete group. If this bullpen can show us some signs of life, along with the bats in tight ballgames, this team will be back into the thick of it.