As the fortunes of the Chicago Cubs have changed of late, so too have those of their bullpen. Entering June, the relief corps was proving to be the team's biggest weakness. May saw them put up an abysmal 5.19 ERA as a collective across 102 1/3 innings with a 1.489 WHIP, all while getting pinned with ten of the team's losses across that month. It seemed like a major shake-up was in order to get things right.
Cut to June 20 and things are looking up for the group. In 51 2/3 innings this month, the team has a much-improved 3.48 ERA in relief with only one loss against them. Things aren't entirely rosy with a 1.431 WHIP, but the strikeouts have also been up - 11 Ks per nine innings instead of 8.3 in May. It didn't start pretty with the bullpen contributing to losses early in the month, but the results are overall solid.
What changed of late? Part of it is an excellent stretch from the starting pitching rotation keeping the team's best arms fresh as they continue to improve. Adbert Alzolay has come into his own as the closer, sporting an excellent 1.97 ERA and 2.59 FIP. Mark Leiter Jr., too, remains a force in the back end with a 2.73 ERA and 2.83 FIP. Massive strides from the likes of Julian Merryweather and Michael Fulmer, however, have especially helped the team form a strong core to their bullpen.
Merryweather started the year on a rough note but only ever had one truly awful performance back in April against the Brewers. Since that first month, he's been lights out, pulling his ERA down to 3.19. He's only given up two earned runs since the start of May with 30 strikeouts across those 19 1/3 innings. It's a bigger relief, however, to see the Cubs' biggest bullpen signing turn it around. Fulmer has slowly crept back into higher leverage, becoming a solid bridge to the team's relief aces. Since his May 27 blowup against the Reds, he's gone ten innings with no earned runs and held opponents to a .161 batting average.
The Cubs bullpen has been instrumental in their recent success
It's not ideal that the Cubs have mostly leaned on just the four guys mentioned, but those four have handled some major assignments. Last week, Merryweather, Leiter Jr., and Alzolay shut down one of the premiere teams in baseball, the Orioles, in a 3-2 game. The latter two plus Fulmer kept the Pirates down on June 14 (minus an unearned run) after they dinged Drew Smyly for five runs in six innings. Those are just two notable examples, but whenever needed, they've all answered the call with flying colors in June.
This Cubs bullpen could still use another piece or two, however. Kay showed promise in his first few innings and Rucker, for all his flaws, isn't the worst up-and-down guy to have around. More arms in Iowa could be on the way for reinforcements too and, if the Cubs stay competitive, a smaller trade for another solid reliever or two could be in the cards. It's not all there right now, but there's at least a firm circle of trust forming for David Ross which is more than we could say back in May.