The Chicago Cubs have one remaining hope: small sample size

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - SEPTEMBER 03: Addison Russell #27 and Ben Zobrist #18 of the Chicago Cubs celebrate a win over the Seattle Mariners at Wrigley Field on September 03, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs defeated the Mariners 6-1. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - SEPTEMBER 03: Addison Russell #27 and Ben Zobrist #18 of the Chicago Cubs celebrate a win over the Seattle Mariners at Wrigley Field on September 03, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs defeated the Mariners 6-1. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /
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Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)
Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images) /

2019 Chicago Cubs: Underperformers

Bullpen

The bullpen has been a mess all year. But whose bullpen hasn’t been? It’s been the year of the comeback. Five bullpens (Orioles, Phillies, Mariners, Braves, Marlins) have a combined fWAR of less than zero. Only ten have combined fWARs over three. At this point last year there were 15 such clubs.

That means most teams are using 8-10 guys or more to scrape up less value than you can get from a single All-Star player. No amount of All-Star shortstops will preserve a one-run lead without a bullpen, of course.

The Chicago Cubs don’t have the worst bullpen in the majors, or even among contenders, but on the binary scale, they’re a zero. Twenty-six blown saves are the third-most in the majors. They rank 17th in holds, 14th in saves.

This, with the rotation doing a solid job of limiting their workload. The Cubs bullpenners have pitched the 4th-least innings in the majors.

Their clutch score is particularly telling, 26th in the majors. This isn’t a predictive measure, so it doesn’t mean the guys in the bullpen can’t get the big outs in the big moments. But it does mean they haven’t.

The bottom of the Cubs leaderboard in clutch opportunities is basically made up of everyone they use in high-leverage situations. That’s a problem. From the bottom up: Derek Holland, Randy Rosario, Pedro Strop, Mike Montgomery, Alec Mills, Card Edwards Jr., Brandon Kintzler, Steve Cishek, Victor Caratini.

Victor Caratini‘s presence on this list definitely creates some pause regarding the reliability of this metric, as Maddon hasn’t yet put their backup catcher on the mound in a big spot, thank god. He gets a clutch score nonetheless.

Still, the rest of those guys are the list of arms Chicago was counting on to lock down big innings coming into the season.

Strop is the one that hurts the most. Simply, he’s high enough on the totem pole to see most of his opportunities in high-leverage situations.

His overall numbers don’t necessarily warrant a public flogging: 42 games, 5.40 ERA/4.84 FIP/4.58 xFIP, -0.3 bWAR/-0.1 fWAR, 10 saves, 5 holds, 6 blown saves. But he’s been trash with two-outs in the eighth and ninth innings, which is, you know, the most heartbreaking and moral-crushing time to throw up a dud. Per Statcast, he’s rocking a 7.94 ERA in late and close game situations, 6.55 ERA with two outs.

Timing has been a failure in the macro and micro sense for these Cubs. Just when it looked like they were putting together a formidable bullpen, that’s exactly when it fell apart. Kimbrel’s first appearance with the Cubs game on June 27th. From that point on, Strop has a 5.89 ERA with 4 blown saves. His ERA in July was 7.00. In August, it was 9.00.

If there’s good news, it’s that Strop’s face 10 batters in September and yet to allow a hit. The Cubs lost all three games in which he’s appeared. So they’re still working on timing.