As Cubs look to augment bullpen this winter, here's what they need to fix


For the first time in a few years, the bullpen did not take center stage in the Fall Classic. 

The powerhouse rotations of both the Astros and Nationals have — rightfully — drawn the focus, with Wednesday night's Game 7 marking the first time since 2001 that both starting pitchers went at least five innings in a winner-take-all contest.

That's quite the changeup compared to the days of bullpenning and short starts that have filled the past few Octobers.

But that likely won't do much to change the importance of bullpens in 2020 and beyond and it will be one of the most fascinating areas to watch as the Cubs reshape their roster this winter.

In fact, relievers are now more important to today's game than ever before, accounting for more innings and also experiencing more struggles compared to just a few years ago.

Here's where the league average ERA and innings total (per team) stand for bullpens over the last five MLB seasons:

2019: 4.43 ERA, 609 IP
2018: 4.08 ERA, 581 IP
2017: 4.15 ERA, 549 IP
2016: 3.93 ERA, 530 IP
2015: 3.71 ERA, 506 IP

So in the span of just five seasons, relievers have been tasked with pitching 103 more innings per team — on average — and the ERA has subsequently jumped 72 points. 

A big part of the dip in bullpen effectiveness could be explained by the usage, but the 2019 baseball and home run spike was also a huge factor.

"If you look across the league, bullpens were a roller coaster on every single team," veteran Cubs reliever Steve Cishek said on the final weekend of the regular season. "Even teams in the playoffs, the guys that teams relied on weren't pitching as well now, based on usage or whatever it may be. That's just been kind of the theme. If you have a close lead and with the baseballs we're throwing out there right now, it's tough to hold that lead. You feel like you have to pitch perfect all the time. 

"It's totally different. I'm a big pitch-to-contact guy and that's super risky now because if anybody gets lift on the ball, it's gone. It's insane. ... We joke around, there's a 0 percent chance of the ball leaving the yard if they hit it on the ground. That was always my philosophy — I was a sinkerball guy, but now guys are learning how to lift the ball, so now you have to change your approach. 

"With these baseballs, they can leave the yard at any moment. One-run leads aren't safe. You almost have to pitch to perfection and sometimes that can catch up to you."

The idea that even a 10-year MLB veteran like Cishek feels like he would have to be perfect on every single pitch illustrates how much pressure relievers were under in 2019 with home run totals soaring through the roof. 

We don't know how the baseball will play in 2020 — common sense would dictate some sort of regression — but the Cubs have to address their bullpen regardless of the home run rate.

In 2019, the Cubs finished eighth in Major League Baseball with a 3.98 bullpen ERA, though most fans will remember the down moments like Cishek walking in the winning run in San Diego or Craig Kimbrel serving up homers on back-to-back pitches to blow a lead against the Cardinals on the final homestand. 

The overall bullpen stats don't tell the whole story — the Cubs struggled mightily in the most important moments in games.

Theo Epstein summed it up thusly:

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," he said at his end-of-season presser. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1- and 2-run games. 

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

As a team, the Cubs ranked 24th in baseball in ERA (7.92) in high-leverage spots, as defined by FanGraphs, though two of the teams behind them (Dodgers, Nationals) wound up facing off against each other in the National League Division Series.

The Cubs bullpen had the worst K-BB percentage (5.3 percent) in the league in high-leverage spots, mostly because they walked a league-high 15.4 percent of batters in such situations, tied with the 105-loss Marlins. 

But it was also where the inability to miss bats came into play as Cubs relievers struck out only 20.7 percent of opposing hitters in high-leverage spots, which ranked 29th in baseball ahead of only the White Sox.

Meanwhile, in low- and medium-leverage spots (again, defined by FanGraphs), the Cubs tied for second in the MLB with a 3.19 ERA, though they still walked far too many hitters (ranking 26th with a 10.4 percent walk rate). 

In short, the Cubs bullpen had too many issues doling out free passes in 2019 and did not miss near enough bats to make up for it. Those issues were magnified in tight spots late in games and told the real story of the 2019 unit. 

Of course, high-leverage spots are an enormous part of a bullpen's performance, so how do the Cubs fix it? 

Epstein is looking at the glass half-full.

"We were actually fourth in the league in bullpen ERA, second in the second half — which doesn’t mean anything if you can’t pitch in high-leverage situations," Epstein said. "But I think it shows the talent level that’s there and [it’s] encouraging as well, because a lot of those contributions came from some under the radar pitchers, guys who were up through the organization or acquired in small deals, who I think made real important adjustments and showed that they can compete and potentially dominate at the big-league level. 

"We’ve seen more of that. We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats, which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

A lot of that will come down to Craig Kimbrel, the embattled closer who is coming off by far the worst season of his career — a year filled with starts and stops due to his delayed free agency pursuit and then injuries and ineffectiveness once he got on the field for the Cubs. 

In addition to his issues with home runs and walks, Kimbrel recorded the lowest strikeout percentage of his career. Still, whiffing 31.3 percent of batters faced is nothing to sneeze at and, in fact, is the same rate at which Yu Darvish struck out batters in 2019 and would've ranked just outside the Top 30 relievers if Kimbrel had pitched enough innings to qualify.

Beyond that, the Cubs were really encouraged by what they saw in Brad Wieck and Rowan Wick late in the season and Kyle Ryan was a staple in the bullpen all season. In small sample sizes, Alec Mills and Duane Underwood Jr. also flashed the ability to miss bats while limiting free passes.

The trick now will be for Epstein's front office to augment that base group of relievers via free agency or trade, adding guys with proven track records in high-leverage moments and an ability to get a whiff in key spots.

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