The Cubs bullpen was a major flaw of the 2019 team. Failures by the pen got the 2019 off to a rough start, and ultimately derailed momentum multiple times over the course of the season. During the present winning window, it seemed like the Cubs always had a good pen. Why the sudden flip in 2019?
A lot of people blame Thed for not making enough moves to reinforce the bullpen. That's an idea I've never completely agreed with, as it seemed on paper that it was good enough to start off with. It's time to analyze whether Thed made mistakes, or whether a perfect storm of injuries and issues made the bullpen unpredictably bad.
I'm going to start by talking about the relief pitchers on the active roster on opening day 2019. As we know, Brandon Morrow spent the 2019 season fighting off chronic setbacks with his fragile arm. I really did think he'd be able to pitch at least a month or two this season. It seemed like management was going to take it slow with him so he could ramp up and pitch down the stretch, bare minimum. That set the Cubs back significantly right off the bat.
2018: 59.2 IP, 2.26 ERA, .989 WHIP, 3.2 BB/9, .6 HR/9, 8.6 K/9,
2019: 41.2 IP, 4.97 ERA, 1.272 WHIP, 4.3 BB/9, 1.3 hr/9, 10.6 K/9
Pedro Strop was a lockdown RP in 2018, turning in a career year performance. You just couldn't expect that out of him again. But you also couldn't really expect for himself to nearly pitch himself out of the bullpen by year end. Total HR went from 4 to 6, in fewer innings. Strikeouts were actually up from the previous year. Walks were up by 1.1 per 9. The killer stat was the .6->1.3 HR/9. It seemed like he became a chronic victim of a poorly timed longball. It was not pretty.
Carl Edwards Jr.
2018: 52 IP, 2.60 ERA, 1.308 WHIP, 6.2 H/9, 5.5 BB/9, .3 HR/9, 11.6 K/9
2019: 15.1 IP, 5.87 ERA, 1.109 WHIP, 4.7 H/9, 5.3 BB/9 1.6 HR/9, 10 K/9
Carl Edwards Jr. Had a disastrous 2019. He pitched himself out of Chicago, then only pitched in 2 games after being traded. It was puzzling. His whip was down by .2, thanks to a 1.5 less hits per 9 and a .2 less walk rate. Known for being wild, his walks were actually down slightly. What happened? The Home runs went from a microscopic .3 to 1.6 per 9 innings. Hitters weren't making a ton more contact, they were making better contact and squaring him up. The K rate did drop from 11.6 to 10, which indicates batters were seeing him better. Another key stat is the IP to games pitched ratio. In 2018 Edwards threw 52 IP in 58 games, a ratio of .89. In 2019, it was 15.1 IP in 20 games a drastic drop to .76. He had a much shorter leash.
Now there was his windup motion debacle coming out of spring training, where he went back to AAA for a month to fix. Before the fix, there was 4 appearances, 6 earned runs, 3 hits, and 5 walks. 2 appearances with no outs recorded. After the stint at AAA, he came back and settled down... slightly? Looking over his game logs, there were runs allowed roughly every fourth appearance. He'd only allow 1 more home run for the rest of his time with the Cubs, but the instability sent him packing to San Diego. hardly something you could expect from a key bullpen piece from years prior.
Mike Montgomery: no starts for the Cubs in 2019. 2018 stats are overall, 2019 are Cubs only.
2018: 3.99 ERA, 1.371 WHIP, 9.5 H/9, 2.8 BB/9, 6.2 K/9, .7 HR/9
2019: 5.67 ERA, 1.778 WHIP, 11.7 H/9, 4.3 BB/9, 6.0 k/9, 2 HR/9
Mike Montgomery was just a disaster for the Cubs in 19. No starts, his 5.67 ERA was among the worst in the pen. Everything ballooned. His WHIP skyrocketed, because he averaged 2 more hits and 1 more walk per 9. Strikeouts were similar. Whatever soft contact the defense could grab before was getting hit harder. But his HR/9 rate went from an average .7 to a massive 2 per 9 IP. 2 home runs per 9 innings, with nearly 2 baserunners allowed per inning is a recipe for disaster. Unable to keep the ball in the ballpark, he was unloaded to Kansas City and righted the ship somewhat, being given a shot in their rotation.
2018: 5.30 ERA, 1.804 WHIP, 8 H/9, 8.2 BB/9, .8 HR/9
2019: 3.76 ERA, 1.330 WHIP, 7.6 H/9, 4.3 BB/9 .9 HR/9
Tyler Chatwood was a bright spot in the Cubs bullpen. He also made a few starts, but became a flexible multiinning reliever. The key was cutting down the walks. Going from an insane 8.2 to a so so 4.3 per 9 helped a lot. Hits and homers were similar. The lack of walks helped cut the ERA by 1.6 and the WHIP by .5 . He was able scatter hits and really came up big in a few situations over the course of the year
2018: 3.59 ERA, 1.596 WHIP, 10.3 H/9, .7 HR/9, 4.0 BB/9
2019: 6.13 ERA, 1.765 WHIP, 9.5 H/9, .7 HR/9, 6.4 BB/9 (numbers with Cubs only)
Brad Brach was a supplemental piece brought in by Thed. He had a rough first half in 2018, but an absolute lights out second half. It all fell apart for the Cubs. He had the worst ERA in the bullpen (a mighty feat considering the struggles of others. Unlike others, his HR/9 rate remained consistent. The hits per 9 even dropped, by .8. The walks went from an average 4 to a high 6.4. He got away with a bad WHIP in 2018, but in 2019 it caught up with him. His ERA almost doubled, I'm not sure you could have predicted that.
2018: 4.60 ERA, .7 HR/9, 3.3 BB/9, 9.9 H/9, 6.4 K/9
2019: 2.68 ERA, .8 HR/9, 2.1 BB/9, 7.3 H/9, 7.6 K/9
Kintzler was an unexpected surprise. He had a rough 18, and was arguably the Cubs best RP in 2019. Somehow. He increased his strikeouts slightly, and cut his walks by 1 per 9. He also shaved off 2 hits per 9. HR rate stayed the same, but it just goes to show you how a few less baserunners can go a long way.
2018: 70.1 IP, 2.18 ERA, 1.038 WHIP, .6 HR/9, 10 K/9
2019: 64 IP, 2.95 ERA, 1.203 WHIP, 1 HR/9, 8 K/9
Shrek had a career year in 2018. He wasn't going to duplicate it. He still turned in a respectable sub-3 ERA, even if it was up by a nearly a full run from the year before. The WHIP increased, as did the home runs, while the strikeouts dropped. It was a downturn, but he was largely able to work through it. he wasn't great, but was still effective.
So here is how it tallies up. Out of 7 RPs on the opening day roster, 3 pitched themselves off the team (Brach, Edwards, and Montgomery). Strop almost did by year end. Chatwood and Kintzler were the only pitchers better than the year before. Cishek was stable, but was missing a lot of production from his career high year. That's 5/7 pitching worse, and 2/7 pitching better. Considering the sharp drop offs of Strop, Edwards, and Montgomery, it's no wonder the pen was a disaster. Morrow aside, you lost 2 out of 3 of your proverbial 7-8-9th inning guys. There was a lot to overcome.
I'm not sure how much of these gets pinned on Joe Maddon or Thed. Sometimes, you can see seasons like Cishek's coming, where you know they just won't duplicate what they did. Can you predict Strop, Edwards, Montgomery, and Brach nearly doubling their ERA? I just don't think so.
Next time, we'll take a look at what Thed did throughout the year to combat these issues with the Cubs 2019 bullpen.