Rolling the Dice: The Bullpen
In the Theo Epstein era, the Cubs have had a seemingly unorthodox approach to the bullpen. Where most teams in playoff contention try to go after established RPs, the cubs have maintained an emphasis on finding diamonds in the rough. I call it rolling the dice. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer generally plug the pen with depth, rather than quality. Has Thed uncovered a new efficiency or system to building a bullpen? Time to take a look. I will be examining mostly the post-rebuild years, as there's obviously a different front office strategy when trying to win.
The Cubs have traditionally had a good bullpen, but 2019 was a big step back. A 58% save percentage was 20th in the league. 4.43 ERA was 8th in baseball, not as bad. In better years, the Cubs bullpen would allow closer to 3.75 per game, and have a save percentage in the low 70s. Here's a look at the year over year performance of the Cubs bullpen:
To put some of these stats into context:
-Obviously the Cubs pen struggled in '19, posting worse numbers than a non-competitive 2014 team.
-League average fluctuates by year, but is typically 4.50/67%
-Teams with better bullpens typically win. in 2019, there were no playoff reams with a worse than league average ERA. Save % would vary.
A good bullpen is important. It's not always about having the best closer, but more about having a good unit that can bridge from the starter to the end of game. That in mind, Thed has rarely paid for the proverbial best arms. Most of their successes have been from depth dives. Here's a list of some of their biggest successes. Castoffs from other teams that were able to have rebound moments with the Cubs:
Kyle Ryan: Missed most of 2017 and all of 2018 with injury. Was signed to a minor league deal in 2017. Became healthy for '19 and pitched the majority of the year in the MLB.
Rowan Wick: Bounced around in the minors for the Cardinals and Padres. Had an iffy debut in 2018 for San Diego at age 25. Traded to Cubs in a trade for Jason Vosler, essentially a subpar prospect. He put it together for the Cubs in '19, coming up later in the year and only pitching in 31 games, but with a sparkling 2.43 ERA and 2.82 FIP.
Randy Rosario: A middling prospect who was with the Twins from ages 17-23, he was good in lower minors, struggled at AA, then better at AAA. He made a debut 2 appearances for the Twins and gave up 8 runs. He was a waiver claim early in the offseason before 2018 and was added to the Cubs bullpen in May. He'd stick in the pen all year, putting up a solid 3.66 ERA in 46 innings. He'd then have issues in 2019 and was claimed by the Royals.
Brian Duensing: Was a longtime Minnesota Twin. Injured, he was released in May 2016. He then signed with Baltimore for the rest of that year, pitching essentially twice in an injury shortened year in June then September. The Cubs picked him him up on a 1 year 2 million deal. He'd put it together in 2017, with a sparkling 2.74 ERA in 62 innings. (#HotDaddy 4EVA!--Staci)
Trevor Cahill: Started for 3 years apiece in Oakland and Arizona. He bombed out of the rotation in 2014, and went to Atlanta in 2015. After struggling there (7.52 ERA in 15 games), he was released in June. The Cubs picked him up in August, and he was much better in a short stint: 4.00 ERA in 17 innings. He bagan 2016 in the Cubs bullpen and was productive the entire year, with a 2.74 ERA in 65 innings. Since then he's bounced around, occasionally good, occasionally bad.
Clayton Richard: A journeyman with the Padres for years, Richard had major movement in '14 making stops with AZ and PIT (minors only). After being released in June, the Cubs picked him up, and were rewarded with a 3.83 ERA in 42 innings. He'd bomb out in 2016, but for a brief glimmer, the Cubs got some production out of a career 5 ERA pitcher.
Justin Grimm: Came up with Texas as a starter in his early 20s, and struggled to a 6.73 ERA in 22 games over 2 years. Traded to the Cubs in July 2013 in a package for Matt Garza, he was immediately shifted to the bullpen and had a good tryout in 10 appearances. He became a full time reliever in 2014, and established himself as a solid arm for 3 years before plummeting in 2017.
Pedro Strop: Came over from Baltimore in the famous 2013 Jake Arrieta trade. As a walk machine for the Orioles, Strop was a throw in of a 28 year old pitcher. He had mixed results at times, but the Orioles were done with him. He pitched well in the second half of 2013, and then became a stud in 2014. His 2.21 ERA in 61 innings established him as a solid middle reliever, and he had success for years.
Hector Rondon: Was a rule 5 pick before the 2013 season. After being in the Cleveland Indians organization for 8 years, he was a hurt 25 year old failed prospect. The Cubs picked him up, and he had a subpar '13. He figured it out in 2014, and would become the closer for all of '14-'15, before getting upgraded by Aroldis Chapman in 2016. He'd then struggle with nagging injuries and ineffectiveness.
Thed has had success in finding diamonds in the rough. Some pitchers are converted starters who flunked out of the rotation. Others are hurt arms the Cubs have been able to get production out of once they healed up. By grabbing these players off the proverbial scrap heap, the Cubs have been able to get solid production cheaply at times. But these are just the successes. For each great story, there have been more players that haven't worked out. Is this strategy actually a good one if it takes 4-5 tryouts at the big league level before finally finding someone?
Now let's look at established pitchers vs dumpster dives in terms of overall numbers. I'm going to generate an opinionated list of the Cubs bullpen players from over the years. Bold will indicate a good year, where italics will indicate a poor season. Plain text will be average, a push, neither a solid year, but not a terrible one either. In parenthesis, will be the RP's inning count with the Cubs only, so you can get a feel if their season was a tryout or if they lasted longer. Established RPs are pitchers who were essentially counted on to be a key guy going into the season, or once traded for. Dice rolls will be the castoffs, the risky players. I'm not going to include every last pitcher thrust into service. For the # of relief pitchers used, I'm not counting position players throwing 1 inning in garbage time.
2014: 16 relief pitchers used
Established RPs: Wright (48.1), Villanueva, Russell (57.2), Parker (21), Villanueva (77.2)
Dice Rolls: Rondon (63.1) Grimm (69) Strop (31), Schlitter (56.1), Ramirez (43.2), Fujikawa (13), Veras (13.1), Rosscup (13.1), Straily (13.2), Jokisch (14.1), Doubront (20.1), Vizcaino (5)
2014 was an interesting year for a team starting to turn the corner. There were a lot of dice rolls, and a few of them paid off big in Rondon, Grimm, Strop, and Ramirez. Others not so much: Veras, Fujikawa, Vizcaino, and Straily namely. Thed went into 2014 with a few decent arms, but essentially used this as a tryout year. They were able to find a few diamonds in the rough who'd contribute for seasons to come. I'd call 2014 a rousing success for dice rolling RPs, mainly for the multiyear success that Rondon, Grimm, and Strop would bring. Their success rate was low because of the sheer amount of RPs they tried out, but in a non-contention year, that strategy is fine.
2015: 19 relief pitchers used
Established RPs: Rondon (70.2), Strop (68), Wood (100.2), Grimm (49.2), Motte (48.1), Rodney (12), Russell (34)
Dice Rolls: Richard (42.1), Jackson (31), Rosscup (26.2), Hunter (15.2), Edwards (4.2), Soriano (5.2), Coke (10), Schlitter (7.1),
2015 was a year of many dice rolls. Rondon and Strop made for a nice combo for the 8th and 9th. Grimm had a solid '13, and was a go to guy by '15. There were lots of RPs that failed their tryout: Soriano, Coke, Schlitter, Hunter. The bullpen shaped up, largely due to the contributions of Wood, Grimm, Rondon and Strop. Jason Motte, Clayton Richard and Edwin Jackson contributed at times as well. I was tempted to put Wood into dice roll territory as he moved to the pen from a bad '14 as a starter, but didn't. A lot of risks were taken, and a lot paid off, as the Cubs truly entered contention. I can't quite call it either a success or failure for for RP dice rolling. On one hand, there were a couple of contributors, but also a few bad. The established guys held up, so there wasn't much need.
2016: 18 relief pitchers used
Established RPs: Rondon (51), Strop (47.1), Chapman (26.2), Wood (61), Grimm (52.2), Warren (35), Ramirez (7.2)
Dice Rolls: Cahill (65.2), Edwards (36), Patton (21.1) Zastryzny (16), Smith (14.1), Richard (14), Pena (9), Montgomery (38.1)
2016 was a middling year for the bullpen. While Rondon and Strop had the late innings locked down, they both fell short with injuries by year's end. Thed was successfully able to plug the gaps with Montgomery, Edwards, and Cahill, all of whom weren't established at the time. Grimm and Wood both contributed, but both had mixed seasons. Richard was good in '15, but stank in '16. Add in Chapman's valuable innings, and it was enough to get it done. I'd call it a great success for RP dice rolling, as Cahill, Montgomery, and Edwards all came up big. Not a lot of dice rolling was needed overall.
2017: 17 relief pitchers used
Established RPs: Wade Davis (58.2), Strop (60.1), Rondon (57.1), Grimm ( 55.1), Uehara (43), Edwards (66.1), Montgomery (130.2), Wilson (17.2)
Dice Rolls: Duensing (62.1), Pena (34.1) Zastryzny (13), Maples (5.1), Floro (9.2), Rosscup (.2)
2017 was a pretty cut and dry year for the bullpen. There were a lot of established guys who contributed. Davis, Strop, Edwards and Montgomery locked things down pretty well. Uehara was reasonable while he lasted. The RPs who faltered (Rondon, Grimm) were replaced by Wilson, Duensing, and Pena. Unfortunately 1 out of those 3 guys was actually good. I'm split on calling it a success for dice rolling or not. There wasn't much need for it, and Duensing coming up big plugged a big gap. Overall, the strategy worked when needed, but the sample size was small. Wade Davis's
2018: 23 relief pitchers used
Established RPs: Morrow (30.2), Cishek (70.1), Strop (59.2), Edwards (52), Wilson (54.2), Montgomery (124), Chavez (39), Duensing (37.2), Kintzler (18),
Dice Rolls: Rosario (46.2), Maples (5.1), Farrell (31.1) De la Rosa (21), Mills (18), Bass (15.1), Hancock (12.1)
2018 was a middling year for the bullpen corps. It started off well, with Morrow, Cishek and Strop being a lethal late inning trifecta, and with Edwards, Wilson, and Montgomery contributing. But then Morrow got hurt and missed critical baseball. Chavez was brought in and was good, but Kintzler was not. Rosario was a nice surprise out of the dice rolls category, and there was a decent 60 innings out of De La Rosa, Mills, Bass, and Hancock. This year, the established guys got it done, and there was also success from the dumpster bin. Injuries forced more pitchers to be used, and the bullpen bent, but did not break. Tough to call the strategy of dice rolling successful when Rosario is the only big success, but again, not much was needed. The only big failure was Farrell, and the Cubs got a few good innings out of a few pitchers, so yeah, it's a success.
2019: 23 relief pitchers used
Established RPs: Kimbrel (20.2), Cishek (64), Strop (41.2), Brach (39.2), Edwards (15.1), Rosario (10.2), Montgomery (27), Phelps (17), Morrow (0)
Dice Rolls: Kintzler (57), Ryan (61), Wick (33.1), Chatwood (76.2), Holland (15.2), Wieck (10), Cedeno (2), Barnette (1.1), Maples (11.2), Underwood (11.2), Mills (36)
2019 was a tough year for the pen. A lot of established guys bombed out, causing major issues. The good news is that some risks did pay off. Kintzler and Chatwood were thought to potentially not even make the team after rough '18 campaigns, and they both had solid seasons. Ryan and Wick were two good success stories that may play well going forward as well. Some of the other players were neither hit nor miss, but "good enough" at times.
Ironically, the dice rolls far surpassed what the established guys did. Lots of pitchers had to be used, but there wasn't much that could be done to stem the tide. I'd call the dice rolling a big success for '19. Kintzler rebounded, and the Cubs got solid innings out of a failed prospect (Wick), an injury cast off (Ryan), and a converted starter (Chatwood). The issue with the Cubs bullpen was the supposedly established arms, not Thed's depth choices.
After a close examination of the Cubs 2019 bullpen and then now researching the year over year results, I have confidence in Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer's ability to evaluate talent construct a bullpen. They don't throw top resources at it typically, but when they do, it's successful more often than not. Problem is, those failures really set back the team. They've been able to find a lot of castoffs over the years and get short term performance out of them. Some of their dice rolls have paid off for multiple seasons as well.
There's not a lot of bad risks they've taken, until much more recently. Betting big on Brandon Morrow and Craig Kimbrel backfired over the last two years. Before that, they did much better with Chapman and Davis. I guess it goes to show you how a bad move or two can cause a domino effect that can topple the bullpen as a unit.
The key takeaway is that every single year, the bullpen gets tested beyond it's key arms. Whether it's because of injury or ineffectiveness, an MLB team needs contributors from depth slots 7-12, beyond the guys who start the season with predefined roles on opening day. Relievers are volatile, and bullpens require constant turnover. What worked the year before doesn't always work the next, so it's a constant evaluation process to make sure that the next guy up is one who can contribute. Thed has done that really well. When an RP is needed from the minors, there is usually one there promptly.
The Cubs bullpen is in turmoil now after the rough 2019 campaign. Right now the depth chart is Kimbrel, Ryan, Wick, Wieck, and then a whole lot of dice rolls. I still think an established arm or two is necessary for competing (namely due to Kimbrel's terrible season and poor outlook going forward). But the Cubs are in a budget crisis. If the Cubs have go cheap to rebuild the pen, I have confidence that they can be successful.