Cubs’ Continued Failure to Address Bullpen Issues Huge Part of Early Struggles

Whether it’s exaggerating your personal history to impress a first date or rebooting the Joker again, there is such a thing as trying too hard. And in their efforts to refurbish their effort level this season, it seems as though the Cubs may have started staining the floor and realized they’ve put themselves in a precarious situation.

“Everyone is trying to come in, whether it be a hitting situation or pitching situation, and be the guy,” Jon Lester said after Wednesday’s loss. “That’s hard to do over 162 games. We put such an emphasis on getting off to a good start, I think it’s hanging over our heads a little bit.

“This is a product of trying too hard right now. Guys want to do well and make the really good play or make that perfect pitch. Right now, we’re kind of backing ourselves into the corner as opposed to getting the opposing team into the corner.”

Lester himself made a perfect pitch or three in what should have been the Cubs’ second win (or fourth win), but the bullpen was once again far from pitch perfect. And with an 8th inning that saw the beleaguered relievers walk five Braves, including the first three on 15 Steve Cishek pitches, it became increasingly difficult to swallow Joe Maddon‘s assertion that everyone was singing from the same sheet of music.

There was nothing fun about Wednesday’s performance, at least not beyond Lester going six innings and reaching base all three times he stepped to the plate. Okay, Willson Contreras collecting three hits and absolutely mashing a two-run dinger was pretty fun as well.

But the bullpen, man, that was just a disaster. Correction, has been a disaster. It’s like The Poseidon Adventure and Titanic had a child that grew up to marry the offspring of The Day After Tomorrow and Geostorm, then that couple had quintuplets.

Only the Diamondbacks’ relievers (18) have walked more batters than the Cubs’ (17), but that’s in 10 more innings pitched. In fact, the Cubs are tied for 23rd in MLB with a mere 17.1 relief innings, four of which came from José Quintana. And if you remove his three walks, you’ve got 14 free passes in 13.1 innings (9.45 BB/9), by far the worst in baseball.

The issues with the bullpen are many and varied, but the overriding struggle seems to be knowing who should be out there when. Not only are the Cubs missing their closer, but several other high-leverage options have been unavailable or ineffective for whatever reason.

Carl Edwards Jr. just found out that the delivery he’d been working on and tweaking throughout spring training was illegal. Brad Brach has recovered from mono and a spring velocity dip, but he didn’t get a full preseason workload. Mike Montgomery had a slow start due to shoulder soreness. Pedro Strop‘s tender hammy kept him out for longer than anyone would have liked.

So Maddon has been forced to mix and match with whomever is available at that given time, scrolling through the iPad with pitching coach Tommy Hottovy to determine the next matchup. It’s felt at times like a game of Scrabble, where they’re just reaching into the bag and hoping to get the right letters. Too often, though, they’ve pulled out BB instead of K.

But, Evan, Cubs relievers are actually second in the NL with 11.42 K/9 so far. I’d tip my cap to such a stat if it wasn’t so highly inflated by Quintana’s eight strikeouts. Take those away and you’re left with a 9.45 K/9 mark that’s identical to the walks we talked about earlier. It’s still so early, though, is this just much ado about nothing?

“The average fan of every major league team is worried about the bullpen,” Theo Epstein told reporters (multiple tweets) before the game. We’ve had one of the best bullpens in baseball the last four years and there’s probably been a grand total of three days that people haven’t been worried about the bullpen. That’s just the way it works.

“You don’t usually notice a pen when they’re getting outs on a consistent basis. You notice them when they’re giving it up. And giving it up is a natural part of the game. It’s just disproportionately noticeable when it happens early.”

Um, yeah, it’s more than just the “average fan” that thinks there’s something amiss with the relief corps. This whole thing has unfolded over a period of months (or years), with concerns being raised from the very start of the offseason and continuing through what appears to this point to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Brach was really the only significant addition to the ‘pen, and he saw his contract restructured due to an energy-sapping illness discovered during his physical.

I get that Epstein can’t stand up and lament the restrictions of a baseball budget that is somehow tapped out, but dismissing fans’ concerns is on some “Emperor’s New Clothes” stuff. I’ll grant the Cubs this, though: The solution isn’t as simple as suddenly finding the money to sign Craig Kimbrel.

At this point, all that’d do is increase the budget to land a guy who’d rarely be pitching in save situations. It would, however, solidify the structure of the ‘pen and help Maddon to better line things up earlier in games. Adding an elite reliever would also make it that much easier to assimilate Brandon Morrow once he’s ready to return.

And while this is no way to make decisions, it’d close the valve on the ongoing torrent of complaints about the Cubs refusing to spend money to fix a problem. Like, the house might still need a new roof, but you can at least fix the furnace so there’s heat for the cold nights. Or something like that, it’s admittedly a weird analogy.

But Kimbrel isn’t walking through that door to help the Cubs bullpen, which is fitting because it’s the only time we can use “Cubs bullpen” and “isn’t walking” in the same sentence. For better or worse, the improvement is going to have to come from within. And it’s going to have to come from throwing strikes, something the Cubs have talked about improving for the last few years.

Though Epstein has talked before about where their bullpen ranked in various categories, it’s very public knowledge they’ve sought “proven strike-throwers” for a while now. As in, since the 2016 championship season.

“[The walks are] sort of systemic across the board,” Epstein admitted in October of 2017. “So we have to find a way to address that going forward, and we will. Some of it is obviously personnel based, and it will be important for us to bring in some reliable strike-throwers going forward out of the pen.

“I know our pitching infrastructure is awesome, and I love them and we do so many things right. But I think the fact that it’s been two years in a row where we haven’t really thrown strikes and that most of our relievers have taken a step back with their strike throwing, that falls on me. We gotta find a way to fix it through personnel and also looking at our approach a little bit.”

Wanna know why the average fan is worried about the bullpen? BECAUSE THEY’VE BEEN TOLD FOR SEVERAL YEARS THAT THE FRONT OFFICE IS ALSO WORRIED ABOUT THE BULLPEN. Wow, sorry for that outburst, it’s just that I’m sitting here and looking again at something that has been a sore spot for a long time and that has yet to be adequately addressed.

The Cubs have already lost games in which they’ve scored 8, 10, and 6 runs, each of which saw them with a lead in the 6th inning or later. The Brewers, meanwhile, have scored a combined total of 28 runs in seven games and have outscored their opponents by only seven runs in their six wins. It’s not as simple as one pitcher or even one unit of the team, but saying the bullpen isn’t an issue is a damn lie.

So here’s to hoping the offense continues to hang crooked numbers long enough for the Cubs’ relievers to experience a little positive regression and establish a better rhythm. Otherwise, well, I’ll let your imagination handle that part.

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