Schlitter, Brian 1501 (Mitchell) (1)

Understanding the Cubs Sudden Bullpen Conundrum

If you’re familiar with my recent work, you know I’ve been very bullish on the Cubs ‘pen for this season. Yes, it’s dangerous putting a lot of stock in a bullpen being that it’s always the most volatile component of a major-league club, but this was a group that was getting overlooked due to some bad performances early on last season by pitchers who wouldn’t be a part of this unit.

And after looking really impressive in the first eight games of the season—which we shouldn’t be drawing any conclusions from—this past weekend against the Padres things started to turn a bit south. Again, nothing to overreact to, but there are some things that we need to watch.

Injuries have become an obvious issue. Justin Grimm went down with forearm issues without ever getting to toss a pitch and Neil Ramirez was placed on the DL after shoulder soreness five appearances into the season. Both were expected to be big parts of the pen, shutting down the latter stages of the game along with Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon.

After an up-and-down start to the season, Grimm was lights out down the stretch in 2014, posting a 1.75 ERA, 28.9 percent strikeout rate, 3.1 percent walk rate, and .459 OPS against in his final 25 2/3 innings pitched. Ramirez was similarly nasty for his entire 43 2/3 innings, whiffing nearly 30 percent of the batters he faced while delivering a 1.44 ERA. Both were used quite a bit for a team going nowhere in the standings, with Grimm tied for ninth in appearances in the NL at 73. Ramirez wasn’t called up until late April, missed two weeks with a precautionary DL-stint, and still racked up 50 appearances.

It’s debatable whether the injuries were a direct result of their use from last season, and Ramirez does have a history of shoulder troubles (although, that may have been an even bigger reason to be more cautious with the talented arm last summer). Placing blame at the feet of Rick Renteria feels unfair—learning to handle a bullpen is always the most difficult things for a new manager to learn, it takes a while to get a strong grasp on the nuances on that part of the game. The fact is, some managers never really get the hang of it.

Regardless of what led to these injuries, they’re biting the Cubs early on and it’s leading to Joe Maddon relying on his best arms probably a bit more than he’d like to just two weeks into the season. Add in that guys like Jacob Turner, Tsuyoshi Wada, and most recently, Blake Parker, are all on the shelf, and a suddenly deep staff is looking a little thin.

Keeping in mind that only the White Sox, Indians, Cardinals, and Cubs have played just 11 games through Sunday—everyone else was at 12 or more—and that it’s super early, so we’re just looking for things we need to keep an eye on, not freak out about, let’s take a quick look at how the Cubs ‘pen has been used thus far.

Hector Rondon is tied for second in overall appearances (seven) and in appearances on zero days rest (three). The Cubs are the only team in that 11-games-played group that has four relievers with at least six appearances (Rondon, Strop (7), Phil Coke (6), and Jason Motte (6)). Ramirez and Brian Schlitter each have five and neither has been on the roster the entire 11-game stretch.

But before we jump on Maddon for these issues, let’s keep the injuries in mind and the fact that they’ve already played five one-run games, and every other game has been too close to start going to relievers that Maddon doesn’t trust.

“Normally when you’re in a bind with your bullpen that means you’re playing pretty good,” Maddon said prior to Sunday’s game. “And that you’ve been in a lot of close games and that you’ve won some. Rested bullpens are normally the residue of bad play. So it’s a good thing and a bad thing. You have to balance it up, but you have to take care of your guys and give them some rest. Which we will do.”

Looking at Maddon’s history in Tampa Bay, we see he’s leaned on arms like Jake McGee and Joel Peralta in the past, but nothing that sets off any alarms. And keeping in step with what he was talking about, he was managing a lot of teams that were competing during his time with the Rays, so seeing no obvious signs of overwork is certainly a positive.

But one thing that does deserve specific monitoring is Maddon’s use of Schlitter. Schlitter has his strengths, and Maddon has pointed to it numerous times, and that’s the ability to get groundballs based on the heavy use of his sinker. If we look at what Schlitter has done in his five outings this season, we see that in theory, Maddon is right. Schlitter is a very effective pitcher, when he’s actually getting groundballs. Schlitter’s getting an grounders at nearly a 60 percent rate right now, unfortunately, they’re sandwiched between numerous hard-hit liners at the moment.

In his second and third appearances of the season, Schlitter combined to give up six groundballs, five of which went for outs. Those were the only two scoreless appearances Schlitter has had this season. When we take a look at five of the six hits Schlitter has given up this season, we see a clear trend.




The above three images all took place in the Cubs 5-2 loss in Colorado in the third game of the season. The results, in order, were: Home run, groundball singe, line-drive single. The only one you could count as BABIP biting Schlitter was the D.J. LeMahieu single, but in each instance Schlitter had left a sinker higher than he would have liked. The one that resulted in a home run for Justin Morneau was particularly egregious.


Here we see Schlitter’s seventh-inning battle with Wil Myers from last Friday. Pitch number three was an 0-2 sinker that looks as close as you can get to a strike without it actually being a strike. With the zone being called as low as it is in today’s game, that’s probably a strike. But that’s beside the point. Pitch four was a four-seamer over the heart of the plate that Myers hammered for a home run.


And Schlitter’s lone hit given up on Sunday—a soft line-drive single which also resulted in a run. We’re consistently seeing an inability to execute from Schlitter. With a straight four-seamer over the plate or a sinker that stays up, Schlitter is going to get hit hard, and thus far, we’ve seen that in three of his five appearances.

It makes sense, to an extent, why Maddon has been going to Schlitter. His last three appearances he’s come in with men on base and Maddon is clearly looking for that groundball to get his team out of the inning quickly. However, it has yet to work out for Maddon as he’d hoped.Schlitter2015

Taking a look at the very small sample that is Schlitter’s season, we see a heat map with way too much red above the bottom two quadrants. That dark red should really be lining up those five zones on the very bottom of the heat map, but in his five appearances, Schlitter has just been missing his spots and battling his command more often than not.

But just like we shouldn’t have gotten too high after a strong first eight games from the bullpen, we also shouldn’t overreact to three games that didn’t inspire much confidence. Maddon may be working with 13-man staff, but it still feels short with all the close games and the lack of high-leverage experience in the group.

With a bullpen already lacking in trusted arms, it’s unlikely we’ll see Schlitter completely eliminated from the equation. Maddon can’t rely solely on Rondon, Strop, and Motte late in close games, not when they’re playing the close ones so often. So unless we see Zac Rosscup or Edwin Jackson start to get more time in high-leverage situations or another name emerge from the minors (eventually Armando Rivero, perhaps?), Maddon may be forced to continue to go to Schlitter in tight games while he waits for Ramirez and Grimm to heal and return to action.

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2 comments on “Understanding the Cubs Sudden Bullpen Conundrum”


Nice article Sahadev. I’m glad you took a look at Schlitter specifically too as it has been tough to watch him lately. Obviously SSS applies but until he finds that command I wouldn’t mind seeing Jackson (like you mentioned) get an inning more here or there just to keep our bullpen more fresh. Happy Addison Russell day! This lineup is fun

Jason Motte didn’t help matters last night…I thought walking the batter in front of Kang was a good move, but Motte threw that fastball right down the heart of the plate and, high leg kick or not, hitters are going to eat that stuff alive.

Glad the team came back from that one!

Rivero seems to have broken down in AAA…what’s up with that? I thought he’d be up here by now but he ain’t helping his cause…

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