The Cubs called up right-handed reliever Carl Edwards, Jr. on Monday, adding an extra arm to their bullpen for a stretch run that seems sure to include at least one bullpen day and a plethora of opportunities for mop-up or emergency appearances, like the one he made in his big-league debut Monday afternoon. Edwards pitched a single inning of the Cubs’ rout of the Cardinals, then handed things off to Zac Rosscup—also called up Monday—to finish off the laugher.
Edwards and Rosscup are good foils for one another. Rosscup is a 27-year-old rookie, despite having pitched in two previous seasons. He’s become well-known to Cubs fans this season, because for a significant stretch early in the year, he was the team’s best left-handed reliever (though that was more a comment on the team’s left-handed relief depth than on Rosscup’s solid, unspectacular performance). He was the Rays’ 28th-round draft pick in 2009, and was an afterthought in the January 2011 trade that sent Matt Garza to the Cubs. He’s only the second, and is already the most accomplished, player in big-league history to come out of Chemeketa Community College, in Oregon. He’s from small suburbs outside Portland. He’s toiled in obscurity for his entire professional career, unknown to any but the most obsessive Cubs prospect hounds.
As those prospect hounds well know, Edwards has a much, much higher profile. He was Baseball Prospectus’ 81st-ranked prospect of 2014, and even after falling off that list this year, he was on the top-100 lists of both Baseball America and MLB.com. He’s right-handed, and unlike the sturdy Rosscup, he’s remarkably thin. He’s from Newberry, South Carolina, a town of roughly 10,000. A 48th-round pick by the Rangers out of high school, Edwards headlined the package the Cubs got in return for (guess who?) Matt Garza in July 2013. Edwards just turned 24, and if he can find his command over the next month and in Spring Training next year, he might well have seen the last of the minor leagues.
There’s some that sets Edwards and Rosscup at polar opposites, then, and some that unites them. Both are, after all, dizzyingly successful, given their original draft positions, and both reached the majors at a fairly advanced age (albeit with different degrees of fanfare along the way). For today, I want to highlight another source of similarity between these Labor Day additions, and get into the implications thereof. It’s time to talk skill sets.
Here are the stats each pitcher has accrued this season. For Edwards, these numbers are against Double- and Triple-A hitters. For Rosscup, they’re against Triple-A and big-league competition.
Zac Rosscup and Carl Edwards, Jr., Pitching Statistics and Splits, 2015 (All Competition Levels)
|vs. Right-Handed Batters|
|vs. Left-Handed Batters|
Don’t focus inordinately on the results stats in the three right-most columns. They matter (for instance, to demonstrate the debilitating problems Rosscup has in limiting the power output of right-handed opponents), but they’re not especially reliable. Variance in batting average on balls in play is driving a lot of the apparent split quirks here, making Edwards look better than he is against left-handed batters, for example.
What does shine through, though, is that these two hurlers share a common general profile: they miss bats, but often, they also miss the strike zone. Without breaking things down into splits just yet, the top lines in the above chart tell the story. Both Edwards and Rosscup have fanned more than a third of the batters they have faced this season, but Rosscup has also walked 10 percent of all opponents, and Edwards issue free passes at more than a 16-percent rate. While there’s undeniable excitement in having pitchers on hand who can get a whiff almost on command, Joe Maddon can’t possibly trust either of these erratic arms in a significant spot down the stretch. Can he?
I contend that he can. While the opportunities to pitch in blowouts or as 16th-inning fallback plans might crop up at any time, those aren’t the only ways Edwards and Rosscup can be useful. In fact, I would argue that it’s among the least useful ways. The Cubs have Trevor Cahill and Tsuyoshi Wada on the roster to absorb innings about which they don’t care much, and if they needed more such sponge-arms, they could recall any or all of Dallas Beeler, Eric Jokisch, and Yoervis Media to do that work, all without facing a 40-man roster loss.
No, Edwards and Rosscup, with their big-time swing-and-miss skills, have real tactical value in the middle of games. Maddon just has to know how to maximize the value of those strengths, and minimize the potential damage the two can do with their lack of command and control.
First of all, it’s important that neither of these hurlers face an opposite-handed batter in anything but a very low-leverage situation. That should be an easy pitfall to avoid, if Maddon plays his cards correctly in a given situation, but it could be a costly one. Whenever he goes to bring in either of these pitchers, Maddon has to know that the opposing manager won’t pinch-hit to steal the platoon advantage back.
Secondly, as often as possible, the two new middle-relief specialists should be called upon in situations wherein a strikeout has big value, and a walk hurts fairly little. There are plenty of these, of course. Any situation where a runner is on third with fewer than two outs could qualify, if it comes at the right point in the opponent’s batting order. A runner being on second with two away makes a whiff very valuable, if only because nothing can go wrong (grounder finds its way through, infielder boots ball, blooper finds the grass) to lead to a run scoring. Any situation in which there are no runners on base is one in which a walk is fairly benign, unless it be with no outs or at the top of the offense’s lineup.
Here are the league-wide strikeout and walk rates by outs in the inning at the time of a given plate appearance, for 2015:
Strikeout and Walk Rates by Outs in Inning, MLB, 2015
|Split||BB %||K %|
As an inning progresses, batters’ incentives shift, and so do those of pitchers. Hitters look to drive the ball more with two outs, so they’re more willing to swing and miss if it means taking an honest chance at parking one. Pitchers know this, and are less likely to work in the zone against batters in those situations. Baserunners hurt less when there are already two outs, so pitchers won’t give in, and will pitch for the strikeout if they sense any chance of getting one.
The ideal role for Edwards and Rosscup, then, is as a two-headed mid-game stopper. Say it’s the fifth inning of a 1-1 game, as it was on Aug. 31 at Wrigley Field, and the Reds have Joey Votto coming to the plate for the third time against starter Kyle Hendricks, with two runners on base and two outs. The fifth inning is awfully early to burn any of the Cubs’ three or four co-relief aces. Travis Wood has transitioned well to a relief role, but still isn’t so firmly a reliever that Maddon feels comfortable asking him to quickly get hot, then end up sitting down, unused. Thus, as the inning unfolded ahead of that Votto at-bat last Monday, Maddon seemed not to feel that he had any choice but to let Hendricks try to work his way out of the jam, come what may. Once Votto got to the plate, Maddon did some quick math (Votto is hitting .320/.465/.576 against righties and .315/.462/.565 when facing the starter for a third time in a game this year), figured he’d rather take his chances with Brandon Phillips (.294/.328/.404 against righties and “only” .368/.417/.516 the third time up against a starter this year, and disadvantaged by Hendricks’s wider-than-you-might-think 90-point OPS split), and ordered an intentional walk.
That was a ruinous decision, and the wrong one even given the choice with which Maddon was faced, but if it happened again tomorrow, Maddon would have a much better set of alternatives with which to work, and the situation would almost certainly end better. With Votto due fifth in the Reds’ half of the fifth frame, Maddon would be able to get Rosscup up after a batter or two, preparing for precisely the situation that ended up playing out. If Rosscup had come in and walked Votto, so be it. That would have loaded the bases for Phillips, but then Maddon could have gone to Edwards (or Fernando Rodney, or any other complementary right-hander he pleased) to face Phillips, who has given away over 300 points of OPS when facing a reliever for the first time this year, relative to when facing a starter for a third time.
September roster rules can make for unsightly, obnoxious baseball sometimes, but the Cubs only get better as a result of them. Edwards and Rosscup are a battle axe, a two-sided weapon that should not only allow Maddon to save his top-flight relievers from having to go in to collect one final out in the middle innings, but also save the team’s starters from bad matchups the third time through the order that a normal bullpen structure would have forced them to absorb. It might be worth nothing, with 25 games to play, but based on leverage, it might be worth a win or two, and if that’s true, it could be the difference between playing the Wild Card game at home or on the road. Much depends on whether Maddon, the front office, and the coaching staff recognize the optimal usage for their two new relievers, and whether they can take full advantage.
Lead photo courtesy of Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports