The Bullpen: Not the Achilles Heel You’re Looking For

The irony of the legend of Achilles is that his name, far from being a symbol of strength, is now largely associated with the notion of a single critical vulnerability. And, more to the point, whenever we’re confronted with something that strikes us as without weakness, our minds immediately flit to the young demigod, dipped by the heel into the river Styx by his mother, and by his legacy we define our search for a vulnerability. 

The 2016 Cubs are not Achilles. They’ve gone through stretches of greatness that flirt with the mythical, true, but they’re not legends just yet. That said, their profound strength to this point in the season has come with a desire, by some, to find a chink in the armor—to point to the trait that will bring them down. On the heels of three blown saves this month, the fingers these days are pointing to the bullpen. The belief in some corners of the internet is that a trade for the likes of Aroldis Chapman has become a must, or even one both Chapman and Andrew Miller. The (legitimate) reservations about Chapman as a person aside, the question that these rumors implicate is worth considering: is the bullpen the Achilles Heel of this Cubs team? Are they the weakness that must be addressed?

While some tinkering to improve a team is necessary and expected, the answer from this writer is a resounding no. The bullpen is not the weakness. Sure, it needs a tweak or two, but the path to improvement is not by means of costly trades that would bring one or both of Chapman and Miller to the North Side change the face of the bullpen. It would be better, by far, to simply wait out some shaky performances by existing members of the ‘pen. That’s not to say the idea of a blockbuster trade doesn’t have a certain appeal. As Marc Normandin said when discussing this possibility, “the [Cubs] bullpen, which already has Hector Rondon and three other relievers whose ERA sit at 2.66 or lower, would be essentially unstoppable were it to add Miller and Chapman.” I mean, yes, that’s true, but I’m about to demonstrate that the need is not extreme, and again, the cost would be steep. If the rumors are to be believed, it would be Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler-level steep, given the Yankees’ apparent interest in selling very high.

And it’s not necessary. Let’s take a look at where the bullpen falls in terms of a few important measures:

The Measure The Value The MLB Ranking
K% 25% 7th
AVG .205 2nd
WHIP 1.23 10th
SIERA 3.71 13th
Blown saves 5 25th
BB% 11% 27th
FIP 4.14 20th

To break this down to a more micro level, both Hector Rondon (8th) and Pedro Strop (37th) rank in the top echelon of the league in FIP (minimum 20 innings pitched), and firmly at 5th and 6th in strikeout percentage, with Strop at about 38 percent and Rondon just a hair behind him. After last week’s series against the Nationals, Rondon has 2 blown saves, but that still puts him at 18th in the league. Take away that series in Washington? Then he is, of course, with the best in the league. While this is admittedly a smattering of statistics, and some, such as walk rate and FIP, don’t reflect as positively on the bullpen as a whole, even a cursory look can show that this bullpen, at least as it compares to the rest of the league, isn’t an obvious weakness.

Still, that’s not to say it couldn’t be improved. Where does the problem lie, then? Going back to league-wide FIP rankings, a trend emerges. Adam Warren pops up first with his 10th-worst 5.67, and teammates Trevor Cahill (4.81) and Travis Wood (4.72) show up at around the top 40 in the league for highest FIPs. Turning the focus to strikeout percentage then, Warren doesn’t fare much better. At 17 percent, he’s just barely out of the bottom 20 in the league. Wood’s not too far behind, at 18.8 percent, but Cahill jumps up quite a bit here, all the way up nearly 25 percent. Looked at a bit differently, here’s where these three rank in terms of the league’s worst, again with a minimum of 20 innings pitched:

Adam Warren 10th 23rd 4th (5.21)
Trevor Cahill 28th 82nd 44th (4.06)
Travis Wood 41st 41st 14th (4.67)

There’s clearly a weakness here, but not one that is necessarily solved by paying the price to bring in someone like Miller or Chapman, or one that is dramatically obvious. While some of these numbers are poor, sure, they aren’t those of a bullpen that needs drastic measures to improve.

What of the oft-maligned Clayton Richard then? Or the once-7th inning setup guy, Justin Grimm? While Richard’s FIP of 3.64 would indicate that his ERA of 6.00 would have to come down, the other numbers aren’t very favorable. He averages 2 runners on base per inning pitched, and he has just a 10 percent strikeout rate. While he’s miraculously avoided giving up a home run so far, opposing hitters are tagging him to the tune of .352. That’s a problem. Grimm’s somewhat better, but even with a fastball that flirts with 96, he’s not putting together the numbers quite yet. But there are signs of hope: his whiff percentage on his fastball has steadily risen, up to 20 percent this month. If that improves, there’s no real point in selling the store for a replacement reliever or two, even a very good one.

All of this discussion, of course, rides on the belief that adding one of the aforementioned Yankees relievers is something the Cubs front office is even interested in, however. Recently, in the Chicago Tribune, Theo Epstein downplayed the team’s interest: “I don’t think you’re going to see us react to situations when relievers are going through a little downtrend.” This was on the heels of some comments on the struggles of the earlier-mentioned portion of the bullpen, which also seem a tad dismissive of the problem: “When they give up runs, it becomes almost a perceived crisis,” he said. “But bullpens give up runs. The best bullpens give up runs over the course of the season. Right now we have a couple of guys searching for it. Not everyone is locked in down there, but it’s something we may continue to monitor. Every team would love to add an impact reliever at some point.”

While the front office in Chicago is sometimes known for playing their cards close to the vest, comments like this might indicate that the search isn’t urgent and it isn’t happening just in New York. Whatever the case, some smaller additions to the bullpen are probably necessary, though not at the cost that the Yankees’ duo would require. Rumors have included names mentioned earlier like Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler, along with what would likely be a hefty prospect package. For an organization building toward not just success now but also the ability to sustain that success, forking over the best of its farm for a likely rental (Chapman) is especially unlikely.

A bullpen isn’t the sum of its parts though, and breaking it down to individual performances can be misleading. So much of what makes it work has to do with how Joe Maddon orchestrates and utilizes these pitchers, and this is a notoriously challenging and inexact science. As for the Cubs bullpen, it does a lot of things on par with, or even better, than the rest of the league, so acquisitions at the price of Chapman or Miller don’t particularly make sense.

Back to Achilles then. Not every version of his story agrees that it was just his heel that was vulnerable. Even Homer himself, in Book 21 of The Iliad, makes reference to Achilles catching a spear to the elbow from Asteropaeus and bleeding, and a lost epic known as Iliurpersis, or “The Sack of Troy,” didn’t include anything about Achilles’ invulnerability. So perhaps it wasn’t that he had just one weak point, but rather that he was less generally vulnerable than the other warriors of his time. And maybe that’s a more apt description of this year’s Cubs. They are not without flaw, but certainly not subject to downfall because of one aspect of the way the team has been built.

Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.

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1 comment on “The Bullpen: Not the Achilles Heel You’re Looking For”

Patrick Nix

You make several excellent points, but Kyle Schwarber is off the table and will not be part of any trade deadline deal for a bullpen arm. That being said, if Miller or Chapman become available, we need to try hard to acquire one of them. If we don’t, our opponents most definitely will, and we’ll be forced to face them throughout the postseason.

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