Aroldis Chapman made his first appearance for the Cubs on Wednesday, as I’m sure you were aware. Chapman has dominated the discourse for the last week, for obvious reasons; he is an electric and talented baseball player, who also fired eight shots from a handgun during an argument with his girlfriend in October, and allegedly choked her during that argument as well. His presence in the league raises all kinds of questions about how each team (including the Cubs) and the MLBPA have agreed to deal with domestic violence, and less importantly, about the Cubs’ chances for regular season and playoff success.
There were other players involved in the deal that brought Chapman to the Cubs, however, players that have been somewhat forgotten in this first week of processing. That’s not surprising; the players Chapman was exchanged for aren’t integral to either team’s plans this year, so none of them are impacting either team’s playoff odds in a meaningful way. It’s especially unsurprising in the case of Adam Warren, since he’s felt overlooked for his entire time with the Cubs.
Or, perhaps not his entire time. When Warren first came to the Cubs in December of last year, he had been worth 2.8 WARP in 210 IP from 2014–15, split fairly evenly between starting and relieving. He had three years of team control remaining at arbitration prices, which, as a roughly average player, is quite valuable, and if his acquisition didn’t generate excitement, he was at least greeted as a useful and productive component of a successful team. Here’s what Sahadev Sharma wrote about Warren in the main site’s transaction analysis:
“[P]erhaps Warren turns into an innings-eating, back-of-the-rotation arm with a wide arsenal (he uses all five of his pitches: a four-seamer, slider, changeup, curveball, and sinker). But even if his ultimate role is as another swingman in the Cubs ‘pen, he still holds tremendous value and helps fill the Cubs’ stated goal of creating depth and redundancy on their roster. Warren joins Travis Wood, Clayton Richard, and Trevor Cahill as arms who have started as recently as last season but also have proven to be impressive out of the bullpen.”
That was the plan: a bullpen full of competent relievers who also had starting pitching experience, and could slot in for any of the Cubs’ front-line starters, should they ever falter. That’s not how it worked out. Since the start of the season, in 131 IP with the Cubs, those four players—Warren, Wood, Richard, and Cahill–combined for an even 0.0 WARP. Warren’s start on July 6th was the only time any of them was deployed as something other than a reliever. As Cat Garcia wrote after that start, Warren looked better than he had all year, walking no one (despite struggling with his command and seeing his walk rate spike this year in relief) and striking out five in five innings, with the only blemish a solo home run.
Joe Maddon’s bullpen use has been puzzling all season long. After some hints in Spring Training that he would be leaning heavily on his relievers, and using a quick hook with his starters in order to keep them fresh (and spare them the sometimes-deadly third trip through the order), he’s instead done nearly the exact opposite. At the time of the above article, the Cubs were fourth in the league in average innings pitched by the starter, and they’ve moved up into third in the last month and a half. As a result, they’re second-to-last in innings pitched by the bullpen. Without a doubt, some of this stems from the ability of the pitching staff. All five starters have been very good and very durable this year, which naturally leads to them throwing more innings. But even keeping that in mind, Maddon has often seemed overly reluctant to turn to the bullpen.
For example, on this past Saturday (the 30th), Jake Arrieta threw seven scoreless innings, striking out four and walking one. Wade Miley nearly equaled his effort, matching him blow-for-blow until the bottom of the seventh, when the Cubs would scratch out a run and take a 1-0 lead. With two innings to go and a Chicago bullpen that now included Chapman in addition to Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon, it was a surprise to see Arrieta take the mound for the eighth. He had only thrown 89 pitches to that point, but was on his third time through the order on a day where he had looked effective, not dominant. More broadly, Arrieta is a pitcher for whom fatigue was a real issue in the 2015 playoffs, and who Maddon had said he was going to try to treat carefully. Sending him out for another high-pressure inning seemed neither necessary nor wise. Indeed, Arrieta promptly walked two batters before being pulled, the bullpen was unable to keep those runners from scoring, and the Cubs lost. Clearly, there’s no guarantee they would’ve kept the lead if Arrieta hadn’t started the inning, but it felt like an unforced error resulting from Maddon’s hesitance to go to the bullpen. I’m a firm believer that, when a team does something confusing, it’s usually safe to assume they know something you don’t, and have good reasons for the decision. Still, that assumption has been taxed repeatedly this year by Maddon’s pitching decisions.
Warren obviously wasn’t on the team for that game, and even if he was, that wasn’t the sort of situation he would have been used in. But prior to the season, it seemed that part of the point of having Warren (and Wood, Cahill, and Richard) on the roster was to spell the starters with longer relief appearances, keeping them and the rest of the bullpen fresh. In 2015, 96 of Warren’s 131 innings came as a starter, and 7 of his 26 relief appearances lasted more than two innings. For the other three potential swingmen that season, 73 of their 186 total innings came as starters, and 13 of their 88 relief appearances lasted more than two innings. By contrast, in 2016, Warren made only one start (as mentioned), and none of his 28 relief appearances lasted more than two innings; none of the others made any starts, and only 5 of their 137 relief appearances lasted more than two innings. They haven’t been spot starters, or even swingmen; they’ve been normal relievers, almost exclusively. To be fair, none of them have been making a great case for more innings, but the difficulty comes in disentangling the causal arrows. Were they subpar this season because they were being used exclusively in roles they weren’t as comfortable with? Or were they used in low-stakes roles because they were subpar? Being a regular reliever isn’t entirely new to Warren – he had similar usage patterns in 2013 and 2014, his first two full seasons – but after his acquisition last December, the Cubs explicitly told him he was the sixth starter. Similarly, Cahill and Richard both had contractual incentives for starts made, meaning there was likely some expectation on their part of a larger role. To go from that to middle reliever was probably difficult. The question is whether that shift in role, for all four but for Warren especially, was the result of Maddon’s preferred bullpen strategy, or a response to their perceived struggles.
Prior to 2016, PECOTA had a fairly high opinion of Warren, projecting him for a 3.80 DRA and 1.0 WARP in about 70 innings, primarily in relief but with a few starts thrown in. The updated projection has his DRA more than half a run higher, at 4.37, but exclusively as a starter, so his per-inning WARP only takes a 20 percent hit. This shouldn’t be that surprising; he’s been bad in 2016, but bad in roughly 30 innings, and the projection systems are always going to focus on track record over the recent history. I’m inclined to do the same, except when there’s conflicting data.
And in this instance, there is: the fact that Warren was just included as a throw-in in this deal for Chapman. Without knowing how much the Yankees and Cubs value all the other players involved, we can’t precisely triangulate what Warren is worth to each of them, but he at least hasn’t been the focus of their public discussions of the transaction, and was expendable enough to be traded midseason. Once again, we’re left with the team acting in a way that seems confusing from the outside, and have to choose whether they’re making a mistake, or using knowledge not available to the public. I’m biased toward the second, but how many times does it have to happen before you think it might be the first?
It’s generally incorrect to evaluate a trade based on what happens after the fact. Warren’s bad 2016 (and, for that matter, Starlin Castro’s bad 2016) shouldn’t change how we think of the Cubs’ decision to acquire him in the first place; trades should be judged based only on what the teams involved knew or should have known at the time of the deal. When we don’t know what they know (which is increasingly often), that becomes difficult, and in a case like this one, I’m not sure that there’s any way to avoid post-hoc judgement of Warren’s brief tenure in Chicago. If he returns to the Bronx and continues to pitch like he did for the Cubs, then I’ll likely conclude this was just the kind of flukey collapse that some players go through, and Warren’s throw-in status accurately reflected his value. On the other hand, if he blossoms back with the Yankees, or even just regains his status as a competent player, I’ll be a lot more inclined to believe the Cubs mismanaged him; bought high, tanked his value, and sold low. Until we know how Warren does under Joe Girardi and Larry Rothschild, he’ll remain a footnote to this trade, and the owner of a perplexing tenure as a Cub.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports.