While the magic that was the Chicago Cubs 2016 World Series run is still a vivid memory in the minds of fans, one thing that isn’t looked back on as fondly is the strain put on the Cubs relievers down the stretch. The same strain that nearly cost the Cubs a victory in Game Seven against the Cleveland Indians.
While some of the stress could have been resolved with different decisions by Cubs manager Joe Maddon, much of it could also be linked to the ineffectiveness of former closer, now setup man Hector Rondon.
Rondon established himself as one of the elite relievers in the National League since becoming the team’s full-time closer in 2014. Prior to the acquisition of closer Aroldis Chapman from the New York Yankees on July 25, he was having another excellent season posting a sparkling 1.95 ERA with 18 saves and a remarkable .171 batting average against.
When the trade for Chapman was made, everybody said the right things including Maddon, who supported his then-closer saying, “He’s good. We’re gonna put him in there in the right moments and hopefully it’s gonna make everybody else running better.”
Unfortunately, he wasn’t good. He was actually bad. While Rondon was a good soldier about his demotion, his performance suffered.
His ERA in the setup role ballooned to 7.71 and after opponents barely touched him for three-quarters of the season, they touched him up to the tune of a .345 batting average. Missing time in August due to a triceps injury didn’t help either.
Rodon’s struggles followed him into the postseason as he posted a 4.50 ERA in the playoffs and lost the trust of his manager as Maddon shortened his bullpen and leaned heavily on Chapman, Pedro Strop, and even young Carl Edwards Jr. to get important outs in NLDS, NLCS and World Series.
So why was Rondon so bad down the stretch in 2016, and can he bounce back in 2017?
A big reason for Rondon’s late season misfortune was the loss of command on his “put-away” slider, his most effective pitch. According to Brooks Baseball, Rondon allowed just a .103 batting average against vs. his slider prior to Chapman’s arrival in July, but he was a different pitcher following his demotion in the bullpen. From the time he moved to the setup role on July 27 to the end of the regular season, opponents hit .333 on sliders supported by a .350 BABIP and .667 slugging percentage. After going on the disabled list in August, Rondon could very easily have lost the feel on what was his dominant pitch and was unable to get it back heading into the postseason.
While the results were not pretty, it is highly unlikely that Rondon’s above-average slider is now mediocre and will not revert back to its former self this season. It will be imperative to his success in 2017.
The one concern for Rondon in 2017 is seeing how he pitches as a full-time setup man, a role which clearly made him uncomfortable in 2016. After Chapman returned to the Yankees this offseason as many expected, the Cubs wasted no time finding his replacement as they acquired coveted closer Wade Davis from the Kansas City Royals. A sign to Rondon that he would not be getting his job back anytime soon.
While a move from the ninth inning can be difficult for a closer in today’s game, a quality setup man is just as valuable as the closer himself. Relievers like Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances and Will Harris have been some of the best examples in the last few years and have proven to be just as—if not more—valuable than their team’s closer. Maddon is also very fond of what he calls “middle-closers” or relievers who get the team out of tense moments in the seventh, sixth and even fifth inning. Depending on the situation, Rondon could also be used in that role.
The leash will not be long for Rondon this season as Maddon has already shown to have confidence in Strop and Edwards Jr. And the addition of veteran reliever Koji Uehara gives the Cubs even more depth in the bullpen. While Rondon is likely to get the first opportunity to be the primary setup man, any of those three could take that job if he has any hiccups.
It will be up to Rondon to decide if he becomes an additional weapon out of the bullpen for the Cubs in 2017. He can either make the most of his role as a setup man or become another player who gets lost in the shuffle. If he can’t perform, the Cubs have shown that they will waste no time finding someone who can.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports