The name Justin Grimm evokes two distinct memories to me. The first was October 28, 2016, Game 3 of the World Series. With no score and the bases loaded with one out in the fifth inning, Justin Grimm was called upon to put out the fire. Quickly, Grimm coaxed Francisco Lindor to hit into an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play. Grimm’s exuberant fist pump upon escaping reminded me of the second apropos memory: how manager Joe Maddon referred to Grimm as the “Middle Innings Closer” during the 2015 season.
Maddon’s liberal use of Grimm saw him dispatched in critical situations anywhere between the fifth inning and the ninth inning during 2015 and 2016, a trend that is continuing here in 2017. But in his early performances this, Grimm has looked shaky and, though Maddon likes to use him as the Middle Innings Closer (henceforth, “MIC”), it may be possible that the role no longer suits him.
Before we dive into his 2017, let’s take a look at some of Grimm’s past numbers. In 2015, Grimm was one of the club’s most reliable relievers, pitching to a stellar 1.99 ERA/3.14 FIP/2.84 DRA with a 45 percent ground ball rate and a 32.8 percent strikeout rate. Grimm’s 2016 was less successful but still not bad with a 4.10 ERA/3.32 FIP/3.77 DRA, a solid 42 percent ground ball rate and a 28.9 percent strikeout rate. Maddon’s usage of Grimm in important situations makes even more sense when you take a look at the numbers he put up in them:
Justin Grimm 2015
|IP||AVG Against||OPB Against||SLG Against||K%||
|Men on Base||26.1||.183||.303||.322||26.60%||46%|
|Runners in Scoring Position||16.1||.155||.300||.200||25.70%||42.50%|
Justin Grimm 2016
|IP||AVG Against||OPB Against||SLG Against||K%||
|Men on Base||27.2||.202||.295||.303||33%||41%|
|Runners in Scoring Position||6.2||.174||.296||.217||31.20%||42.50%|
Grimm’s ability to keep quite low averages and slugging numbers against him in medium and high leverage situations lead him to stand out, especially when compared to fellow bullpen arms. For example, take Travis Wood in 2015, whose .303/.395/.516 opposing slash line with runners in scoring position contrasts unfavorably to Grimm’s. On top of that, the simple question of “who else will take these situations?” arose. With Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon (and eventually Aroldis Chapman) entrenched into the eighth and ninth innings, the 2015 and 2016 pens typically included a smattering of relievers who could catch fire and dominate for periodic stretches, but never showed as much consistency as Grimm. We can essentially break Grimm’s claiming of the MIC job down into this:
- Good numbers in medium to high leverage situations.
- Good numbers with runners on base and in scoring position.
- One of the most consistent relievers in the bullpen.
Thus far in 2017, it has seemed that Joe Maddon is content to keep Grimm in the MIC role, as he has inserted him into multiple jams already in the first couple weeks. Four of these stand out in particular:
April 7 vs. Brewers:
Grimm entered with two outs, and a runner at first in the sixth inning with the Cubs ahead 1-0. Grimm allowed a hit to Hernan Perez but retired Manny Pina to escape with the lead intact.
April 10 vs. Dodgers:
Grimm entered in the seventh with the Cubs leading 2-1 to inherit a bases-loaded, no outs jam. Grimm wiggled his way out of this one, retiring Joc Pederson on a flyout and eliciting an inning-ending double play from Andrew Toles. MIC mission accomplished.
April 14 vs. Pirates:
Again, with the Cubs up 2-1, Grimm entered in the sixth with runners at the corners and no outs. This outing didn’t go as successfully, as he allowed an RBI single to David Freese and a two-run RBI double to Francisco Cervelli. With Grimm on the mound in this one, the Cubs lost the lead and ultimately lost the game.
April 21 vs. Reds:
This one came just this weekend—during Friday evening’s game against Cincinnati. With the Reds ahead 4-2 in the sixth, Grimm entered the game with two outs and runners at first and second. He proceeded to allow back-to-back walks, causing a run to score.
To make matters worse, Grimm has only thrown one 1-2-3 inning this season, and he has surrendered runs in multiple low leverage situations he’s entered into. He’s also struggled in situations in which the Cubs trail but still are close. Of course, he has appeared in only nine games this season, so we should be clear to remember that we are talking about quite a small sample. But what strikes me as interesting is that four of Grimm’s first five appearances this season came with the Cubs ahead. Yet, since surrendering the lead against Pittsburgh on the 14th, he has only appeared once with the lead, and that came in this weekend’s 11-6 blowout against the Reds.
So far this year, Grimm just hasn’t pitched up to his own standard. Currently, he sits at an 8.22 ERA/7.77 FIP/5.06 DRA. Not pretty. While his strikeout rate is a tad higher than last season’s, at 29.4 percent, his walk rate has jumped up over four points to 14.7 percent. Most conspicuousis his plummeting groundball rate, which has fallen from last year’s 41.5 percent to 27.8 so far. His flyball rate, on the other hand, has increased exactly 20 points from last year’s 35.6 percent to 55.6 and his (very small sample) HR/FB rate has also taken a leap so drastic (10.4 percent in 2016; 30% in 2017), it’s near impossible to believe it won’t come back down to Earth soon.
Nonetheless, it appears hitters are sizing Grimm up better. So far, 50 percent of balls in play have registered as hard contact, which is way up from his career rate of 32 percent. Still, Grimm’s velocity seems on par with his typical velocity as his fastball is averaging 95.5 mph, even faster than last year (94.1) and his career average (93.5).
Curiously, taking a look at Grimm’s pitch options does show that he has almost entirely eliminated the slider from his repertoire. While it was never a huge weapon for him, according to Brooks Baseball, Grimm threw the slider 6.37 percent of the time in 2015, his best major league season, but he has only thrown it .68 percent of the time in 2016 and 2017. While we can’t say with any certainty that reintroducing the slider to his repertoire would help in critical situations, it may be worth considering—especially if opposing batters are beginning to make steadily hard contact on his other offerings.
If Grimm’s numbers do not begin to settle down, it should be considered who else could fill the MIC role. As opposed to in 2015 and 2016, when Grimm was one of the few reliable relievers with good numbers in critical situations; now the Cubs possess two candidates who could step into the role: Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. (Hector Rondon also could slide in here, but if he is, in fact, fully healthy, his presence in the eighth would frighten any team).
Maddon’s interest in inserting ground ball specialists into high leverage situations has been widely noted. If that’s what he’s looking for, Pedro Strop would be a solid choice. Last season, Strop induced ground balls at a 56 percent rate with men on base and an even better 64.3 percent rate with runners in scoring position. In a smaller sample of just 6.1 innings total of high leverage situations, Carl Edwards performed even better by limiting opposing batters to a .095/.174/.150 line and a terrific 73.3 percent ground ball rate. Still, both periodically battle wildness and are susceptible to surrendering the long ball.
In the end, Maddon may want to keep Strop and Edwards available for later situations, and he may want to stick with Justin Grimm the way he has been using him for the past couple of years. While we don’t need to hit the panic button on Grimm yet, without a change of fortune coming relatively soon, he may find himself used less and less as the MIC, the job he originated and previously succeeded in.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports