Checking In on the Cubs’ Early Season Bullpen Usage

After letting Wade Davis and Héctor Rondón go in the offseason and replacing them with Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek, there was concern in some corners that the back end of the Cubs bullpen wasn’t as proven as it had been in recent years. But this hasn’t been an issue: Morrow has been a dominant closer, and Cishek has provided a steadier hand than Rondón did for most of 2017. At the same time, Justin Wilson has improved, Brian Duensing has been similarly solid, Pedro Strop has remained as quietly dominant as ever, and Carl Edwards Jr. seemed to have made another leap in effectiveness before going down with a shoulder injury that should keep him sidelined for at least a few more weeks. Even the rotating cast of role-playing characters the Cubs have called up from Iowa—Randy Rosario, Luke Farrell, Justin Hancock, and Cory Mazzoni—have been solid or better when called upon.

Collectively this has lead to a bullpen ERA of 2.68, good for third-best in the NL. There are indications that this might be a bit lucky—the collective bullpen DRA of 4.12 is more in the middle of the pack and they have a cFIP of exactly 100—but the bullpen depth is such that it doesn’t seem a huge amount of regression is likely.

So the Cubs’ bullpen has been undeniably excellent in the first half of 2018.  But even still, there have been certain lingering concerns around the bullpen that mainly focus on its perceived overuse by manager Joe Maddon. The argument goes that Maddon has leaned too heavily on his relievers and has pulled his starters too early, which could lead to fatigue down the stretch.  Though there are specific circumstances in which I think these critiques are merited, a lot of these criticisms don’t stand up to scrutiny on the aggregate level.

As of Sunday, the Cubs’ bullpen had 248.2 innings pitched and 235 appearances total, which put them at seventh and sixth in the National League respectively in those categories. This is pretty solidly middle of the pack. Notably, the Dodgers lead the league in both categories, and the Brewers also have more bullpen innings than the Cubs. Both of these teams have had even more rotation issues than the Cubs have had, so this makes sense. At least at a high-level, then, there isn’t much out of the ordinary going on relative to the rest of the league.

The ratio of innings pitched to total appearances also isn’t much out of line with league average. If this ratio were lower, it might suggest that Maddon is perhaps not using pitchers too much in terms of innings pitched, but in terms of getting guys warmed up and throwing too often. This isn’t the case, though. Gabe Kapler’s Phillies and Dave Martinez’ Nationals have bullpens that are averaging less than one inning per appearance, but this largely due to rotations that are pitching deep into games where they have the luxury of being able to use their ‘pens more situationally.

It’s possible that individual pitchers are being overworked, though, and that would be just as valid a criticism. Cishek, in particular, has been mentioned as someone that Maddon is pitching too often. He has been used in a fireman-light type role, and Maddon has gone to him often and in many different types of situations. For reference, here is the Cubs’ bullpen sorted by inning pitched:

Steve Cishek 1.82 33 2 29.2 13 34 1.011
Justin Wilson* 2.2 29 0 28.2 22 40 1.36
Pedro Strop 1.88 29 1 28.2 9 27 1.012
Carl Edwards (10-day DL) 2.88 25 0 25 12 40 1.2
Brandon Morrow 1.59 26 16 22.2 9 25 1.147
Brian Duensing* 4.50 31 1 22 14 15 1.55
Luke Farrell 3.63 12 0 17.1 6 26 1.38
Eddie Butler (60-day DL) 4.3 6 0 14.2 5 10 1.159
Randy Rosario* 0.66 10 0 13.2 7 9 0.878
Justin Hancock 1.74 7 0 10.1 7 10 1.065
Cory Mazzoni 1.17 7 0 7.2 5 5 1.304
Anthony Bass 2.25 4 0 4 0 3 2.00
Rob Zastryzny* 0 1 0 2 1 2 1

Cishek (who has been very effective) is indeed leading the bullpen in both innings pitched and appearances. But if you put his usage into the context of the rest of the league, it doesn’t look bad. Cishek is tied for 34th in the National League in reliever innings pitched, and he’s tied for just ninth in the league in terms of total appearances. So even the extremes of Maddon’s bullpen usage haven’t been that extreme this year.

There have been certain cases when the bullpen feels like it was overworked or unnecessarily spent. May 25th springs to mind as an example, when the Cubs led the Giants 6-1 going into the ninth and somehow used all of Strop, Duensing, and Morrow (for the one-out save) in the ninth after a few bloop hits and a walk. They still won 6-2, and the long, drawn-out ninth drew some deserved ire as an example of bullpen overuse. But over the course of a season, this sort of thing happens from time to time, and in aggregate it doesn’t look like it’s as concerning a pattern as some believe.

It’s important to note too that all of this analysis is relative, and it’s certainly true that all bullpens are getting a lot more work than they typically have in the past. If this is a problem, it’s an MLB problem, not a Cubs-specific problem. Maybe every team is using their bullpen too much and too often, in which the Cubs will at least be on a relatively level playing field when the fatigue hits.

Sorting out the rotation and having starters go deeper into games could further lighten the load on the bullpen. But even with the rotation’s first-half half struggles, the Cubs’ bullpen appears to be in good shape to maintain its effectiveness as we head towards the second half of the season.

Lead photo courtesy Jeff Curry—USA Today Sports

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