The Bullpen Danger On The Horizon

While some would tell you it’s been a topsy-turvy season for the Cubs—and it’s certainly had more adventure than it has needed—sitting a game and a half out halfway through and on your way to 92-94 wins is hardly the seventh level of hell. The offense seems to have clicked into gear, and the Cubs might very well have the NL All-Star Game starter. With expected improvement from Kyle Hendricks, a return of  Yu Darvish, and José Quintana evening out a little, everything seems poised for the normal dominant Cubs second half they’ve put forth in all three of Joe Maddon’s three years here. The Cubs are a crescendo.

However, danger lurks in the back half, and it lies under the left field stands.

As of right now, the Cubs’ 303 innings out of the bullpen ranks only eighth most in baseball, and sixth in the NL. NL teams are obviously going to rack up slightly more innings on average their AL counterpart due to the DH and not getting more innings out of a starter when his next AB comes up. Fine, whatever. But still, looking at the seven teams who have gotten more innings out of their pen, only the Dodgers are playoff contenders. And their rotation has had more serious injury problems than the Cubs have. Meanwhile, the five teams to throw the least amount of reliever innings are Cleveland, Houston, Washington, Seattle, and Kansas City (with the Red Sox right behind that). That’s four of five who are serious playoff contenders.

Going back through the years, this has been the trend. Last year, the only team in the top ten in bullpen innings were the Twins, who were tenth, and were a pretty stunningly underwhelming wild card team that lasted just about an inning before their relevance was wiped off the map. Meanwhile, three of the five teams that threw the fewest bullpen innings were playoff teams (Nats, Cleveland, and the D-Backs).

In the glorious year of our lord 2016, of the top ten teams with the most bullpen innings, only the Dodgers were a playoff team (and they had the most innings. You saw what the Cubs did to that rotation in October). Meanwhile, of the bottom five teams, four of five were playoff teams (the really weird White Sox being the exception).

In 2015, only two teams out of the top 10 in innings were playoff teams: the designed-that-way Royals and the Pirates who were punching Gatorade coolers for one game. Of the bottom five, three were playoff teams, and so was the sixth-lowest innings-needer out of the pen.

In 2014, two teams out of the 10 most used ‘pens were playoff teams, the truly strange Orioles and the Rangers. Only two of the bottom five were as well, including the about-to-flip Royals.

In 2013, the Pirates were the only team among the 10 most used ‘pens to make the playoffs, while four of the five least used ‘pens made the playoffs.

At this point, it’s going to be nearly impossible for the Cubs bullpen to throw in the bottom five in innings, unless they get, like, a month of complete games. You can go to the playoffs, and even win in them, with a ‘pen that’s been this well-used. Luckily the Cubs have spread it out, and two of the most important relievers, Morrow and Edwards, have at least gotten breaks (though injury breaks aren’t ideal). Still, it would behoove everyone involved if the Cubs rotation could start picking up their relievers and stick around for more than an hour each game.

Lead photo courtesy Richard Mackson—USA Today Sports

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