The Strop Abides

If you’re a frequent reader of sites like BP Wrigleyville, chances are that you already knew Pedro Strop was cool before this year. That’s how good Strop has been over the past five seasons—he’s one of the only relievers in baseball who has his own group of hipsters.

Someday soon, you’ll walk past The Cubby Bear and see a bunch of Lincoln Park Chads with their hats turned to the left. And you’ll roll your eyes and judgmentally sigh, “I was into Strop back when he was opening for Brian Schlitter…”

When Strop assumed the closer role after Brandon Morrow went down with an injury, he also stepped into the spotlight that the Chicago sports media shines on that position. And to this point, that very same spotlight has revealed some of his very best traits for even casual fans to witness.

One example: Strop’s teammates apparently love the guy and occasionally like to express their affection by dressing up as him to fly to Kansas City. (Or in the case of Kyle Hendricks, dressing like the “How do you do, fellow kids” Steve Buscemi meme.) 

It’s kind of a shame that Strop is the first Cubs closer to receive such an honor. I can’t be the only one who would have liked to see Sammy Sosa donning a mullet and fu manchu while stuffing a carton of Marlboro Reds into the back pocket of his jorts for the “Dress Like Rod Beck Roadtrip.” 

But more to the point: with Strop being called upon by Joe Maddon to lock down so many close games, the closer’s role has repeatedly exposed one aspect of his personality that fits that position perfectly. Simply put, Strop has a remarkably impressive ability to overcome misfortunes that happen while he’s on the mound and—while performing in the most stressful and pressure-packed role in baseball—refocus and get the job done with the next batter.

After taking on the role of finishing games, Strop first flashed this ability back on July 25 against the Diamondbacks. The Cubs had just lost back to back games for the first time in exactly a month and were in one of those funks where it felt like the hitters were demonstrating solidarity with the grounds crew by keeping home plate as clean as possible.

Fortunately, they had managed to eke out a go-ahead run on an error in the bottom of the eighth to take a precarious 2-1 lead into the final inning. And with one out, things looked pretty good for the home nine as Strop managed to induce the nightmare fuel that is Paul Goldschmidt into hitting a harmless pop up to right field.

Jason Heyward angled toward the ball as an unrelenting late afternoon sun began to play havoc. Over the past three years, we’ve grown accustomed the multiple Gold Glover gliding after every ball hit his way and maintaining complete control of all his faculties in time to make yet another catch.

However, it was probably not a good sign when that very same Gold Glove right fielder camped under the ball and immediately struck his best Fred Willard “Hey, wha happa?” pose. In doing so, he neglected the most important rule of comedy: never use a catchphrase while the ball is in play. (For the most prominent example, see the moment where Brant Brown picked the worst possible time to ask “Did I do that?”) Sure enough, the potential second out of the inning ended up dropping in and Goldschmidt cruised into second with the most excruciating double of his Cub-killing career.

To go from one out left with the bases empty to having the tying run in scoring position and with two outs to get was quite a swing—both in terms of Win Probability Added (-.136) and how mentally deflating it could have been. Certainly, most of us are well acquainted with Cub closers of the past losing their composure and the lead almost simultaneously after a play like that.

Instead, Strop took control of the situation. He coaxed the dangerous AJ Pollock to harmlessly fly to center (+.115) and with one out to go, induced the powerful Steven Souza Jr. to hit the ball on the ground to shortstop to win the game with no further drama (+.114). It was as if as soon as Goldschmidt’s pop-up hit the ground in right, Strop decided, “OK, I’m going to get four outs today.” And in doing so, he picked up a respected teammate and stopped a losing skid before it got out of hand.

A week later against the Padres, Strop created his own predicament attempting to protect a 5-2 ninth-inning lead on a day where he left his command in his other pants. After a seeing-eye single and walk to lead off the inning, Cory Spangenberg took what appeared to be a game comfortably in the win column and swung it dramatically in favor of San Diego with an RBI double over Ian Happ (-.213) on a play where his route efficiency could only be described as “the ball was a laser pointer and Happ was every cat on planet Earth.”

Suddenly, the tying run was on second with nobody out and Strop would have to figure his way out of the mess with less than optimal control. Rather than cave in, he remembered that he had two things going in his favor:

1. He was pitching in front of perhaps the best infield defense in the league.
2. He was pitching to the San Diego Padres lineup.

Travis Jankowski’s grounder to first scored another run to make it 5-4 and advanced the tying run to third base but also finally recorded an out in the inning (+.041). Then David Bote made the play of the game on Manuel Margot’s chopper to third, nailing Spangenberg at the plate for out number two (+.242). Suddenly, there was a light at the end of the tunnel and it was time for Strop to take over.

Which he did on his 26th pitch of the day, throwing an unhittable breaking ball past a flailing Austin Hedges for a dramatic game ending strikeout (+.081). Strop celebrated in his usual restrained manner by attempting to split the atoms surrounding the pitcher’s mound with his fist. And he deserved to enjoy every moment of it, persevering on a day where he had far less than his best stuff and refusing to give in to a lineup that he knew he could still beat.

To that point, Strop had demonstrated an ability to pick up his fielders when they made mistakes behind him. One week later, he would have an opportunity to pick himself up in a thrilling game against the Nationals. After the Cubs offense got themselves off the mat recovering from five and two-thirds hitless innings to take a 3-2 lead into the ninth, Strop got the first two outs with no problem.

It appeared to be a drama free 1-2-3 save when Adam Eaton grounded to Anthony Rizzo. But as Strop ran over to cover first and finish the game, he forgot one small but crucial element to doing so: catching the ball. As Rizzo fed him a toss, he somehow closed his glove without actually possessing the ball, thus going for the rarest achievement for any big league closer: a save via Mummenschanz.

Sadly, it didn’t work and Strop was charged with the error. While it only cost him -.043 of WPA, it was still the kind of mistake that would inspire a lesser reliever to punch himself in the face. Fortunately, that kind of thing would only happen if Strop somehow broke the laws of time and space to stand six inches away from himself after he escaped a bases-loaded jam. It was much easier to just strike out Trea Turner and complete the save with no further drama. So he did that instead (+.081).

As these examples have shown, Strop has proven time and again that he possesses the mental fortitude to overcome the misfortunes that life throws his way in the ninth inning. But sometimes he’s needed a reminder from his teammates to call on it when the chips are down. In the first game of the recent mid-August series in Pittsburgh, the Cubs were trying to hang on to a 1-0 lead while playing under MLB’s controversial new rule that opposing teams are only allowed one solo homer per game in PNC Park.

After striking out Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, things were looking very good. But with one strike to go, Strop hit David Freese in the elbow pad on a pitch that didn’t break. Jim Hickey could sense a bit of tension in the air and headed out for a mound visit along with the rest of the Cubs infield.

At which point, the baseball world was introduced to the concept of the Anthony Rizzo Death Stare. While the hit batsman only cost Strop -.051 of WPA, it also transformed his Roberto Clemente Award-winning first baseman into Private Pyle from Full Metal Jacket. Which was probably not going to go over too well during Rizzo’s next visit to Lurie Children’s Hospital.

So it was a good thing for everyone involved that Strop pulled himself together to get Elias Díaz to ground to Rizzo and finish off the save (+.098). You know… for the kids.

This has been the pattern that’s occurred repeatedly ever since Strop was entrusted with the ninth inning. And it’s transpired while Joe Maddon has still refused to anoint Strop his new stopper, insisting that “He’s not an ordained closer. He’s not been to the Vatican” (because that’s the only place on earth that makes Strop’s fashion sense look modest) and that “He’s not received the holy oils” (because they’d only be confiscated by Joe West).

But time and again, Strop has proven that he possesses a quality essential for any major league closer: the toughness to overcome the mistakes and misfortunes that befall any high leverage reliever and focus on getting the next out. Even when he blows a save, as when he gave up a game-tying homer to Eugenio Suárez on a hanging breaking ball in late August, he was able to get it together and retire the side to help set up yet another David Bote walk-off.

That kind of psychological strength has played a major role in keeping the Cubs atop the NL Central all summer, and Strop’s perseverance through adversity has helped the team deal with the loss of their shutdown closer without missing a beat. So perhaps it is time to send Strop to the Vatican and officially ordain him in the Holy Order of Closers.

If nothing else, it’ll give him plenty of practice retiring the Cardinals.

Lead photo courtesy Adam Hagy—USA Today Sports

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