Game after game, season after season, there is one player on the Chicago Cubs who flies under the radar. It’s not surprising that any great player could fly under the radar with teammates like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Dexter Fowler, John Lackey, Willson Contreras, and Javier Báez continually finding themselves in the spotlight. It’s even less surprising that greatness could be right under our noses and we wouldn’t realize it when it comes to a relief pitcher. Not even a closer at that, but a setup man, the guy before the closer who does his job and is then quickly forgotten about.
Relievers have come and gone from the Cubs since the start of the 2013 season. For those six seasons, though, there has been one constant in the bullpen of the Cubs: Pedro Strop. The righty has dazzled when fans and opponents alike didn’t realize he was dazzling. He’s done his job while setting up for Aroldis Chapman, Kevin Gregg, Brandon Morrow, Wade Davis, and Hector Rondon. Strop has quick pitched and messed with hitters’ timing, he’s also blown 99 mph heat past hitters or made them look silly with his slider. The now 33-year-old from the Dominican Republic has done this with swagger, confidence, and his patented hat to the left. Most of all, he’s done all these things while never quite having what he was doing recognized.
When the Cubs acquired Strop, he wasn’t supposed to make much of an impact. He had been a quality reliever for the Baltimore Orioles in 2011 and 2012, but had fallen apart in 2013. To be fair to Strop, history has shown us that a lot of pitchers struggled in the Orioles system of the early 2010s. Be that as it may, by the time Strop found himself packaged alongside Jake Arietta in a deal for Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman, he literally did not matter. The Cubs didn’t expect or want much from Strop, they wanted international signing money from Baltimore. Strop wasn’t the icing on the cake, he was the floral wire that comes with a cake but serves no real purpose and is discarded as quickly as possible when it’s time to eat.
Only the hard-throwing right-hander had other ideas, and over the course of the next six years, he has been nothing but impressive with the Cubs. In fact, I would argue that at this point in time that Strop has already cemented himself as the greatest reliever in the history of the franchise, even if you aren’t aware of that fact. With the Cubs, Strop has never had an ERA above 2.91. His WHIP has been as low as 0.89 and his lone “high” mark was 1.18 in 2017. Most telling is his oppTAV that he has firmly rooted in the .260s every year he’s been in Chicago, save for 2017 when it spiked to .270.
OK, I’ll be honest, as I work my way through Pedro Strop’s statistics I’m having to get cute to try and offer up any bad marks. The reality is that Strop doesn’t have any bad marks with the Cubs. He has been Mr. Consistency, putting up the same elite numbers every year. His career DRA high was just this past year, a whopping 3.67. Meanwhile, his WARP was actually hurt in 2018 by being moved to the closer role after Morrow went down with a season-ending back injury. In 2018 Strop posted a WARP of 0.9, but in the years previous when he was tasked with handling more difficult situations during games he regularly posted a WARP in the 1.4 range—excellent for a relief pitcher. Try as I might, there simply aren’t any stats that make Strop’s time with the Cubs anything less than fantastic.
Where does all of this leave Strop heading into 2019? To some the answer is right where he’s been the whole time; being the consistent setup man. That’s a valid point, and if the Cubs have Strop in the setup role in 2019, it’s not like it would be the worst thing in the world. However, I think the time has come to give Strop a chance to move permanently into the closer role.
I understand that the front office paid a lot of money to bring Brandon Morrow on board to be the closer. I won’t deny that Morrow has amazing stuff, probably even better than Strop. But, I call him Mr. Glass for a reason; he simply cannot stay healthy. Last year wasn’t an aberration for Morrow health-wise; it was a continuation of the norm. Outside of 2017, Morrow seems to always find his way to the disabled list. Multiple times and for extended periods. Last year he found himself hurt and on the disabled list from putting his pants on and knew his season was over when he couldn’t reach for a cup of coffee. It’s not my intention to bash Morrow, but I have a hard time entrusting the closer role to a player with such a long and detailed injury history. An injury history that becomes a problem every year.
More than likely, Strop will end up being the setup guy again in 2019. I’m not going to lose sleep if that’s the case. At the very least I’ll know that the best reliever in the history of the franchise is still coming into high-pressure situations, hanging his hat to the left, and getting the outs that most don’t want to give him credit for. But, maybe, just maybe Strop will get to shine as the closer of the Cubs. I don’t know about you, but I’d feel more comfortable at the end of the game knowing that the flour that holds the entire cake together is the one getting the ball.
Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports