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MLB Playoffs 2017: A look at the Cubs and Nationals bullpens

Beware the walk!

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs
Wade Davis pitching against the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field
Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

When the Cubs played the Nationals in a four-game set in D.C. in June, you might remember that they managed to split those games and leave Washington with the series tied 2-2. What you may not remember is that there were ninth-inning rallies in two of those games that helped the Cubs out in that series.

That was a pretty common theme for the Nationals, who looked like a juggernaut early, but a juggernaut with one glaring weakness: the bullpen. The Nationals were the odd man out as teams signed closers to large contracts in the offseason. The Dodgers locked up Kenley Jansen, the Yankees re-signed Aroldis Chapman, the Giants signed Mark Melancon, and the Cubs made a shrewd trade for Wade Davis. This left the Nationals without a top-notch closer, and it was their glaring weakness in the first half.

It was a weakness they addressed at the trade deadline by bringing in Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson from the Athletics and Brandon Kintzler from the Twins. Their bullpen has turned from a weakness to a strength just as the Cubs bullpen has turned from a strength to... not exactly a weakness, but let’s just say a bit of a question mark.

While some elements of the Cubs bullpen have consistently been spectacular this year (I’m looking at you, Wade Davis and Brian Duensing), others have had some ups and downs (Carl Edwards Jr. and Pedro Strop) or just failed to hit their stride with the Cubs (Justin Wilson).

With that in mind let’s take a closer look at both pens and see if we can get an idea of how the late innings will play out in the NLDS.

The Nationals

Nationals bullpen NLDS

Pitcher L/R ERA 2nd Half ERA Sept/Oct ERA K/9 BB/9
Pitcher L/R ERA 2nd Half ERA Sept/Oct ERA K/9 BB/9
Doolittle (CL) LHP 2.81 2.32 1.64 10.87 1.75
Madson RHP 1.83 1.25 2.53 10.22 1.37
Kintzler RHP 3.03 3.94 3.75 4.92 2.02
Perez LHP 3.78 4.8 15.75 10.64 3.27
Albers RHP 1.62 1.27 0.096 9.3 2.51
Solis LHP 5.88 2.41 14.73 9.69 4.5
Romero LHP 3.56 3.38 1.08 10.51 3.72
Roark* RHP 4.67 3.9 4.83 8.24 3.18
ERA, K/9 & BB/9 Fangraphs

The Nationals’ announced pen brings a lot of guys who have had consistently low ERAs, respectable K/9s and low BB/9 rates throughout the season. Now that they’ve answered the closer and set-up man questions with Doolittle and Madson, respectively, the biggest question is who will bridge the middle innings to those two pitchers and what will they do if a starter has to leave early.

The answer to the first question appears to be Matt Albers who is having a remarkably solid year in the pen and has only gotten stronger as the year has gone on, as we can see from his second-half ERA of 1.27 and his vanishingly small ERA of .096 in Sept/Oct.

The answer to the second question appears to be Tanner Roark, who we talked about yesterday, if they go with a three-man rotation or a hodgepodge of relievers if they think Roark needs to start Game 4. They have some interesting options there, and, like the Cubs seem to have loaded up on lefties for this series.

Our old friend Edwin Jackson will not be an option, as he didn’t make the 25-man roster for the NLDS.

The Cubs

Cubs bullpen NLDS

Pitcher L/R ERA 2nd Half ERA Sept/Oct ERA K/9 BB/9
Pitcher L/R ERA 2nd Half ERA Sept/Oct ERA K/9 BB/9
Davis (CL) RHP 2.30 2.83 2.77 12.12 4.30
Edwards RHP 2.98 3.77 1.50 12.75 5.16
Duensing LHP 2.74 2.66 4.82 8.81 2.60
Wilson LHP 3.41 4.94 8.10 12.41 5.43
Montgomery LHP 3.38 2.95 3.80 6.89 3.79
Lackey RHP 4.59 3.75 2.73 7.86 2.79
Strop RHP 2.83 2.63 0.00 9.70 3.88
ERA, K/9 & BB/9 Fangraphs

When they are good, they are very, very good... and when they are bad...

This Cubs bullpen has had moments of brilliance and moments of frustration. The first thing that jumps out in the numbers is that Davis, Edwards and Wilson all sport astronomically high K/9 rates, averaging over 12 strikeouts per nine innings. The second thing that stands out is that almost ever member of the Cubs bullpen walks more runners than their Nationals counterpart.

I have to believe that one of the keys to the Cubs winning this series is to control the walks.

The Cubs have a few different late inning options to bridge the gap to Davis, although I imagine that Pedro Strop has generate the most confidence recently and would probably get the nod for the eighth inning, with Edwards pitching in the seventh. Brian Duensing has been excellent all year and is a good option against the Nationals lefties.

As for long relief, the Cubs have two excellent options in Mike Montgomery and John Lackey. I imagine Joe Maddon will want to keep one of those options available for game four in case Jake Arrieta’s hamstring drives him from the game early.

The big question mark for the Cubs is Justin Wilson, who has outstanding stuff and hasn’t really been able to harness it in his time in Chicago. I was a little surprised to see him on the 25 man roster ahead of Hector Rondon, and wonder if there are still injury concerns with Rondon, or if they were just looking for another left-handed option.

One intangible that’s been a running theme throughout this series is that with only a few exceptions (Duensing and Wilson) the Cubs are bringing a bullpen to this series that has a lot more postseason experience than the Nationals pen. Only Ryan Madson and Tanner Roark bring significant postseason experience for the Nationals, and Roark’s experience doesn’t extend beyond the first round. I hope this is an edge that the Cubs are able to capitalize on in the NLDS.