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The Cubs’ first-inning pitching woes might have an interesting answer

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Are the new indoor bullpens the problem?

View of the Cubs bullpen on May 7 when the shade was up underneath the bleachers
Al Yellon

One of the Cubs’ biggest issues so far this year has been allowing first-inning runs. They have allowed 54 runs in the first inning, by far their most in any inning. (Next most: 30, in the second inning.)

I’ll grant that this is a small sample size, but take a look at the home/road breakdown of those 54 runs:

Home: 34 in 35 games (0.97 per game)
Road: 20 in 27 games (0.74 per game)

If the Cubs had allowed first-inning runs at home at the same pace that they have on the road, that would be 25 runs — nine fewer.

So that got me thinking: Could the indoor bullpens be a factor? Cubs starting pitchers now have to warm up indoors, in conditions far different than they face once the game starts.

I know what you’re going to say: The other team’s starter also warms up indoors. But then, he goes and sits in the dugout for his team’s first inning — during which many runs have been scored. And in many cases this year that pitcher then has a lead, instead of going out there in a scoreless game.

Jake Arrieta was one of the most vocal of Cubs pitchers when the indoor bullpens were announced — and he wasn’t in favor of them:

"There really is no comparison to being outside to replicate the way you're going to be pitching in a game situation," Arrieta said. "I'm OK with it. I like it. I would prefer them there versus being underneath the bleachers in left field."

His “I like it” statement referred to the former location of the bullpen on the field down the left-field line.

Here’s another factor, as noted by Mike Montgomery:

One of the biggest gripes pitchers had, along with not being able to interact with fans and feel like they were part of the game, had to do with grip. Because the new bullpens are climate-controlled, and originally lacked open air, adapting to sometimes drastic difference in temperature affected the feel of the ball for pitchers going from the bullpen to the field.

"I still favor being outside," Montgomery said. "But after a while you get used to it, for sure."

Montgomery said the Cubs front office has consulted with pitchers and made some changes, including the installation of netting so sound and air can flow freely through the bullpen.

Even with that, it does seem as if warming up for a start indoors and then almost immediately going outside under far different conditions could affect how a pitcher does in the first inning. If pitchers are saying they have issues with the “feel” of the ball early in games, I believe them.

This is something I think the Cubs have to put more consideration into. One thing they could do: build some kind of portable mound that they could roll onto the field before games so that starting pitchers could warm up in game weather conditions. Of course, they’d have to do this for the visitors as well.

Again, this is just 62 games’ worth of data, and just 35 home games. But it seems to me as if there might be something to this, that Cubs pitchers are having trouble adjusting to indoor warmups, then going right out and throwing in very different weather conditions, whether it’s the 45-degree chill of May or the 95-degree heat we saw Saturday and Sunday.

I believe this needs more work. Cubs starting pitchers were excellent last year. They’ve been awful so far this year (numbers through Thursday):

We’re talking about four of the same pitchers, too. They couldn’t all have gotten that bad, that quickly. It hints at another factor. If it’s the bullpen, the Cubs have some work to do.