I’m not going to lie, I was a bit nervous about Jen-Ho Tseng getting the start after the Cubs announced that Yu Darvish was on the 10 day disabled list. Tseng was okay out of the bullpen for the Cubs last September but pretty bad as a starter. He hasn’t exactly dazzled in Triple-A this year as you can see below:
Looking at Iowa's rotation:— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) May 8, 2018
Jen-Ho Tseng last pitched May 2, but has an 8.04 ERA, 32 K, 13 BB and 1.85 WHIP in 31 1/3 IP.
Michael Roth pitched on May 3 and has a 3.42 ERA, 18 K, 14 BB and 1.65 WHIP in 23 2/3 IP. Roth would need to be added to 40-man.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have worried. While Joe Maddon didn’t commit to this being a bullpen game at the outset, he obviously considered it an option. Particularly given how rested everyone was after Kyle Hendricks had thrown eight innings the night before.
In fact, now that I think about it, I can almost picture Maddon giggling manically about the prospect in his office when he realized he was going to get to mix and match for nine innings. I imagine he looked something like this:
Al did a great job of covering the bullpen game in his recap, so I don’t want to do that here. Instead I want to take this opportunity to look at one of the undisputed strengths of the 2018 Cubs: the bullpen.
The Cubs made a lot of moves to improve their pen in the off season, but they weren’t even close to the preseason favorite. This MLB piece from late March ranked the top ten bullpens in baseball and had the Cubs eighth. You can see the MLB preseason top 10 below:
Bullpens by price tag
Forty-seven years ago when I started writing this piece I had grand plans of looking at the price tag of each of the top ten bullpens and comparing those to the Cubs before looking at some stats to get an idea of how the Cubs investment panned out.
Then I got to the Dodgers depth chart and saw this:
Holy injuries, Batman! Since the Dodgers bullpen is basically held together by duct tape and string right now, I decided comparing the bullpen cost of the top five was as awesome of a breaking point for comparison purposes as ten.
A few notes for these numbers, I filtered reliever data in Fangraphs and tried to account for high cost relievers who were on the DL (Tommy Kahnle, for example). All of the salary data is from Baseball Reference for 2018, the rank to the side corresponds to the MLB preseason rank:
- Yankees ($38,008,300)
- Indians ($25,734,300)
- Astros ($26,439,200)
- Nationals ($24,770,666)
- Rockies ($46,897,500)
For comparison purposes, the Cubs invested $30,876,000 in their eighth-ranked 2018 bullpen. I did not include the Drew Smyly contract in this calculation because it’s pretty unlikely he’ll play until late in 2018.
Was the cost worth it?
The Cubs bullpen currently has the third-lowest ERA in baseball (2.71). They are also tied for the seventh highest total WAR from their bullpen (1.2, tied with the Pirates). For those of you who are worried that the pen is overworked after some less than desirable outcomes from Cubs starting pitching, you’ll be happy to know they are right in the middle of the pack in terms of total innings pitched at 129⅓.
You can take a look at the full leader board, sorted by ERA, below:
Bullpen Leaderboard sorted by ERA
One note: The Cubs bullpen has been very good but they have also been a bit lucky. That low ERA is built on the second lowest BABIP on the league (.263) and they are overperforming their 3.71 FIP by a full run. All of that suggests that the bullpen’s success so far has been partially built on exceptional defense in the later innings, the Cubs would need that to hold for this success to continue.
Individual pitcher results
I considered just posting the below tweet from Bleacher Nation and letting it speak for itself, but there are a lot of interesting numbers to dive into here, so I’ll go a bit more in depth.
The Cubs now have FIVE regular relievers with an ERA under 2.20:— Bleacher Nation (@BleacherNation) May 9, 2018
Steve Cishek - 2.16
Pedro Strop - 1.80
Brandon Morrow - 1.38
Carl Edwards Jr. - 0.53
Brian Duensing - 0.00
No wonder Maddon wasn’t worried about a bullpen game. The Cubs bullpen has been remarkably stingy in 2018. Interestingly, Eddie Butler was likely one bad outing away from also making that list.
Let’s dive into a few more numbers:
Cubs Bullpen Stats
|Carl Edwards Jr.||16||17||15.88||4.24||0.00||.250||93.3%||32.1%||0.0%||0.53||1.05||2.47||0.8||$594,000|
Carl Edwards Jr. is the real standout here. While CJ is still struggling a bit with walks, his K/9 rate has reached elite levels this year. The 15.88 he’s sporting in that category is fifth-best in baseball in 2018. Amazingly, his 0.53 ERA is only slightly lower than his 1.05 FIP. CJ is also leaving 93 percent of the base runners he inherits or allows on base. That is not the highest LOB percentage on the team, however. That would belong to Brian Duensing, who has a 100 percent LOB as of this writing.
Even the pitchers who aren’t sporting ERAs in the twos or lower have interesting statistical notes. Eddie Butler has the fourth highest ground ball percentage among qualified relievers (66.7 percent), right behind none other than Mike Montgomery who is sporting the third highest ground ball percentage among relievers (67.2 percent). Justin Wilson’s K/9 is back over 12, which is really one of the reasons the Cubs wanted him in the first place.
The Cubs identified their bullpen as a problem in 2017 and the front office was deliberate about addressing that problem in the off season. While the price tag was high, it wasn’t astronomical and the investment is paying off in the early going for the Cubs. The stellar performance by the Cubs bullpen has already saved a few games when starting pitching has struggled. If the defense stays hot, there is every reason to believe they’ll save a few more.