There’s been no dancing in the Cubs bullpen in 2019.
I kind of miss it, the lighthearted response that the relievers had every time there was a home run hit by a Cubs player. What started as a way to pass the time during a rain delay in 2017 became a hallmark of the Cubs bullpen, which I referred to as the most exclusive dance club in Chicago on more than one occasion.
I’m not really sure where this ritual went. Maybe its time had just come, sort of like the faux interviews Cubs players used to do in the dugout after home runs or Ian Happ’s waffle maker. Or maybe one of the worst bullpens in the National League just doesn’t feel much like dancing in 2019.
As I mentioned yesterday I spent some time this week looking at various Cubs stats at the All-Star break. As I also mentioned yesterday, this look at Cubs pitching wouldn’t be nearly as pretty as yesterday’s piece on the offense.
The Cubs starting rotation has not excelled, but it’s absolutely been good enough to keep them in the hunt. Below you can see each team’s starting pitching ranked by total WAR:
NL Starting Pitching by Team ranked by WAR
A couple of notes here, there is very little correlation with overall standings and starting pitching so far in 2019. The Nationals are six games out of first place in the East and the Mets are 13½ out. The Reds are closer to first in the Central than either team despite being in last place at 4½ games out.
The bottom line, however, is that the Cubs starting pitching has been okay. Good enough to keep them (barely) atop of the NL Central at least. The individual pitcher performances on the other hand...vary wildly.
Cubs pitchers at the All Star Break ranked by WAR
Kyle Hendricks and Cole Hamels have both been doing an admirable job holding down the top of the rotation. They’ve also both been hurt with Hendricks just coming off the IL and Hamels just going on the IL. Compared to the rest of the league they are the 11th- and 12th-best starters among the 41 qualified pitchers in the NL.
Jon Lester and Jose Quintana have been very middle of the pack with some great starts and some really not great starts. They rank 21st and 24th among all qualified starters. If they could string together a few more of those great starts than the not great ones this rotation could be truly dangerous in the second half.
Yu Darvish ranks 41st out of 41 qualified pitchers by WAR. He has yet to record a win at Wrigley Field. He’s on pace for less than 1.0 WAR in 2019, and while the K/9 looks good the BB/9 and HR/9 most certainly do not. I’d still love to see Yu turn it around. I’m obviously pulling for him to start off the second half with his first Wrigley Field win against the Pirates, but at this point I’ll be honest, that’s just me wishing for things. I have no solid evidence to indicate that will happen.
Which leads me to the bullpen that stopped dancing and the other massive question mark as the Cubs head into their final 72 games in 2019. The Cubs bullpen has been the 13th worst bullpen in the National League in 2019:
NL Bullpens ranked by WAR
I mean, let’s put the caveats up front. The vast majority of this performance is before the Cubs signed Craig Kimbrel. Pedro Strop spent time on the IL with a hamstring injury. Victor Caratini and Daniel Descalso have already pitched way more innings than I want to see pretty much ever, but even with all of those caveats it’s going to be difficult for the Cubs to hold onto first place with the fifth worst bullpen in the NL.
The bullpen’s ERA is 4.20 and believe it or not that is overperforming both their FIP and xFIP. What I’m saying is, things could very easily be worse, not better. So aside from a red bearded knight riding in to save the bullpen, are there some reasons to hope they may start dancing again?
We’re in luck, BCB. There is some good news buried in this data. The Cubs’ relievers have thrown fewer innings than every other bullpen in the Central except the Reds. They also have a higher ground ball rate than every other bullpen in the NL, and it’s not particularly close. Their ground ball rate of 50 percent is four percent better than the next best team (the San Francisco Giants). They’ve also done a reasonable job of keeping the ball in the ballpark to date with the second lowest HR/9. The trouble has all stemmed from walks, so if they can start to limit those the addition of Kimbrel (and dare I hope to dream, Brandon Morrow?) could easily turn this pen around in the second half.
The Cubs are clinging to a half-game lead in the N.L. Central right now. The offense and starting pitching have done their job for the most part in 2019. The front office has already made the biggest possible move available to any club to shore up the bullpen in signing Kimbrel. If that works and Morrow returns down the stretch the Cubs bullpen may have something to dance about in the second half.