The Cubs fell three games back of the Brewers after dropping three of four to the Dodgers. However, their hot start to 2021 has resulted in a 42-36 record despite playing the hardest part of their schedule in the first half of the season. Most of those wins have been the result of a surprisingly effective bullpen anchored by Craig Kimbrel, Ryan Tepera and Andrew Chafin. Their dominance was on display Thursday night in L.A. as they finished off the franchise’s first combined no-hitter after Zach Davies left the game in the seventh inning. There have already been a lot of words written here and elsewhere about that no-hitter, so today I wanted to take a closer look at the dominant bullpen that made it possible.
You would be forgiven if you didn’t think the bullpen was a source of strength coming into the 2021 season. I’ll confess that I didn’t. I had concerns that Craig Kimbrel looked shaky in Spring Training. I had concerns that Rowan Wick (remember him?) was still on the IL. Andrew Chafin got a bit roughed up in limited work with the Cubs in 2020 and while Ryan Tepera looked solid, I didn’t quite see this coming. Let’s take a closer look.
Ryan Tepera Since 2016
Tepera has been a solid reliever since he came into the majors with the Blue Jays in 2015. There were hints in his numbers that he could be elite (those minuscule BB/9 and HR/9 jump way off the page) but he found another gear with the Cubs in 2021. Even with some regression to his FIP after giving up a two run homer in last night’s game, Tepera has been exceptional. His 2.43 ERA ranks 19th among qualified relievers. With five different pitches Tepera’s pitch mix looks more like a starter than a reliever. While his slider gets the lions share of the split (he throws it 44 percent of the time) he also throws a four-seam fastball 25.1 percent of the time, a sinker 17.7 percent of the time, a changeup 12.3 percent of the time and a curveball 8.9 percent of the time.
Andrew Chafin Since 2016
Cubs fans only had limited exposure to Andrew Chafin on the mound in 2020, and he didn’t have great results. The 6.52 ERA was not impressive, but the peripherals were better than the results. That said, I’m not sure anyone expected him to have the most dominant season of his career. Through Friday’s games he had a minuscule 1.64 ERA, and while that looks like it’s been a bit lucky the 2.81 FIP accompanying it is also outstanding. His K/9 is lower than it had been previously in his career, but that dip in strikeouts has come with a lot more control as he’s cut his walk rate considerably.
Craig Kimbrel since 2016
Through Friday’s games Craig Kimbrel has not merely been dominant. The closer who is tied at ninth on the all-time saves list is having the best season of his career since he burst onto the scene in Atlanta in 2010 throwing 20⅔ innings to a 0.44 ERA. His K/9 is back above 15, but more importantly his BB/9 is down to 2.97. Heading into the ninth inning trailing in a save situation against the Cubs is currently almost guaranteed to be a loss.
For that matter, heading into the seventh inning trailing the Cubs is almost guaranteed to be a loss. The back of the Cubs bullpen has already set the new franchise mark for the longest stretch of innings without giving up an earned run.
The dominance of the Cubs bullpen extends beyond the triple threat at the end of the game. Below are the top 20 qualified relievers in the NL sorted by ERA through last night’s games. The Cubs have five relievers on this list — more than any other NL team:
Top 20 NL Relievers by ERA
The Cubs have a lot of unanswered questions as they head into Milwaukee for a three game set with the division leading Brewers, but the bullpen is not one of them. This is the most confident I’ve ever felt in the Cubs once a starter leaves the game. If Jed Hoyer can add a couple of arms to get this game to the bullpen, and the Cubs offense can score more consistently, this bullpen could make the Cubs a hard team to beat in September and October.