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The Cubs’ bullpen has been absolutely outstanding this year

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Is it sustainable?

Chicago Cubs v. Los Angeles Dodgers
Craig Kimbrel and Andrew Chafin talk about the no-hitter they didn’t realizing they were part of
Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

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

Ryan Tepera Since 2016

Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% LOB% ERA FIP xFIP
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% LOB% ERA FIP xFIP
2016 TOR 18.2 8.84 0.49 0.49 58.5% 75.2% 2.95 2.88 4.25
2017 TOR 77.2 9.39 0.81 0.81 41.6% 70.8% 3.59 3.52 4.41
2018 TOR 64.2 9.46 1.25 1.25 44.0% 79.5% 3.62 3.57 4.02
2019 TOR 21.2 5.82 2.08 2.08 41.2% 76.2% 4.98 5.75 5.23
2020 CHC 20.2 13.50 0.87 0.87 40.0% 77.2% 3.92 3.52 3.10
2021 CHC 37.0 9.73 0.73 0.73 49.4% 76.6% 2.43 2.60 3.48
Select Stats FanGraphs

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

Andrew Chafin Since 2016

Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% LOB% ERA FIP xFIP
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% LOB% ERA FIP xFIP
2016 ARI 22.2 11.12 4.37 0.4 50.9% 49.1% 6.75 2.84 3.29
2017 ARI 51.1 10.69 3.68 0.88 56.3% 78.1% 3.51 3.39 3.16
2018 ARI 49.1 9.67 4.56 0 50.4% 73.5% 3.10 2.65 3.69
2019 ARI 52.2 11.62 3.08 1.03 42.9% 77.0% 3.76 3.25 3.24
2020 ARI/CHC 9.2 12.10 4.66 1.86 40.7% 68.2% 6.52 4.74 3.85
2021 CHC 33.0 8.18 2.73 0.27 53.1% 83.3% 1.64 2.81 3.92
Select Stats FanGraphs

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

Craig Kimbrel since 2016

Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% LOB% ERA FIP xFIP
Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% LOB% ERA FIP xFIP
2016 BOS 53.0 14.09 5.09 0.68 29.4% 70.9% 3.40 2.92 3.48
2017 BOS 69.0 16.43 1.83 0.78 37.0% 93.9% 1.43 1.42 1.50
2018 BOS 62.1 13.86 4.48 1.01 28.2% 83.0% 2.74 3.13 3.13
2019 CHC 20.2 13.06 5.23 3.92 30.0% 89.3% 6.53 8.00 4.75
2020 CHC 15.1 16.43 7.04 1.17 33.3% 70.8% 5.28 3.97 3.79
2021 CHC 30.1 15.43 2.97 0.3 34.0% 80.6% 0.59 1.14 3.92
Select Stats FanGraphs

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

Name Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Name Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Josh Hader MIL 31.2 15.06 3.13 0.00 .212 90.9% 31.4% 0.57 0.84 2.12 1.9
Craig Kimbrel CHC 30.1 15.43 2.97 0.30 .184 80.6% 34.0% 0.59 1.13 1.86 1.7
Ranger Suarez PHI 29.0 8.07 2.48 0.62 .155 89.6% 65.8% 0.93 3.39 3.46 0.3
Alex Reyes STL 34.2 12.20 7.79 0.52 .203 94.9% 37.1% 1.04 3.78 4.60 0.3
Dan Winkler CHC 27.1 9.22 5.27 0.33 .227 92.5% 40.9% 1.32 3.77 5.03 0.1
Tyler Rogers SFG 38.2 5.12 1.40 0.47 .235 82.9% 66.9% 1.40 3.38 3.89 0.5
Kenley Jansen LAD 30.2 9.98 5.58 0.29 .141 76.1% 40.6% 1.47 3.21 4.51 0.7
Aaron Loup NYM 23.2 11.03 1.14 0.00 .328 70.8% 49.2% 1.52 1.20 2.09 1.2
Tejay Antone CIN 33.2 11.23 3.21 0.80 .194 89.6% 47.1% 1.60 3.15 3.14 0.8
Andrew Chafin CHC 33.0 8.18 2.73 0.27 .198 83.3% 53.1% 1.64 2.81 3.91 0.7
Richard Rodriguez PIT 30.1 8.01 0.89 0.30 .215 76.5% 28.8% 1.78 2.09 4.33 1.2
Mark Melancon SDP 34.0 7.68 3.44 0.79 .244 85.8% 59.1% 1.85 3.73 3.41 0.3
Luke Jackson ATL 28.2 9.10 4.08 1.26 .257 98.7% 51.9% 1.88 4.30 3.89 0.0
Giovanny Gallegos STL 41.0 10.32 1.76 0.44 .193 77.2% 35.2% 1.98 2.29 3.37 1.2
Austin Adams SDP 26.2 13.84 4.39 0.00 .245 75.7% 35.4% 2.03 2.88 4.13 0.4
Victor Gonzalez LAD 24.2 8.39 5.11 0.36 .242 85.4% 57.8% 2.19 3.75 4.22 0.2
Keegan Thompson CHC 24.0 10.50 5.25 1.50 .254 94.9% 39.3% 2.25 4.73 4.17 -0.2
Ryan Tepera CHC 37.0 9.73 2.43 0.73 .167 76.6% 49.4% 2.43 3.01 3.48 0.7
Genesis Cabrera STL 36.1 10.16 3.96 0.25 .278 75.7% 42.0% 2.48 2.82 4.05 0.8
John Curtiss MIA 32.1 9.46 1.67 0.84 .302 81.8% 39.3% 2.51 2.90 3.32 0.5
Select Stats FanGraphs

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.