And so I face the final curtain.
If you’ve followed me through the many journeys of Heroes and Goats, then you’ve probably read the Lucy moved the football reference on a number of occasions. In some seasons, I know I’ve used it multiple times. Without going back and looking, I think I used it once in May of this year after the hot early start to the season reversed course.
Similarly, I’ve referred to fool’s gold before. It’s the same concept. I use it to describe a situation where I feel like I’ve been duped into thinking things would go better than they ended up going. That can lead me to feeling kind of bitter and dejected. It makes me feel like a trusted person close to me duped me. That leads to some level of hard feelings that extends beyond just that the bottom dropped out under my favorite team.
This season feels different. If this September is the moved football, then I feel so good in the game that I believe that even if I don’t convert the field goal because the hold is no good on my field goal attempt that I’m going to get back up and overcome it. That’s how I feel about this Cubs season. This team has come off of the mat and overcome adversity before.
This team started the season 1-3, the rallied out to an 11-6 record. This team, from April 20 to June 8 was 15-28. But then from June 9 through June 24 was 11-2. From June 25 through July 6, the team was 3-8. But then from July 7 through August 6, the team was 18-8. From August 7 through August 18, the team was 4-5. Then August 19 through September 6, the team was 14-5.
Every time this team has hit the wall, they’ve gotten up and dusted themselves off and got back to winning. Everyone remembers 2016. Most people remember it for the absolute domination that team did throughout most of the season. The people with really sharp memories remember the stretch from June 30 to July 9 when the bottom dropped out of the team. The Cubs were just 1-9 in that stretch. Without question, that was the worst stretch for the team.
Do you recall that the stretch actually reached back all of the way back to June 5? After the Cubs won on Saturday June 4 at Wrigley Field against the Diamondbacks, they were 39-15. That 54 game stretch was played at a .722 win percentage. Or if you prefer, a 117-win pace. I’m sad to say that my mental math skills are eroding to the point where I used a calculator for that one. Some younger version of me is having a moment of silence.
Staying on topic, do you recall that between June 5 and July 9, the Cubs were 13-20? That’s a 98 loss pace and that’s essentially 20 percent of a season. That’s a long stretch of not good. And it came from one of the better teams in Cubs history, one that ended up winning a World Series. As bad as things have been, this year’s Cubs are 11-22 over their last 33. That’s worse than the stretch those championship Cubs went through, but not by a massive margin.
This is a long and winding way of me saying that this feels more like that kind of stretch to me than one of those fool’s gold/Lucy moved the football moments. There isn’t enough runway left to conclusively prove if it is door number one or door number two. But right here, right now, I don’t buy that this team isn’t good. Don’t get me wrong, regardless if they are a good team playing bad or were a bad team that had an extended good stretch, it doesn’t matter. In either scenario, the team is going through a terrible stretch and barring a lot of help over the last 10 days of the season, it’s going to have cost this team a shot in the postseason. As the ninth inning was playing out, I was belaboring exactly this point with Sara Sanchez over Twitter. I suspect at some point soon, Sara will have more coherent thoughts on the demise of this team. I know that Al will have them even sooner. But the bottom line is, I wasn’t a true believer when the season started and now I’m here, shocked watching the season end in a fiery crash.
The roster is largely healthy and so it’s hard to understand exactly where things fell apart. Usually when a decent team falls out of contention, you can trace it to a series of injuries. Jeimer Candelario is hurt, but we’re talking about a guy that has played in 36 games for the Cubs and took 136 plate appearances (with a .773 OPS). He was a good, not great, hitter for the Cubs. Nick Madrigal is hurt, but he was a fairly regular player through September 16. With 294 plate appearances, this is the most he’s ever played in his career by 66.
Adbert Alzolay is hurt and was the very effective closer for this team. Also, outside of this year, he only had more innings pitched during 2021 when he started 21 games for this team. Michael Fulmer is hurt. Brandon Hughes is hurt and has been almost entirely ineffective at the major league level this season. That’s not a lot of injury.
Marcus Stroman was hurt for a long time but Javier Assad and Jordan Wicks have been good. Jameson Taillon has been bad, but over his last 20 starts, he is 7-7 with a 4.59 ERA (4.69 FIP) and the team is 10-10. He’s not particularly killing them. At least not like he was early.
I suspect you know the punchline. The Cubs bullpen had a 3.98 ERA in 97⅓ innings in April. 5.19 in May (when the team was largely terrible) in 102⅓ innings. In June, it was 2.65 in 78 innings. Isn’t it amazing how relief pitching results invariably boost when usage goes down? Just in case you were wondering, there was only one unearned run allowed by the bullpen that month (and none in April).
July saw a 3.57 relief ERA in 98⅓ innings. In August it was 3.93 in 91⅔ innings. So far in September, it is 37 earned runs (41 runs) in 72⅔ innings. That’s a 4.58 ERA, ignoring the four unearned runs. If you just called it a runs allowed average, it would be 5.08. The bullpen has killed this team. On an aggregate basis, the Cubs front office succeeded again. Year to date the bullpen has a 4.01 ERA in 540⅓ innings. It is amazing that even this late in the season, the ERA was able to take a hit, moving from 3.99 to 4.01 with the three runs in three innings Thursday night.
The Cubs have used 22 players as relievers. That includes four appearances by Tucker Barnhart among five appearances by position players (five runs in 4⅓ innings). Interestingly, if I sort the relievers by innings pitched out of the bullpen, I have them in this order: Julian Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr., Adbert Alzolay, Michael Fulmer, Javier Assad, Michael Rucker, Hayden Wesneski, Keegan Thompson and Daniel Palencia.
So let’s look at that. Merryweather has remained healthy. He has been dominant, but the game got away on his watch Thursday night. Leiter 8/30 through 9/20: 9.45 ERA. Alzolay hurt, Ineffective after August. Fulmer, two late IL stints, 8.53 ERA since 8/11. Assad entered the starting rotation at the start of August. Three straight rough outings July 8 to 20, then banished almost entirely. Only three more appearances totaling 2⅓ (scoreless) innings. Wesneski 8/4 to present, 5.95 ERA, doesn’t have any defined role and starts when in the minors. Thompson was never a consistently effective pitcher after April. Palencia 8/5 to present, 6.75 ERA and before two scoreless outs Thursday had allowed runs in four straight appearances.
Modern baseball is often won and lost in the bullpen. For the 2016 Cubs, down the stretch it was the bullpen that failed this team. For the most part, Alzolay, Merryweather, Fulmer and Leiter carried this team. Some combination of fatigue, injury and overexposure doomed the group. Fulmer was on a one year deal. The Cubs will hope the other three come back healthy and effective to lead the 2024 bullpen.
Along with any new blood, they’ll hope that Codi Heuer, Ethan Roberts, Nick Burdi and Brandon Hughes get real chances to contribute that they never got in 2023. They’ll hope that Thompson, Rucker and Caleb Kilian can be straightened out and can find ways to help. They’ll hope that Ben Brown, Jeremiah Estrada and Hayden Wesenski can continue to grow and develop into useful pitchers at the big league level. You always look outside, but you are strongest when there are options inside the organization.
It ain’t over. The old phrase is dated, but no one has done any singing signifying the end. The season is on life support. But even now, I have no doubt that if the Cubs somehow could bounce back and win their final nine games that they’d reach the playoffs. But, we’ve reached the point where that is no longer guaranteed. Still, take care of the winning. Worry about the Marlins and everyone else later.
Three stars of Thursday’s loss.
- Dansby Swanson had a homer and drove in half of the six runs.
- Nico Hoerner stays hot with a single, a double and a walk. He scored one and drove in another.
- Kyle Hendricks. He’s not dominant anymore for the most part. Yet three runs over six innings didn’t cost the Cubs this game. I will not entertain discussion that he’s started his last game as a Cub at Wrigley Field anytime soon.
Game 153, September 21: Pirates 8 at Cubs 6 (79-74)
Reminder: Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA scores and are in no way subjective.
- Superhero: Nico Hoerner (.080). 2-4, 2B, BB, RBI, R
- Hero: Mike Tauchman (.056). 2B, RBI, R, 2 K
- Sidekick: Yan Gomes (,037). 0-2, 2 BB, HBP, R
- Billy Goat: Seiya Suzuki (-.184). 0-5, K
- Goat: Julian Merryweather (-.145). ⅓ IP, 4 batters, 2 H, 2 BB, 3 R
- Kid: Christopher Morel (-107). 0-5, 2 K
WPA Play of the Game: Miguel Andujar batted with runners on first and third with two outs in a scoreless third inning. He doubled and two runs scored. (.204)
*Cubs Play of the Game: Mike Tauchman batted with runners on first and second with one out, the Cubs down four. He doubled, scoring a run. (.114)
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
This poll is closed
Dansby Swanson (2-5, HR, 3 RBI, R)
Someone else (leave your suggestion in the comments)
Yesterday’s Winner: Ian Happ (Superhero is 103-49)
Rizzo Award Cumulative Standings: (Top 6/Bottom 6)
The award is named for Anthony Rizzo, who finished first in this category three of the first four years it was in existence and four times overall. He also recorded the highest season total ever at +65.5. The point scale is three points for a Superhero down to negative three points for a Billy Goat.
- Cody Bellinger +33
- Ian Happ +20.5
- Adbert Alzolay +18
- Justin Steele +16
- Marcus Stroman +14
- Javier Assad +13
- Michael Fulmer -9
- Dansby Swanson -10
- Patrick Wisdom/Drew Smyly -15
- Trey Mancini -20.5
- Jameson Taillon -26
Scoreboard watching: With 10 days left in the regular season, the three division races are essentially all over. The Phillies hold the first Wild Card. The Diamondbacks are three behind then in the second WC spot. The Marlins hold a tiebreaker over the Cubs and hold the third WC spot, despite them being exactly even through 153 games. The Cubs have to outplay the Marlins over the final nine games and they both have to hold off a Reds team half a game back.
Friday, the Phillies host the Mets. The Diamondbacks travel to play the Yankees. The Cubs host Colorado in the only afternoon game. The Marlins host the Brewers. The Reds host the Pirates. For the Cubs, Marlins and Reds, every game is critically important. By all appearances, they are three teams for one spot. Of course, appearances have changed so many times over the last month or so. But time is slipping into the future.
Jameson Taillon (7-10, 5.27, 138⅓ IP) starts for the Cubs. He’s 0-4 with a 5.54 ERA over his last seven starts. So it isn’t really finishing any better than it started. He allowed three runs over five in his last start against these Rockies and took the loss. On September 8, two weeks ago, he threw six scoreless against the red hot Diamondbacks.
The Rockies appear to be using Noah Davis (0-2, 9.58, 20⅔ IP) as an opener. The 26-year-old righty has made four starts for the big league Rockies, but none since June 20 and he’s never pitched beyond five innings. Don’t expect him to go deep in this one.
Somehow, someway, the Cubs have to scrape together enough to win a baseball game.