Seems we’ve been talking about the Cubs more than usual this offseason. Which makes sense — the Cubs are really interesting right now. They’re really interesting right now, and it’s been a while since they’ve been interesting at all. It’s finally their turn. Of course we’re going to talk about them more than, say, the Mets or the Rangers. Sorry, Mets and Rangers.
Bullpens are all the rage in today’s MLB. Starting pitchers are being asked less and less to work deep into games, and so the importance of having multiple bullpen weapons to work the final few innings is at an all-time high. Used to be you’d hear about a team that “played eight inning games.” A team like the Yankees could let out a sigh of relief when they entered the ninth with a lead, because they had Mariano Rivera. Last year, we saw the emergence of the team that played six innings games, as the Royals let out their collective sigh of relief with a lead in the seventh inning as they watched Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland toy with hitters for three innings to close out games.
Everyone would like to have their own version of the Royals’ three-headed monster in the back of their bullpen, which brings us to the back end of the Cubs bullpen.
I’ve made an assumption by putting the word “surprising” in the title. You all know what they say about assumptions, but I make an *** out of myself all the time, so I’m used to it. If you’re a Cubs fan, you already know about the Cubs bullpen, therefore ruining the surprise. But I’m still calling it a surprise, given the players involved.
The guys who figure to pitch the most important relief innings for the Cubs in 2015 are Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Neil Ramirez. Before last season, Ramirez was best known as the “player to be named later” from the Rangers in the Matt Garza trade, had never thrown a major league inning and was already moving to the bullpen after trying to make it as a starter in Texas. Strop was entering his final season before his 30’s and owned a career FIP and ERA that were closer to 4.00 than they were 3.00. And Rondon wasn’t even the most exciting reliever named “Rondon” in baseball and just had a year that could only be called a “success” because he overcame three consecutive lost seasons of elbow surgeries and rehab to pitch 55 mostly bad innings.
In 2014, that same group quietly went about their business — instead this time, they dominated.
To what extent? Well, I made some tables. Made ‘em for this very post! Before I made the tables, I had to have some data, and before I had the data, I had to have a data pool. Constructing that pool required some picking and choosing, admittedly with a bit of guesswork inherent. I tried to figure the most prominent three relievers in each bullpen, right now, for this upcoming season. We know the closers. We know, for the most part, the set-up men. You’ll probably want to quibble with some of my selections for the third spot, but honestly I doubt it’s worth the effort to quibble. It usually isn’t, in life.
First, some context. How good was this trio last year, compared to other trios teams will run out this year? To get a good idea of just pure performance, let’s look at ERA- and FIP-.
Up at the top, with a laughable lead, is the team you’d expect to see. Then you’ve got the Yankees, who acquired Andrew Miller this offseason for the sole purpose of trying to build their own bullpen super-weapon. Then you’ve got the Phillies, who you can mentally erase because Jonathan Papelbon likely won’t pitch for them in 2015. Then there’s the team that doesn’t even have Tyler Clippard anymore, and then our Cubs.
Neil Ramirez had a 1.44 ERA, struck out nearly a third of the batters he faced, and gave up two homers. Strop had the same FIP as Kelvin Herrera, struck out nearly a third of the batters he faced, and gave up two homers. And for Rondon, the higher of the two numbers between his ERA and FIP was 2.42, he struck out a quarter of the batters he faced, and he gave up two homers.
And, while recent performance — especially with relievers — is nice, what we really care about is future performance. How good will this group be in 2015? Of course, nobody really knows, but our best guess probably lies within an advanced projection system. Steamer projects the group for the 9th-highest WAR of any trio of relievers, so there’s that. Ninth-best, based on the projections. Fourth-best, based on everyone’s most recent year of pitching, not counting the likely-soon-to-be-Papelbon-less Phillies. If you want, you could argue the Cubs have a top-5 trio. Call it top-10 if you’re more modest.
The projections call for some regression and, of course, we should expect some. They call for it particularly in the home run department, and they call for it particularly in Neil Ramirez. The group, as a whole, gave up a combined six home runs, and it’s likely that number will be higher in 2015. Then again, the same Royals group gave up a combined three — all by Holland — so if you’re calling for regression in one, you’ve got to call for regression in the others.
After all, it’s not like this Cubs unit doesn’t have the stuff. The only relievers last year who threw their fastball harder, on average, than Rondon were Chapman (duh), Herrera, Kimbrel, Rosenthal, Betances and McGee — and that’s good company. That same fastball also has an elite 50% groundball rate, making Herrera a natural and appropriate comparison. Strop’s main pitch is a sinker that goes 96 and his slider got more whiffs any other slider in baseball. And then here’s a fun comp for the fastball thrown by Neil Ramirez:
So Ramirez has the right-handed version of Sean Doolittle’s fastball, and we know all about Sean Doolittle’s fastball. Rondon has Kelvin Herrera’s fastball, and nobody has a slider quite like Strop’s.
They had become a forgotten team, reduced to nothing but an army of elite prospects who, at long last, broke into the majors to come into their own. The organization went out and got a frontline starter to complement the young core, with hopes of a potential playoff bid. In the playoffs, they’d need just six innings from their starters because their trio of flamethrowing righties would come in and dominate the final three innings. And they did just that, all the way to the World Seri — wait, is this supposed to be about the Cubs or the Royals?