Craig Kimbrel Ready to Go Longer as Pedro Strop, Bullpen Struggle in Setup Innings

If you came here looking for a hit piece on Pedro Strop or Joe Maddon, you’re in the wrong place. While both bear at least some measure of blame for the Cubs’ inability to hold late leads, it’s not going to do any good to point the greasy finger of blame in one particular direction.

I will point out, however, that Strop has not been himself in July and really needs to be moved out of a high-leverage role for the time being. Maybe for good, depending on what the Cubs do at the deadline. Through nine innings this month, the most he’s pitched in any month this season due to recurring injuries, Strop has given up a .324 average, .997 OPS, and .411 wOBA.

The situation is even more dire when we look at leverage, since the 34-year-old righty has struggled more when the pressure is turned up. He’s faced 46 batters in low-leverage situations (as defined by FanGraphs) this season, holding them to a .143 average, .479 OPS, and .213 wOBA. In medium-leverage situations, 29 batters have a .148 average with a .614 OPS and .241 wOBA.

But when things get really tight, like Friday night in Milwaukee, Strop has simply not been sharp. The 37 opponents he’s faced in high-leverage situations have hit .406 with a 1.267 OPS and .515 wOBA. Those numbers are actually much worse in July, but they’re only drawn from 15 batters. The thing about short relievers, though, is that they’re always going to be dealing with small-sample results.

As such, you can forgive a manager for running a guy out there after a bad inning or two because even the best pitchers are going to have hiccups. But there comes a point at which said manager needs to realize when something has moved from acute to chronic, and Strop seems to have long since passed that threshold.

That isn’t to say he can’t regain his form as one of the best and most consistent relievers in Cubs history, only that he is not a reliable option late in close games. And he sure as hell shouldn’t be brought into a dirty inning in those same tight situations. Which brings us to the bigger issue of the Cubs simply not having the horses to pull the load when they need to carry a lead to Craig Kimbrel.

We’ll talk about Kimbrel’s role more specifically here in a bit, but let’s first take a look at how the Cubs have performed this season in terms of runs allowed per inning. I’d tell you to pay particular attention to the 7th and 8th innings, especially on the road, but I’ve made it pretty obvious for you below.

If you’re wondering about the home/road splits in other innings, you can find them in the link above. Those two particular frames stood out because we’ve seen time and again how difficult they’ve been for the Cubs to navigate. And that’s not all on the pitching, since the Cubs’ offense ranks 27th in MLB with 0.43 runs/inning in the 7th inning. They’re a little better in the 8th, putting up 0.58 runs (11th), but they’re back to 15th with 0.37 runs in the 9th.

When you add it all up, you’ve got a team that sits 19th in baseball with an average of 1.38 runs scored over the final three innings of the game. So when that same team’s pitching staff allows an average of 1.29 runs per game over the latter third (which actually ranks 7th), you’re left with a margin that is far too slim for comfort.

Which brings us back to Kimbrel, the elite closer who was supposed to have solidified the bullpen enough to avoid the worst of these issues. Surely a guy like that could have been deployed in a situation like the one the Cubs were in Friday night, when Maddon went to Strop with two on and one out in the 8th. The beleaguered righty hit the first batter he faced, then got a pop-up before spurring this post by giving up the game-winning single.

Bases loaded with two outs practically screamed for Kimbrel, who’s made his share of four-out appearances in the past and seems prepared to do so again. The Cubs may start taking that route soon, but Kimbrel’s late start means he is still in what would otherwise be very early in the season from an experience standpoint.

“I feel like right now, he’s finally getting to that point where he feels like he’s kind of gotten through that first month of the season,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy told 670 The Score Friday. “For him, it’d be like end of April/early May kind of shape. That’s when we start looking for that type of stuff.”

Kimbrel is willing to go more than three outs, Hottovy said, but the Cubs need to keep the bigger picture in mind once they decide to start pushing him. That was an easier decision with previous closers like Aroldis Chapman and Wade Davis, both of whom were at full go from the start and were on expiring contracts.

Maddon admitted that Chapman was going to be ridden hard and put up wet in 2016, and Davis was similarly worked to the bone the following season. Both took awhile to regain form in subsequent seasons, so the Cubs may be wary of a similar diminution with a guy who’s going to be wearing their uniform for two more seasons.

More pressing is his immediate future, since going more than an inning likely shuts him down for a least a day after. With a division-heavy slate that figures to see plenty of close games, the last thing the Cubs need is to burn their closer.

“So picking the right time to do that, knowing that you’re probably going to lose him for a day, maybe two — because of the recovery — is important,” Hottovy explained. “But those are definitely things we’ve talked about and something that I know Craig would want to do when the time is right. A lot of that would just depend on availability of relievers and where we are in each game.”

After this last loss, there’s really no excuse for Kimbrel not to come on in similar situations moving forward. With Monday off and the division lead no longer in their grasp, the Cubs can ill afford to patchwork those late innings and hope to give their closer a chance at the end.

Or hey, maybe Derek Holland can handle those high-leverage situations to bridge the gap to the 9th. On second thought, maybe Theo Epstein needs to make good on those upgrades in a hurry.

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