Tuesday Trends: Bullpen Keeps Rolling as Bats, Starters Slump
It’s been a bit of a tough week for our Cubs.
After the thrill of sweeping the arch-rival St. Louis Cardinals last weekend, the team has limped through a 2-6 stretch against the quite good New York Mets, the not so good Miami Marlins, and the Cleveland Indians.
All teams, even good ones, will go through stretches like this, but the particular way that the Cubs have been losing is cause for some raised eyebrows even for those that want to stop short of outright concern.
While the team has stayed at the top of the National League Central, imperfections in both the lineup and starting rotation continue to be an issue — an issue that is being further exacerbated by injuries. As we inch closer to July, the Cubs are approaching the spot where they need to decide not just to buy or sell as an organization, but to buy or sell the chances of particular players being likely (or not) to contribute in meaningful ways.
The back end of the bullpen: The combination of Andrew Chafin, Ryan Tepera, and Craig Kimbrel continues to be nothing short of lights-out. Just how good has this group been? Matthew Trueblood of Baseball Prospectus framed it better than I could ever hope to.
Holds by Andrew Chafin and Ryan Tepera this year: 32.
Holds by the entire 2002 Cubs team: 31.
Chafin’s 17 Holds equal the number with which Brandon Kintzler led the 2019 Cubs.
Not at all sustainable without reinforcement, but Cubs’ top RP have been *wildly* good.
— Matthew Trueblood (@MATrueblood) June 21, 2021
Is the fact that Chafin and Tepera are outpacing the 2002 Cubs all on their own particular meaningful in a vacuum? No, not really, but it sure helps paint a picture of just how dominant they’ve been when viewed along with their other gaudy numbers. In 65 combined innings pitched entering Monday, the pair has given up only 31 hits and 16 walks compared to 68 strikeouts.
In other words, neither reliever is “lucking” into their numbers and both have been flat out dominant so far. And they serve only as the amuse-bouche to the the main course of Kimbrel. By Fangraphs’ xFIP, 2021 is one of the Hall of Fame reliever’s five best seasons. He’s certainly passing the eye test, too.
Craig Kimbrel, 87mph Knuckle Curve and 97mph Fastball, Individual Pitches + Overlay. 😳 pic.twitter.com/EfS4vZ8m5T
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 20, 2021
All of this is a long way of saying that you could not reasonably ask for any more than this group has given you.
Joc Jams: Joc Pederson is certainly finding his groove in his first season as a Cub. Coming into Monday, Pederson’s wRC+ sits at 110 after sitting well below that for much of the season’s early months. That rise has been fueled in part by a significant power surge of late. The former Dodger has smacked seven home runs in his last 15 games and is slugging .709 during that time.
Kyle Hendricks‘ return to form: Hendricks continues to shake off early-season rust. In his last seven starts, The Profssor has accumulated a 2.54 ERA over 46 innings pitched while striking out 35 and walking only seven.
In a Cubs rotation that very badly needs anyone to step up, that will certainly do.
League-wide spin rates: As far as fun and interesting data visualization goes, I’m not sure it gets any more fun or interesting than Codify, Inc.’s recent look at the spin rate averages over the last ten days.
Wow. Red is spin rate, blue is velocity.
(10-day rolling MLB fourseam fastball averages)@PitchingNinja @enosarris @jaysonst pic.twitter.com/N0bZEX0AwZ
— Codify, Inc. (@CodifyBaseball) June 19, 2021
While MLB’s crackdown doesn’t seem to have affected that aforementioned back end of the Cubs’ bullpen, it will be worth continuing to monitor how it affects pitchers league-wide.
Justification for playing Jason Heyward regularly: Let’s get this out of the way first: Heyward will always have a positive place in Cubs lore. From the rain delay speech to years of elite defense, he’s done a lot to earn his spot.
But today, in 2021? This is getting rocky. Heyward’s bat has never been a sure thing during his time as a Cub, even if it genuinely looked as though he may have found something in what was a very successful (and very short) 2020 season. However, any progress he made has seemingly evaporated.
Heyward was batting .171/.256/.316 coming into Monday, good for a wRC+ of 61. That’s not good enough for a corner outfielder, even one who provides elite defense. Making matters worse, all indications are that Heyward’s days as an elite right fielder have passed him by.
Without that glove and with the struggles he’s had at the plate, there really aren’t any good reasons to consider Heyward’s spot in the lineup as a sure thing in anything but the most favorable matchups. He’s on a very large contract, but that deal is approaching its end.
In the context of this season, the Cubs need to make the best baseball decisions they can in order to win a division that is sure to remain tight. And in this instance, that best decision is a significant reduction in Heyward’s playing time.