All of the attention surrounding the Cubs right now is focused in on the prospects and young stars, and rightfully so. These kids are exciting and it is perfectly fine to zone in on the top prospects, but that isn’t the only part of the puzzle that seems to be solved. The part that might be the best section on the major league club right now is the bullpen.
Now when you look at the stats as a whole, it doesn’t look impressive. A 3.57 ERA in 375.1 innings this year is good for 8th best in the NL. However, you have to think that Jose Veras’ 8.10 ERA (12 ER in 13.1 innings) is included in there. If you exclude Veras’ numbers, the bullpen has a 3.42 ERA, which is good for 6th in the NL and 13th overall in baseball. To go along with that ERA, the relievers have combined for a FIP of 3.42, which is 9th in MLB and included Veras’ stats. This year’s bullpen is far better than the bullpen that posted a 4.04 ERA in 474 innings last season (25th in MLB) and the second worst FIP at 4.23.
There are a few reasons for the resurgence of the ‘pen. One of these reasons is a stable closer. Cubs’ fans have gotten used to seeing Carlos Marmol or Jose Veras blow games in such a way only they could. Since Veras’ release in June, Hector Rondon has taken over the closers role and performed terrifically. A Rule Five draft selection last year, Rondon has posted a 3.45 ERA in 44.1 innings while striking out 49, posting a 2.10 FIP, and converting 14 of 18 save opportunities.
Another reason for the improvement in the bullpen is the power, middle relief arms. The Cubs received two bullpen arms in the Matt Garza deal last year, Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm. The first of which, Ramirez, has pitched in 28.2 innings this season and has only given up 4 runs. To go along with his sparkling 1.26 ERA, his FIP is 2.89 and he has struck out 36 over those 28.2 innings. Grimm, on the other hand, has struggled a bit, but has an average 4.21 ERA in 51.1 innings. Also, his FIP is above average at 3.70 and has struck out more than a batter per inning (52 in 51.1 innings). Another guy that has emerged this year, actually it started last year, is Pedro Strop. Acquired in early July last year for Scott Feldman, has pitched 43.1 innings this season compiling a 2.70 ERA and a 2.99 FIP. During that span, Strop has struck out 49 batters and owns a 1.11 WHIP.
The final reason for the bullpen’s bounce back season is the help of some crafty pitchers. The leader in appearances for the ‘pen this year is none other than Brian Schlitter. Wait, what? Yes, Schlitter in his first full season in the big leagues leads the Cubs with 53 games pitched. In 49.1 innings through this year, Schlitter has a 3.47 ERA, 3.68 FIP, a 1.18 WHIP, and only giving up 0.4 HR/9. Another crafty veteran is swing man Carlos Villanueva. Besides having an amazing mustache, Villanueva has been one of the most reliable pieces in the Cubs bullpen the last two years. After starting the season in the rotation and getting hit hard, the right hander has turned it around in the ‘pen. In 42 relief innings, Villanueva has a 2.57 ERA and a .222 batting average against while giving the Cubs a long relief option out of the pen. The lone lefty that has been in the bullpen all year is first year Cub, Wesley Wright. A free agent signee in December, Wright has compiled a 2.78 ERA and a 3.39 FIP in 35.2 innings over 45 games. Actually, the lefty has fared better against right handed batters. Righties are hitting .213 with a .617 OPS against Wright while lefties are hitting .293 with a .626 OPS.
There are other names that have plugged in the bullpen this year including Zac Rosscup, Blake Parker, Chris Rusin, and Kyuji Fujikawa among others. Also, the future looks bright for the bullpen as well. In AAA Iowa, two top prospects are lighting up the radar gun and mowing down Pacific Coast League batters. Armando Rivero and Arodys Vizcaino both should get a nod in September and will have a shot in spring training next March to make the bullpen in 2015.
Regardless, any way you look at it, the bullpen in much improved from last year. My favorite stat comparing the two bullpens is: 2013 bullpen -0.5 WAR, 2014 bullpen 2.8 WAR. That is ridiculous. As much as a crazy thought it is, the facts are the facts. The bullpen is the strength of this team and could be another strength, with the mega lineup, in 2015 and beyond.