[Brett: Man, these types of analyses are a heck of a lot more fun to read when the Cubs are coming off of a 97-win season.]
About one month ago, I wrote about how the Cubs bullpen in 2015 was among the top five in baseball, by WAR. Specifically, the bullpen collectively managed to net 5.0 WAR, which was tied for fourth most in baseball – all while being pieced together with spare parts throughout the season.
By another measure, WPA, the Cubs bullpen in 2015 comes in at 8th overall with 4.10. WPA, if you’re unfamiliar, stands for Win Probability Added, and is a method of measuring the change in win expectancy from one plate appearance to the next.
To use the FanGraphs Library example: most statistics credit each event equally. For example, a home run in the third inning of a blowout is equal to a home run in the ninth inning of a tight game. Of course, we know that isn’t necessarily true. Now, for the purposes of determining expected future performance, valuing all like events equally makes sense, but when looking back at how much one person or entity (like a bullpen) added or subtracted to a season, WPA can be quite useful.
Over at FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan started peeking into the Yankees’ bullpen, after they acquired Aroldis Chapman and created one of the most intimidating bullpens in recent memory (in addition to Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances). What he found was that the Yankees have actually already had the most impressive bullpen over the past 20 years! From 1996 to 2015 the Yankees’ bullpen is +116 WPA. That is 38.5 wins above the Angels (second place) and … you might want to sit down for this … about 123 more wins than the Cubs’ bullpen over that stretch.
That’s right. The various Cubs bullpens have come in dead last by WPA over the past 20 years. In fact, their WPA is negative (-6.4, to be exact) over that stretch. If you switch to ERA or FIP, the Cubs’ bullpens jump up to twenty-second in baseball over that stretch. By strikeout rate, they’re fourth overall, which is pleasantly surprising.
But that’s just the point of WPA. The implication here is that, in the biggest and most important moments, the Cubs’ bullpen has been downright terrible for twenty years – which, anecdotally, does feel right.
On the other hand, the Cubs have had far more ownership, management, coaching and bullpen turnover during the past twenty years than the Yankees have, so maybe it’s not entirely within their control.
None of this is to say you should expect the Cubs’ bullpen to be bad in 2016. In fact, it still looks quite strong on paper and they did finish in the top 10 by WPA in 2015. Just know that your gut may have been right for once. The Cubs bullpen over the last twenty years, no matter how individually talented they may have been, came up short in the spots that matter most more than any other team in the game.