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How Bad Has the Cubs’ Bullpen Been, Really? Also Butler Results, Fowler Struggles, and Other Bullets

Analysis and Commentary, Chicago Cubs News

Getting back at it after the holiday weekend, a weekend in which the Cubs were swept at home by the Pirates, is never easy. I did my processing earlier in this post, if you’d like the “hey, yo, here’s why I’m not freaking out” take. Based on that, I’m pretty much feeling fine.

I would like to be able to get our ‘W’ flag back out front, though. This is the first year we’re doing it at home, and the Wife and kiddos have been disappointed to see the thing sitting on the table the last three days.


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  • We talked about Ian Happ’s big game (yup, another one) this morning and the trade implications thereof (in short: slow your roll), but there was another star in the Iowa Cubs’ win – starter Eddie Butler, who went six innings and allowed just two earned runs. He’s now got a 1.45 ERA over his first 18.2 innings in the Cubs’ system, which is much better than he was seeing at AAA for the Rockies after his top tier prospect star burned out. He’s getting a ton of groundballs, which was a big part of what the Cubs wanted to see after acquiring him in the offseason and trying to get him back to a more comfortable set of mechanics on the mound. The peripherals, however, are still alarming: 13.3% K rate, 9.3% BB rate, .241 BABIP, 85.7% LOB rate. Those numbers paint the picture of a guy who has been extremely fortunate not to give up a lot more runs so far. But they are only numbers. And the thing is, the Cubs are trying to work with Butler to remake him a bit, so you wouldn’t necessarily expect the numbers to be great so far.
  • Tommy Birch writes about those Jake Arrieta comparisons for Butler (in terms of the story), and how the Cubs wanted Butler to get back to using his sinker more. With Butler, you shouldn’t expect to see a huge strikeout rate (though, as a 26-year-old at AAA, you’re going to need to see him doing better than 13.3% before you get your hopes up), because that’s not going to be his game. Instead, he could be an effective 4/5 with a slightly-below-average strikeout rate if he can give up almost no walks, limit home runs, and mostly get groundballs. I know that sounds like a lot, but it’s certainly plausible.
  • I wouldn’t call this fun, since it’s bit the Cubs so badly, but it’s interesting:

  • Just a flukey noise thing? Or something about the talent pool, combined with manager approaches? It’s worth tracking here in the early going.

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  • Speaking of the Cubs’ bullpen, I dug Sahadev Sharma’s reminder this morning that they’ve actually been in a disproportionately high volume of high leverage situations already this year, which is part of what is magnifying the perceived struggles. Were the bats blowing teams out, or the starters going deeper (or themselves getting blown out), it wouldn’t *feel* like the bullpen was struggling this much.
  • It’s worth noting that, on the whole, only Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, and Brian Duensing have terrible numbers so far this year. With Duensing, it was one inning. With Grimm, his numbers were more or less fine until yesterday. Even with Strop, you’re talking about a couple mediocre outings after three solid outings after one home run in St. Louis. I’m not going to tell you it’s been good, but I am going to tell you it’s not like it’s been two months’ worth of bad. The entire bullpen has an ERA of 4.19, which is just about middle-of-the-pack in the NL.
  • One more on the bullpen: we’ve seen it four years running now, as the Cubs have struggled through bullpen questions for the first two or so months of the season, and then as roles and personnel are sorted out, they suddenly have a top five bullpen for the final few months of the year. I guess I can’t say for sure that they’ll keep pulling it off, but I do think the front office has a keen understanding for using the first couple months of the year (in coordination with the manager and the coaches) to lay out a bullpen plan of attack for the rest of the season. Even when the Cubs were “bad,” this was something they pulled off with aplomb. I’m not saying bullpen struggles now shouldn’t frustrate you – only that the struggles now could wind up in service of the greater good down the road.
  • OK, one more one more on the bullpen: it’ll get a boost in the coming days, as Carl Edwards Jr. returns from the bereavement list. What the Cubs choose to do at that point (send Brian Duensing out? go with eight relievers and send out one of Tommy La Stella or Matt Szczur?) remains to be seen.

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  • Tough start to the year for former Cub Dexter Fowler, who is hitting just .143/.222/.163 in the early going with the Cardinals, who have collectively had a very rough start to the season:

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  • In a lighter moment from yesterday’s game:


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Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation.