The Cubs' Other Kind of Pitching Versatility, and the Importance of Split Neutrality

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The Cubs’ Other Kind of Pitching Versatility, and the Importance of Split Neutrality

Chicago Cubs

trevor cahill cubsESPN’s Jayson Stark recently delivered an extremely interesting read on the renewed focus and attention given to Major League bullpens. Given the recent success of the Kansas City Royals, Stark suggests MLB teams and front offices are being forced to rethink the construct of their roster. As it stands, the bullpen has historically been the last piece of the puzzle – the component of the team you worry about least and last. But, as teams are relying more and more on their relievers, creating depth and versatility is as important as ever.

Consider that, according to, starters failed to make it through the sixth inning 2003(!) times last season – the most in the history of baseball. Certainly, some of that has to do with increasingly strict pitch counts and inning limits, but also, teams are recognizing the negative impact of a leaving a starter out there for the third time through the order.

In Stark’s article, there’s a simply understood, but extremely meaningful chart that shows how much better relievers are the first time through the order (.699 OPS) as opposed to a starter’s third time through (.764 OPS).

The Cubs, with much of the credit to Joe Maddon, were among the most aware of this issue last season. For example, the Cubs starters failed to exceed 5 innings 57 times last year – the most ever for a Cubs team with a winning record. Except, it wasn’t entirely an accident or a failure. The reason it worked out exceptionally well for the Cubs in 2015 is because it was all occurring by design. Maddon was able to be aggressive with his bullpen on the non-Arrieta/Lester days, taking out pitchers with reckless abandon once they hit the first sign of trouble in the 5th or 6th inning.

Still, if you’re building a team, you can’t just expect to start pulling starters early every single day without a plan. You need to have the right bullpen make-up to do that. Of course, we’ve talked at length about the benefit of the Cubs four super utility pitchers in the past, but this is much more than that.

According to Maddon, you don’t just need pitchers that are capable of throwing multiple innings on multiple occasions, you need guys that are mostly matchup-neutral – meaning that they can get hitters out from either side of the plate (in a variety of situations). It’s another kind of versatility you want super-utility-type pitchers to offer.

Out of curiosity, then, do the Cubs’ four super utility pitchers fit the bill? Below, I’ve listed each pitcher and his career lefty/righty splits for wOBA (weighted on base average). For context, the league average wOBA in 2015 was .313 and the league average wOBA in 2014 was .310.

  1. Travis Wood
    VS. Lefties: .275
    VS. Righties: .325
  2. Trevor Cahill
    VS. Lefties: .336
    VS. Righties: .308
  3. Adam Warren
    VS. Lefties: .301
    VS. Righties: .304
  4. Clayton Richard
    VS. Lefties: .271
    VS. Righties: .350

So, off the bat, these Cubs pitchers aren’t as split neutral as you might have otherwise expected. Still, some neutrality is certainly there (except for Clayton Richard, really), and you wouldn’t expect perfect neutrality anyway.

When you look at 2015, alone, though, the splits get much better. Travis Wood (.267 vs. Lefties .300 vs. Righties) and Adam Warren (.267 vs. Lefties .301 vs. Righties) stand out as exceptionally good, split-neutral super utility pitchers. Even Clayton Richard (.240 vs. Lefties .347 vs. Righties) improved upon both of his numbers in 2015, and Trevor Cahill (.296 vs. Lefties and .332 vs. Righties) flip flops his career splits in 2015, indicating the ability to get out batters from both sides of the plate (perhaps, especially so out of the bullpen – but we’d need a larger sample to say for sure).

Targeting the best overall pitchers and/or players for a given situation remains now and forever the primary directive. If someone has exceptionally good splits, he can still be hugely useful. Although, the Cubs seem to be taking a slightly altered approach to the composition of their roster. Everything and everyone they add, it would seem, is there to fulfill a role or a purpose; however, these roles are less specific then they have been in the past. The four super utility pitchers, for example, aren’t just hanging around the bullpen thanks to their ability to throw multiple innings. They are in the bullpen because they complement the starting rotation (instead of merely supplementing it), as well as the rest of the bullpen. Everyone is going to be used in conjunction with each other over the course of the whole season, so that the team can – hopefully – function as a single unit.

The same thing can be said for the Cubs’ increased versatility in the starting lineup and on the bench. Having multiple players capable of playing multiple roles hasn’t occurred by chance. Each player is one cog in a larger, multipart team. Having guys that can play multiple positions (or pitchers that can attack batters from both sides of the plate) wasn’t a happy accident. The Cubs are trying to create a cohesive unit, and they’ve done an excellent job.

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Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami