When Eddie Butler went on the disabled list a week and a half ago with a groin strain, the Cubs called up newly-converted reliever Luke Farrell to take his spot in the bullpen. That spot, presumably, would look a lot like it had for Butler: low-leverage, mop-up innings.
Through two outings, that was the case for Farrell. But the thing is, he looked *so* good in those outings. It wasn’t just the crazy volume of whiffs he was getting, but the fastball-slider combo looked like that of a very good reliever. If you didn’t know you were watching a mop-up guy, I bet that’s what you would have thought – well, except for the fact that he looks a lot like Kyle Hendricks when he’s pitching, so you probably would have thought that first (then you would have looked at the radar gun and wondered what the hell was going on).
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) May 1, 2018
Farrell, 26 and the son of former Red Sox manager John Farrell, got his chance last night to pitch in a much higher-leverage spot, cleaning up a two-on, two-out mess in the 6th inning, and then facing the heart of the Rockies’ order in the 7th after the Cubs had taken a one-run lead.
Joe Maddon was very pleased after last night’s win, and Farrell came in for heavy praise at the end:
Joe Maddon is gushing over his team after the current five-game winning streak pic.twitter.com/V5oBkYRct3
— Cubs Talk (@NBCSCubs) May 1, 2018
On the Farrell part, it’s certainly interesting that Maddon gave him a chance last night to pitch in a very meaningful part of the game after his first two appearances were pure mop-up (but he looked brilliant in them). The fact that the Cubs were going to go without Carl Edwards Jr. and Brandon Morrow, combined with Jon Lester having to burn through so many pitches in the 5th inning, seemed to open up the perfect opportunity for Farrell. He took advantage.
I thought he was overthrowing a bit at the start of his outing last night, and I think he must not have had a feel for his slider (which looked so good his first two times out) because he threw it only twice. But that four-seam fastball has so much life at 94 mph that batters react to it like it’s 97 mph. It must have an enormous spin rate.
… OK, I did the thing where I typed out my thoughts before actually checking the data, so we’ll see if I’m right … and … Statcast has Farrell with the 50th highest spin rate on his four-seamer in baseball at 2440 RPMs, which is way above average. He’s not in that super-elite tier above 2600, where there are only a few pitchers – 0ne of them, by the way, is Carl Edwards, Jr., second in baseball at a whopping 2673 – but he’s still solidly up there. Farrell’s four-seam spin rate is third on the Cubs behind only Edwards and Yu Darvish.
In all, everything we’re seeing in the visual and in the data on Farrell – in a tiny sample! don’t forget that part! – suggests he very well could be a thing. Consider, he’s been an almost-good-enough starter all of his career, and now having been converted to the bullpen, he’s adding three MPH to his fastball (which has way above-average spin, and he commands it well), and going almost exclusively fastball-slider. When you see relievers surprise out of nowhere, that’s kinda how the biography reads.
Fun fact: the Cubs claimed Farrell on the eve of the NLDS last year. They never stop looking for diamonds.
Another fun fact: in a 3.1 inning sample (so come on now, it’s just for fun!), Farrell has a 58.3% strikeout rate and a 0.0% walk rate. He’s the best reliever in baseball!
As for what happens now that Eddie Butler is eligible to come off of the disabled list, the Cubs will have a tricky decision. Farrell has been so good, but it’s such a small sample that it’s not like it would be indefensible to send him back down to Iowa. Butler is out of options, so the Cubs would have to subject him to waivers to get him back down to Iowa – given what he showed as a reliever (potential to be, like we’d hope Farrell is, a guy who finally figures it out after a conversion), I think there’s a good chance he’d be claimed. The Cubs could also send Butler out on a rehab stint if he’s ready to go right now, which, hey, we don’t yet know for sure that’s the case.
Butler, 27, has a meh 4.30 ERA over 14.2 innings out of the bullpen, but a better 3.71 FIP thanks to a career high 16.4% strikeout rate (yeah, still not high) and an 8.2% walk rate.
We’ll see what happens – if anything – later today.