As a closer, Brandon Morrow has been about as good as the Cubs could’ve possibly imagined (1.47 ERA, 2.96 FIP, 22 saves). He gets ground balls, he strikes people out, he doesn’t walk anyone, he works quickly, and perhaps most importantly, he’s extremely stress-free.
Unfortunately, he also hasn’t thrown a pitch at the big league level since July 15th, and has thrown barely over 30.0 innings this entire season. You take the good with the bad.
Speaking of the good, racking up a majority of the save opportunities in Morrow’s absence is Pedro Strop. And oh, baby has he been good lately.
Like last night, for example, when he went three-up, three-down in the heavy rains of Kansas City (before an absolute deluge hit and would have delayed the game) for his eighth save of the season:
In a very boring ninth inning, Stop induced a weak groundout to the first baseman before striking out the final two batters of the game, to improve his season numbers to impressive heights: 2.74 ERA, 3.18 FIP.
And it’s been even better here lately. Since being knocked around by the Reds on June 24th, Strop has allowed just 4 earned runs over his next 14.2 IP (2.45 ERA), while striking out 28.1% of the batters he’s faced and walking just 7.0%.
None of us should be surprised. Strop has been an insanely good – and consistent! – reliever since joining the Cubs. Check out just the high-level stats from his full-season Cubs career:
2014 (61.0 IP): 2.21 ERA, 2.66 FIP
2015 (68.0 IP): 2.91 ERA, 3.16 FIP
2016 (47.1 IP): 2.85 ERA, 2.91 FIP
2017 (60.1 IP): 2.83 ERA, 3.31 FIP
2018 (46.0 IP): 2.74 ERA, 3.18 FIP
When you’re working on five years of relief and never had an ERA above 2.91 for any one season, fans should be making statues of you, thanking you for providing the lone, stabilizing force out of the Cubs’ pen for a HALF DECADE. Strop hasn’t gotten anywhere near that level of respect, but it does feel like the tide is finally starting to change – and I’m not just talking about Joe Maddon’s “Dress like Strop Day.”
For once, it seems like fans are catching on to how important Strop is to the team, especially now that the lockdown closer has been on the shelf for a while. And why not? Strop has converted five consecutive saves and six of seven since the All-Star break, alone. Not many teams have a guy who can so easily rise up to the occasion and take over the ninth like that. Heck, even his blown save is understandable when you realize he was trying for the multi-inning save against the Cardinals in a day-night double-header. That’s not easy.
Now, I’m not saying he’s perfect, mind you. There are some signals that Strop’s age, 33, is finally catching up with him. According to Pitch Info, his four-seamer and sinker are each down almost a full MPH from his career averages, while his cutter is down about a half a click. And because of that, probably, his strikeout rate has fallen to about 25% (still very good, but well below the 29.1K% he posted with the Cubs before this season).
He’s also dropped from an elite ground ball guy operating in the upper-50% range the last two seasons to just an above-average 46.2% this year, while allowing far more fly balls than usual and more hard contact.
But there are many more reasons to understand why he’s still great.
For one: while he has definitely been a little lucky with his HR/FB ratio, BABIP, and strand rate, he is still getting a ton of soft contact – more than he did in 2014, 2015, and 2016 – and maintains a more than respectable strikeout rate. For another, while he’s allowing more fly balls and fewer grounders, he’s still basically better than average in both arenas. Ditto the hard contact. So, I mean, that’s great!
Moreover, after walking batters more than 10.3% of the time in three of his first four seasons with the Cubs, Strop’s walk rate is down to 9.2% this year.
So, sure, he may not be as elite as he has been in the past, and he may not have the same fastball he once did, but he’s still striking out plenty, walking few, managing the contact, keeping the ball on the ground, and getting the job done.
And in terms of the Cubs’ All-Time Reliever Leaderboards with at least 300 IP, Strop ranks 4th in WAR (5.5), 2nd in ERA (2.72), 3rd in FIP (2.96), and 2nd in K/9 (10.34).
All while wearing his hat so delightfully to the left.