When a big chunk of the offense struggles for five days, you might not notice because the rest of the offense picks up the slack or the pitching covers it up. When the defense struggles for five days, you might not notice because the margins between “struggling” and “not” on defense are so slim that we are often really wrong in what our eyeball test tells us. When the starting pitching struggles for five days, you might focus on the individual pitchers and note that it was just one bad outing, which happens.
When the bullpen struggles for five days, not only do you notice, but you feel like the freaking walls of Wrigley Field are collapsing onto your house. It is like they are doing it to you, personally. Those appearances tend to come in the biggest, latest moments in the game, and when the outcomes don’t match what you want, it’s about as galling as things get on the baseball diamond.
And this week has been one of those weeks, man. It wasn’t just yesterday’s game when the bullpen twice blew a late lead. It was also the day before when the bullpen failed to hold down the Phillies to allow the offense to come back. It was also the day before that when the bullpen turned an 8-3 lead into a game where the tying run was on deck when the game ended. It was also the day before that when the bullpen gave up two runs late to blow the lead (and got bailed out by the offense in the 9th). It was also the day before that when the bullpen blew a late lead and then also gave up the winning run in the 10th.
When you feel the weight of five games like that in a row, you become convinced the bullpen is an absolute disaster. Understandable, especially when you see almost every guy struggling, and you know this was a potential issue all offseason-long.
I will admit, going through those five games, mentally, it’s hard not to note things like that first game actually should have ended on an Andrew McCutchen strikeout. The one after that was just a BS groundball that got through. The one after that was mostly a good bullpen performance, just a little scary at the end. The one after that was just two runs in five innings of work. The one yesterday, yes, well, that one just sucked. But you can see how it’s exactly like it’s just been crap performance after crap performance.
I’m reminded of the first week of the season, which had this same feel, as the bullpen blew several games and struggled in several others. I can’t say “this, too, shall pass” just because that stretch didn’t last (and actually turned into a month+ where the bullpen had the best results in baseball by a mile), since you can observe the bullpen and know there are huge question marks. We’ve known it for, oh, about eight months. But I guess it is still nice to step back and know that some blown games in a week – some explainable and flukey, some not – does not necessarily mean every single thing about the Cubs’ bullpen is effed. (Though, uh, I sure wouldn’t mind if Pedro Strop comes back healthy, effective, and soon.)
Oh, bonus completely stupid thing that will probably not make you feel better and instead will just tick you off more? Even in these five awful days, the Cubs bullpen’s ERA has been just 4.50, which is about league average. Baseball can be really dumb sometimes.
But let me be quite clear here: this bullpen is still a terrible, terrible risk to the Cubs’ competitiveness this year. I think the front office can mix and match reasonably well with their call-ups, and I think Joe Maddon can sort out his pitchers’ roles reasonably well – things that would improve the performance of the bullpen over the course of the next few months – but going into the postseason with this bullpen, if it even came to that, would be a terrifying ordeal. The Cubs bullpen leads the league in blown saves right now, with 11. Some of them may have been a fluke, but when a number like that matches your reasonable fear coming into the season? You can’t call the whole thing a fluke.
In the meantime, the Cubs will keep riding this out until trade season approaches, or until they find a few more pennies to rub together to pursue Craig Kimbrel after the draft.