I really didn’t want to write this post. It’s one of those posts I’ve had kicking around in drafts for a couple months, but it’s so hard to frame properly without folks leaping for your neck that I kinda kept putting it off.
But, with more and more focus on what the Cubs are doing with their bullpen this year, I don’t think I can keep kicking this can down the road.
OK. So, a necessary reminder that Cubs reliever Rowan Wick was acquired for third base prospect Jason Vosler (who went on to hit fairly well at AAA last year, but is not necessarily considered a premium prospect) in the fall of 2018, and then went on to contribute meaningfully to the 2019 Cubs. That’s a win. Wick posted a 2.43 ERA over 33.1 big league innings (44% better than league average), and was one of the very few trustworthy relievers in the bullpen by the time September rolled around. From the time of his final call-up (July 23) through the end of the year, he was even better: just a 2.05 ERA.
Wick was an unquestioned success last year, not only because he’s held up as the shiniest example of the Cubs’ efforts to find underappreciated pitching assets and turn them into real contributors, but also because he was just flat-out really solid, by the results, by the peripherals, and by the eyeballs. Everything you would’ve hoped a guy like Wick could realistically be in 2019, he was.
For that reason, and because he is so frequently listed as a lock in the Cubs’ bullpen – not just a lock to have a spot, but a lock to be one of the few sure-fire good relievers – I feel like I have to at least point a few things out. I’m not saying Wick won’t be excellent in 2020 or that he can’t get even better. But there are a few items that, in fairness, should be out there as we contemplate the Cubs’ bullpen of intentional disarray in 2020, and try to keep a realistic handle on expectations for Wick. He is more likely to be a solid reliever in 2020 than a dominant one.
- As a general matter, relievers are extraordinarily volatile from year-to-year, especially when they have not established themselves over three+ healthy seasons. Wick, 27, has just over 40 big league innings total, from 2018 and 2019. His successful run with the big league Cubs in 2019 was just 33.1 innings. He was legit in those innings – the results were not a mere fluke – but it’s a tiny sample. Like every other player emerging in the league, adjustments are necessary over a large horizon. Wick will come into 2020 much less of a known quantity (especially the knuckle curve that was new to everyone last year). Advanced scouts and batters will adjust.
- In the juiciest season of the juiced ball era, Wick gave up … zero home runs. Not one. Want to know a great way to keep your ERA under three? Don’t ever give up a single home run. Boom. You did it. The thing is, that is not going to last forever. Maybe Wick has an ability to artificially suppress HR/FB ratios, and if you also keep the ball on the ground as often as he does, you won’t give up a lot of homers. But you absolutely will give up some.
- To that end, if Wick had given up a league average number of homers relative to his personal fly ball rate, he actually would’ve been … just 1% better than league average (99 xFIP-). Really, limiting the homers was the biggest thing he did right last year, and you just can’t project zero homers going forward.
- Moreover, Wick had the 9th highest spread between his actual slugging allowed and expected slugging allowed, per Statcast. In other words, based on the quality of contact he allowed, you would have expected teams to get much better slugging results. There was probably a great deal of luck involved there, not only in not allowing a single homer, but also in where the line drives and fly balls to the outfield happened to go. He was very good at managing contact last year (huge groundball rate, very low hard-contact rate, etc.), but his results were even better than you realistically would have expected.
- Also, the peripherals were not all pristine on Wick last year. For one thing, his 11.4% walk rate was actually a good bit worse than league average for relievers (9.6%). And I’m guessing you have in your head that his strikeout rate (25.0%) was a crapload higher than league average, when really, it was actually only barely better than average for relievers (23.9%). The spread between his K and BB rates (13.6) was actually lower than league average (14.2).
- There was also a .256 BABIP that was lower than you would have expected based on the quality of contact, and a better-than-average LOB rate (72.8%) that you would expect to tick up this year without more strikeouts and with normalized luck on balls in play.
Like I said up top, none of this is designed to predict DOOM for Wick. Even where we expect natural regression, he could still be a very useful reliever without any improvement or adjustment. But if you want to see him as the guy you’re imagining in your head – setup man, rarely in trouble, a rock throughout the year – he’s going to have to take another big step forward in 2020.
To end on a positive note, it’s worth reiterating that Wick was at his best after he was called up to stay on July 23: 2.05 ERA, 26.9% K rate, 11.1% BB rate, 54.7% groundball rate, 27.7% hard contact rate, 14.3% IFFB rate. It’s a very good sign that Wick was getting better and better as the year went on, and that’s the optimism you can hang your hat on for 2020.