A stray note for our consideration this offseason when looking ahead at the Chicago Cubs’ 2021 starting rotation and bullpen: you gotta think about innings bumps.
In a normal timeline, you don’t think too much about a huge change in innings pitched from one year to the next for an established big league pitcher. It tends to be the case that, if they’re healthy, they can be expected to throw a full complement of starts and innings.
Now, if a guy was seriously hurt during a season, you might think about how much more he can go the next year, but that’s as much about guarding against whatever the injury was as it is about the bump in innings. If a guy is really young, then you might thinking about innings bumps, but that’s more about prospect development and, again, guarding against injury.
But 2021 is going to present an interesting challenge for a much, much larger swath of pitchers. Nobody threw more than Lance Lynn’s 84.0 innings, which, in a normal season, might have you wondering if the guy could safely bump it back up to more than twice that amount the next season. He might be fine, as could most of the guys who got in 70+ innings (Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish included). But still, for them, and for the vast majority of MLB starters, you’re looking at the possibility of asking them to more than double their innings, year-over-year. Honestly, I hadn’t really thought much about the ramifications of that ask in the aggregate.
But baseball folks are thinking about it, and it’s impacting how they plan to construct their rosters, according to Cubs President Jed Hoyer (via Cubs.com):
One difference in planning for the 2021 campaign will be mapping out more than a traditional five-man rotation. Given the abbreviated nature of the 2020 season, Hoyer said, teams have to account for the potential spike in innings for each individual pitcher.
“We played 60 games last year and guys didn’t pitch a full season,” he said. “And so, there’s an awareness that we’re going to have to use a lot of different guys to get through a season from a starting standpoint.
“If healthy, people aren’t going to be able to take every fifth turn throughout a season the way we have in the past. And I think the whole industry knows that and is talking about that.”
Think about your depth, too. Not only is it probably asking too much for your front five guys to make 30+ starts and throw 170+ innings apiece, but much of your depth is going to have pitched a small handful of games at an alternate site. Even a small chunk of the season is going to be a big innings bump for them.
The point to all of this, then, is that it could be more critical than ever to have extreme depth in your rotation and bullpen, because the latter will require starts spread across more pitchers, and the latter will probably have to account for even more innings than usual.
The Cubs do have a considerable volume of AAA+ starting pitchers who should be available to make starts in 2021, but when you start slotting guys, you immediately see huge issues with the innings your main guys can give you. Let’s do a little hypothetical math to point a finer point on it.
If the season winds up being the full 162 games, and if you wanted to get an average of six innings per game from your starting pitcher, you’re talking about covering 972 innings over the course of the regular season. That’s definitely the high side, but if you’re aiming to ensure you’re prepared, that’s the amount you’d want to cover on paper.
Let’s be very generous and say Darvish and Hendricks could get you 372 innings between them in 2021, which leaves you 600 starter innings to be covered by everyone else. The most Alec Mills has ever thrown in a season is 140 innings in 2019, when he wasn’t coming off this shortened year. So, OK, let’s give him that amount. You’re down to 460 innings. Adbert Alzolay, for all his talent, has battled injury issues throughout his career, and I highly doubt the Cubs are gonna let him jump from 40ish innings (between real and simulated starts) in 2020 to much more than 100 innings in 2021. So now you’re through your first four starting pitchers, and you still have 360(!!!) innings to account for.
The Cubs have some volume from there on the 40-man in Tyson Miller, Cory Abbott, Justin Steele, and Keegan Thompson, among others. But even if all four of those guys stayed perfectly healthy, I’m not sure you’d hit your mark. And, with all appropriate love to those guys and their possible futures, I’m talking only about the volume they can give at this point in their careers, not the effectiveness.
So, then, here’s the reality: the Cubs are gonna need a shitload of bullpen innings in 2021, because they aren’t getting to that 972 inning level from the starters. And, even granting that, the Cubs definitely still need to add another reliable starting pitcher or two. You thought it already, but count this just another reason.