Bullpenning in the Early Part of the Season and the Thing That Always Happens
I’ve said the same kinda thing for a decade running, but – knock on wood – it has proved true every season, so I’ll keep on saying it: I’m not worried about the Chicago Cubs bullpen across the full season.
Even as the personnel turns over dramatically every year, the Cubs find a way to get the most out of the arms on the roster, the right guys on the roster, and the right guys into the right roles. It’ll happen again this year (*especially* this year – there’s just too much talent for it not to happen).
But it’s that “find a way” part that we can’t ignore right now, because here’s the other thing that’s been true for a decade: there is some ugliness in April and May as the process is being figured out. Some rough outings where you look back with hindsight and wonder if David Ross should’ve gone another way. Some performances that tell you, oh, this guy just can’t handle big league high leverage spots. Some wasted beauties in blowouts. That’ll happen again, and we certainly saw some of it playing out this opening weekend.
Specifically, that disparity in performance was pretty glaring in yesterday’s loss, with Julian Merryweather giving up five runs over just 0.2 innings, and Adbert Alzolay going 2.0 scoreless innings after the game was already out of hand.
It’s an exceedingly delicate balance early in the season not to make too much of any one or two bullpen performances, but the nature of bullpenning is that it’s all small sample! Sometimes, even a full season’s worth of performance from a guy in the bullpen is not quite the kind of meaningful sample you’d want – that’s part of why relievers are considered so volatile! You’re almost always evaluating them – good or bad – in a small sample.
Unfortunately, the Cubs are going to have to make some decisions before they have sufficient data to have supreme confidence in those decisions. It is a bare reality of having interchangeable parts in your bullpen that some performances are going to have to be regarded very closely and carefully, and it’s a lot harder to throw away any singular outing as “bah, that was just one bad inning.” I mean, it was, but you might get only five or six innings before the Cubs have to make some decisions. They have too many talented arms at Triple-A this year to wait too long.
So, let’s talk about the Julian Merryweather appearance, as contrasted with the Adbert Alzolay appearance.
With the Cubs down a run and heading into the 6th inning, Ross opted for Merryweather to take on the bottom of the Brewers’ lineup. I think that’s a reasonable move. But Merryweather walked two of the first four batters that inning, which meant that the crummy contact hits that followed did a whole lot of damage. You can’t have those walks. Can’t afford it.
By the time the inning was over, five runs had scored, and the game was more or less out of reach.
I understand David Ross wanting/needing to know what he has in his guys early in the season, so this kind of thing is going to happen A LOT in April/May. These guys made the opening bullpen for a reason, and you need to give time and looks before you can really know who works in what role (or who doesn’t work at all). The Cubs were going to have to get that first look at Merryweather eventually, and we know that the stuff, itself, is very good.
Sometimes, an appearance is going to go very poorly for the guy you chose in a given instance.
And it’s going to look all the worse if the guy you didn’t go to looks a lot better. After Michael Rucker bridged the next 1.1 innings, Ross called on Alzolay to finish off the game. Going to Alzolay for the final two innings only after the game was out of hand seemed an odd choice. I can justify Alzolay not appearing in the first two games of the series based on how things played out, but yesterday, if you knew he could go multiple innings, you’d want them to arrive when it was still a tight game. I presume there was a plan in place for Alzolay to finish the game because Michael Fulmer had just pitched the day before, but also Brad Boxberger would’ve been available if you had instead decided to pitch Alzolay earlier.
Alzolay looked fantastic, by the way.
Would the game have ACTUALLY played out differently if Alzolay had gotten, say, the 6th and 7th innings instead of the 8th and 9th? Well, I don’t think you can say that, because (1) Alzolay was facing different batters in a different situation, (2) the Brewers probably use different later-inning pitchers if they are up only a run, and (3) you still would have to cover the 8th and 9th innings and maybe a different reliever implodes.
So my point here is not really that David Ross screwed up by going to Julian Merryweather when he did, and saving Adbert Alzolay for when he did. It *might have* played out better if he’d flipped them, but I can understand the decisions that were made.
Instead, my point is just: this is what happens in the bullpen early in the season. We are going to have these situations where it’s very easy to take apart the performances and the decisions, and *IF THE CUBS DO IT WELL,* the frequency will drop in the months ahead. In the meantime, you have to log what happened, and probably overreact just a little bit. The runway simply ain’t that long when it comes to getting the bullpen right, and even if we can’t say yesterday “should” have gone like this or “would” have gone like that, we can say, “Hey, here’s what happened, and that’s going to inform the next small usage decision and the next small usage decision and then the next big roster decision.”
We’ll see how the next set of bullpen decisions plays out, and what overreactions they (kinda necessarily) bring. I’m not saying, on the basis of one outing, that the Cubs now need to boot Merryweather, by the way. I’m saying only that, it’s highly likely his next couple appearances will be in low-leverage spots if possible, and the Cubs are probably going to be watching closely. That’s just how you have to do it early in the season when you’re still sorting out the bullpen.