Meet the Surprisingly Dominant Back End of the Cubs Bullpen

Seems we’ve been talking about the Cubs more than usual this offseason. Which makes sense — the Cubs are really interesting right now. They’re really interesting right now, and it’s been a while since they’ve been interesting at all. It’s finally their turn. Of course we’re going to talk about them more than, say, the Mets or the Rangers. Sorry, Mets and Rangers.

Bullpens are all the rage in today’s MLB. Starting pitchers are being asked less and less to work deep into games, and so the importance of having multiple bullpen weapons to work the final few innings is at an all-time high. Used to be you’d hear about a team that “played eight inning games.” A team like the Yankees could let out a sigh of relief when they entered the ninth with a lead, because they had Mariano Rivera. Last year, we saw the emergence of the team that played six innings games, as the Royals let out their collective sigh of relief with a lead in the seventh inning as they watched Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland toy with hitters for three innings to close out games.

Everyone would like to have their own version of the Royals’ three-headed monster in the back of their bullpen, which brings us to the back end of the Cubs bullpen.

I’ve made an assumption by putting the word “surprising” in the title. You all know what they say about assumptions, but I make an ass out of myself all the time, so I’m used to it. If you’re a Cubs fan, you already know about the Cubs bullpen, therefore ruining the surprise. But I’m still calling it a surprise, given the players involved.

The guys who figure to pitch the most important relief innings for the Cubs in 2015 are Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Neil Ramirez. Before last season, Ramirez was best known as the “player to be named later” from the Rangers in the Matt Garza trade, had never thrown a major league inning and was already moving to the bullpen after trying to make it as a starter in Texas. Strop was entering his final season before his 30’s and owned a career FIP and ERA that were closer to 4.00 than they were 3.00. And Rondon wasn’t even the most exciting reliever named “Rondon” in baseball and just had a year that could only be called a “success” because he overcame three consecutive lost seasons of elbow surgeries and rehab to pitch 55 mostly bad innings.

In 2014, that same group quietly went about their business — instead this time, they dominated.

To what extent? Well, I made some tables. Made ’em for this very post! Before I made the tables, I had to have some data, and before I had the data, I had to have a data pool. Constructing that pool required some picking and choosing, admittedly with a bit of guesswork inherent. I tried to figure the most prominent three relievers in each bullpen, right now, for this upcoming season. We know the closers. We know, for the most part, the set-up men. You’ll probably want to quibble with some of my selections for the third spot, but honestly I doubt it’s worth the effort to quibble. It usually isn’t, in life.

First, some context. How good was this trio last year, compared to other trios teams will run out this year? To get a good idea of just pure performance, let’s look at ERA- and FIP-.

Team RP1 RP2 RP3 ERA- FIP- E-/F-
Royals Greg Holland Wade Davis Kelvin Herrera 33 50 42
Yankees Dellin Betances Andrew Miller Adam Warren 54 52 53
Phillies Jonathan Papelbon Ken Giles Justin De Fratus 52 64 58
Nationals Drew Storen Matt Thornton Aaron Barrett 47 71 59
Cubs Hector Rondon Pedro Strop Neil Ramirez 56 66 61
Reds Aroldis Chapman Burke Badenhop Jumbo Diaz 64 62 63
Rays Jake McGee* Brad Boxberger Kevin Jepsen 63 68 66
Pirates Mark Melancon Tony Watson Jared Hughes 51 80 66
White Sox David Robertson Zach Duke Zach Putnam 65 68 67
Giants Santiago Casilla Yusmeiro Petit Jeremy Affeldt 57 76 67
Orioles Zach Britton Darren O’Day Tommy Hunter 53 83 68
Athletics Tyler Clippard Sean Doolittle Dan Otero 64 72 68
Padres Joaquin Benoit Brandon Maurer Shawn Kelley 73 66 70
Angels Huston Street Joe Smith Fernando Salas 59 80 70
Astros Luke Gregerson Pat Neshek Chad Qualls 63 79 71
Marlins Steve Cishek Mike Dunn A.J. Ramos 76 75 76
Dodgers Kenley Jansen J.P. Howell Brandon League 73 79 76
Mariners Fernando Rodney Tom Wilhelmsen Danny Farquhar 68 85 77
Indians Cody Allen Bryan Shaw Scott Atchison 67 86 77
Blue Jays Brett Cecil Aaron Loup Marco Estrada 76 79 78
Braves Craig Kimbrel James Russell Jason Grilli 79 79 79
Red Sox Koji Uehara Junichi Tazawa Edward Mujica 77 82 80
Mets Jenrry Mejia Jeurys Familia Vic Black 71 92 82
Cardinals Trevor Rosenthal Jordan Walden Seth Maness 83 85 84
Rangers Neftali Feliz Shawn Tolleson Roman Mendez 60 110 85
Tigers Joe Nathan Joakim Soria Al Alburquerque 90 87 89
Brewers Jonathan Broxton Neal Cotts Will Smith 90 88 89
Twins Glen Perkins Casey Fien Caleb Thielbar 96 88 92
Rockies LaTroy Hawkins Adam Ottavino Rex Brothers 97 88 93
Dbacks Addison Reed Brad Ziegler Evan Marshall 93 93 93

Up at the top, with a laughable lead, is the team you’d expect to see. Then you’ve got the Yankees, who acquired Andrew Miller this offseason for the sole purpose of trying to build their own bullpen super-weapon. Then you’ve got the Phillies, who you can mentally erase because Jonathan Papelbon likely won’t pitch for them in 2015. Then there’s the team that doesn’t even have Tyler Clippard anymore, and then our Cubs.

Neil Ramirez had a 1.44 ERA, struck out nearly a third of the batters he faced, and gave up two homers. Strop had the same FIP as Kelvin Herrera, struck out nearly a third of the batters he faced, and gave up two homers. And for Rondon, the higher of the two numbers between his ERA and FIP was 2.42, he struck out a quarter of the batters he faced, and he gave up two homers.

And, while recent performance — especially with relievers — is nice, what we really care about is future performance. How good will this group be in 2015? Of course, nobody really knows, but our best guess probably lies within an advanced projection system. Steamer projects the group for the 9th-highest WAR of any trio of relievers, so there’s that. Ninth-best, based on the projections. Fourth-best, based on everyone’s most recent year of pitching, not counting the likely-soon-to-be-Papelbon-less Phillies. If you want, you could argue the Cubs have a top-5 trio. Call it top-10 if you’re more modest.

The projections call for some regression and, of course, we should expect some. They call for it particularly in the home run department, and they call for it particularly in Neil Ramirez. The group, as a whole, gave up a combined six home runs, and it’s likely that number will be higher in 2015. Then again, the same Royals group gave up a combined three — all by Holland — so if you’re calling for regression in one, you’ve got to call for regression in the others.

After all, it’s not like this Cubs unit doesn’t have the stuff. The only relievers last year who threw their fastball harder, on average, than Rondon were Chapman (duh), Herrera, Kimbrel, Rosenthal, Betances and McGee — and that’s good company. That same fastball also has an elite 50% groundball rate, making Herrera a natural and appropriate comparison. Strop’s main pitch is a sinker that goes 96 and his slider got more whiffs any other slider in baseball. And then here’s a fun comp for the fastball thrown by Neil Ramirez:

Four-seam fastball comparison, Neil Ramirez vs. Sean Doolittle
Usage Velocity “Rise” Whiff% GB%
Ramirez 72% 95.4 mph +11.5 in. 50% 21%
Doolittle 88% 95.3 mph +11.8 in. 57% 23%

So Ramirez has the right-handed version of Sean Doolittle’s fastball, and we know all about Sean Doolittle’s fastball. Rondon has Kelvin Herrera’s fastball, and nobody has a slider quite like Strop’s.

They had become a forgotten team, reduced to nothing but an army of elite prospects who, at long last, broke into the majors to come into their own. The organization went out and got a frontline starter to complement the young core, with hopes of a potential playoff bid. In the playoffs, they’d need just six innings from their starters because their trio of flamethrowing righties would come in and dominate the final three innings. And they did just that, all the way to the World Seri — wait, is this supposed to be about the Cubs or the Royals?





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Dscottncc
Guest
Dscottncc

Love, love, love this article.

Neil Ramirez is fun to watch out of the bullpen.

Just think, at this time in 2013 we had

1. Kevin Gregg
2. Carloss Villanueva YUCK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
3. James Russell

Yes Rondon and Blake Parker were there, but i’m trying to make a point here.

Rob
Guest
Rob

Villanueva had a 2.61 FIP and 3.03 ERA as a reliever in 2013. He was actually pretty solid out of the pen.

As a starter, not so much. He just doesn’t seem to have the stuff to make it through the order two or three times.

sheeks9
Member
sheeks9

Actually, Gregg and Russell werent bad either.

The man to remember (or to forget) from 2013 was Shawn Camp. He posted a 7.04 era over his 23 innings.

Willy
Guest
Willy

I’d imagine the yuck has something to do with the team Villanueva recently signed with.

VHS
Guest
VHS

weeeeeeeeeee

mutant beast
Guest
mutant beast

what was most impressive last year about the Cubs bullpen was the control. Rondon , with a FB velocity from 95-98, walked 2 batters after the AS Break. Justin Grimm walked 5. Strop had one of the best 8th inning Eras in baseball. Ramirez was good all year, righties have trouble picking up his delivery.