The Chicago Cubs have hit their stride in recent weeks, winning 13 of 19 since May 25. While the lineup and most of the starting rotation have found their groove, the bullpen continues to be a major strength so far this season.
Every good pen requires the perfect mix and the Cubs have a balanced collection of relief pitchers. For every late-inning power arm like Brandon Morrow or Justin Wilson, Joe Maddon also has been able to rely on long relievers like Mike Montgomery and Luke Farrell.
Even with injuries to key pieces like Carl Edwards and Eddie Butler, the organization has been able to call up guys who’ve performed admirably in a pinch.
With a bullpen that strong, it’s no wonder why Maddon hasn’t been afraid to frequently call on his relievers in middle innings.
But is he relying on the bullpen too much?
Through the first two months of the season, Maddon has been regularly questioned about the use of his relievers. In fact, there have been two prime examples in the last week that provide fuel for that fire.
On Sunday, Kyle Hendricks was pulled after five innings against the Pirates after tallying just 63 pitches. The Cubs were down 1-0 when Maddon called on Tommy La Stella to pinch hit with no outs. While La Stella has been money as a pinch-hitter in his career, he grounded into a double play and the bullpen was forced into action.
Both Brian Duensing and Luke Farrell struggled in relief, surrendering 5 earned runs combined in the sixth inning.
“You’ve got to look at the whole picture,” Maddon said after the 7-1 loss. “We weren’t scoring a whole lot of runs, so you have to try to get them whenever you can. … The weather wasn’t conducive to big runs either. Fog in your face, wind blowing in. With La Stella hitting and the top of the order coming up, I’ll take my chances.”
A similar situation happened last Wednesday against the Phillies. Jose Quintana was cruising with a 3-0 lead when he hit a rough patch in the sixth inning. After allowing two baserunners and reaching 91 total pitches, Maddon pulled Quintana with two outs in favor of Steve Cishek.
Cishek – arguably been one of the best relievers in the National League – promptly gave up a three-run home run to Aaron Altherr to tie the game. It was the first home run he surrendered all season. Matters only got worse when closer Brandon Morrow, who hadn’t been taken deep since 2016, served up a two-run home run to Dylan Cozens that gave the Phillies a 5-3 lead.
Fortunately, Jason Heyward surprisingly bailed the Cubs out in the ninth inning with a walk-off grand slam to win the game 7-5. But the decision to pull Quintana was a bit baffling.
Why pull a pitcher who is cruising and has a reasonable pitch count that early? While the bullpen has been lights out so far, the law of averages tells you eventually it will come back to earth. And the more you put relievers in high-leverage situations, the more chances they can slip up. The situation against the Phillies opened the door to those chances.
Another point to keep in mind was that Tyler Chatwood pitched the following day. Given his high pitch count and walk rate, you would think it would’ve been beneficial to have Quintana make it through six or seven innings so the bullpen could be saved for Chatwood’s start.
As Maddon stated, he looks at the whole picture. We know he is not the type of manager who makes calls or changes because of his “gut instincts.” Every decision he makes is always informed by splits, career matchups and other useful data. So when he pulled Quintana and Hendricks in the situations above, there certainly was a rhyme and reason behind it.
Still, pulling starters when they’re rolling seems dangerous. While bullpens are becoming more prominent in favor of 200-inning starters, now could be the perfect time of the season to let starters go a bit deeper into games.
We’ve seen how valuable relievers have been during pennant races. With the Cubs’ strong collection of arms, the bullpen could be a major factor down the stretch and in the post-season.
They just can get burned out beforehand.