Chicago Cubs bullpen unsung heroes in National League Divisional Series


On Tuesday night, the Chicago Cubs advanced to the National League Championship Series for the first time since 2003.

The Chicago Cubs did a number of things well to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Divisional Series on Tuesday night. While the young, power-hitting rookies received much of the acclaim for the Cub’s overall success, the bullpen outperformed the bullpen of the Cardinals and that was critical in lifting this team to a win in this series.

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Going into this series, the bullpen was an area where the Cardinals had a distinct advantage over the Cubs. The fact that the Cubs bullpen stepped up and outperformed the Cardinals bullpen was a major factor that largely went unnoticed.

According to ESPN, the St. Louis Cardinals were the third ranked bullpen in the Major Leagues in terms of ERA during the 2015 regular season. In 539.1 innings of work, the Cardinals relievers collectively posted an ERA of 2.82 which trailed only the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals. In terms of bullpen ERA, the Cubs came in eighth in the Major Leagues with a 3.38.

Coming into the playoffs, the Cubs relief pitching was a bit of an issue because of their inconsistency throughout the season. For example, according to FanGraphs data the Cubs relievers had a 4.37 ERA in May, a 4.33 ERA in July and a 4.34 ERA in August all of which were in the bottom half of the league for that particular month.

However, the Cubs relief pitchers figured out how to flip the script in the NLDS. In 14.1 innings of work, the Chicago Cubs relievers gave up five earned runs and posted a 2-0 record with two saves and a 3.14 ERA. They held the Cardinals to a .200 batting average. In contrast, the Cardinals posted worse numbers across the board. In 17.1 innings of work, Cardinals relievers posted a 3.63 ERA and gave up seven earned runs and held opponents to a .222 batting average.

A big part of the success of the Chicago Cubs relievers against the Cardinals was their ability to pitch well after setbacks. Both setup man Pedro Strop and closer Hector Rondon pitched well after a setback performance.

In the eighth inning of the first game of the series, Strop surrendered a two-run home run to Stephen Piscotty which added to the Cardinal’s lead. In two appearances following this Game 1 mishap, Strop pitched two innings of scoreless baseball while recording four total strikeouts.

Closer Hector Rondon pitched a scoreless ninth inning in Game 2 although he ran into trouble in Game 3. He gave up a two-run home run to Stephen Piscotty which drew the Cardinals to within two runs of the lead. Rondon did finish out the inning and the Cubs won the game. In Game 4, he recorded the final out of the series to give the Cubs their first trip to the National League Championship Series since 2003.

Oct 13, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Hector Rondon (56) celebrates with first baseman Anthony Rizzo (44) after defeating the St. Louis Cardinals 6-4 in game four of the NLDS at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Seven-year veteran Trevor Cahill may have pitched himself into the setup man role. In his first two appearances, he pitched a total of 1.2 innings of scoreless baseball. In Game 4, he gave up three hits and one run. Cubs manager Joe Maddon will have to decide whether Pedro Strop or Trevor Cahill will get the nod as setup man in the NLDS. It isn’t a bad problem to have two quality pitchers capable of fulfilling a critical role on this team.

While Cahill, Rondon and Strop received a lot attention for their work against the Cardinals, middle reliever Travis Wood quietly pitched extremely well in critical situations as well. Wood’s role was especially important in this series because in three of the four games the Cubs starter didn’t make it through the sixth inning. When the Cubs needed a pitcher to give them quality innings in the middle of the ballgame, Wood delivered.

In Game 2, Wood entered in the bottom of the fifth inning after starter Kyle Hendricks gave up back-to-back home runs to Kolten Wong and Randal Grichuk. In the next at-bat of the inning, Wood struck out Matt Carpenter for the third out. He proceeded to pitch two more innings of one hit, scoreless baseball. In Game 3 with runners on first and second and two outs in the seventh inning, Wood got Jason Heyward to line out to left field to end the threat. On Tuesday night, Wood pitched a scoreless fifth inning and started the sixth inning before Joe Maddon pulled him after he gave up a single to Jason Heyward. Unfortunately, Heyward ended up scoring in the inning, leaving Wood with a charged run.

Former starter turned reliever Clayton Richard faced only two batters during the NLDS, but retired both opponents. Justin Grimm made one appearance in Game 4 and pitched an inning of scoreless baseball. In Game 4, Fernando Rodney made his first appearance of the playoffs and recorded the first two outs of the inning before Joe Maddon decided to replace him with Richard. Rodney walked off the mound and proceeded to do this….

October 13, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Fernando Rodney (57) reacts after he is relieved in the seventh inning against St. Louis Cardinals in game four of the NLDS at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

As the Chicago Cubs move onto the NLCS, the performance of the bullpen will be critical for the overall success of the team. In the NLCS, the Cubs may have the upper hand in this facet of the game, at least on paper.

The Cubs two potential NLCS opponents, the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers, have the two worse bullpen ERAs of the ten playoff teams in 2015. During the regular season, the Mets and Dodgers ranked 11th and 19th respectively in terms of bullpen ERA.

According to baseball reference, during the regular season the Chicago Cubs scored their most runs in the first three innings of the game. If this stat holds true in the upcoming series, the bullpen becomes even more critical. The Cubs have to hold leads, and the bullpen is largely responsible for this. The series against the Cardinals was a good demonstration of how good this bullpen can pitch. They will have to better this performance in the NLCS if the Cubs want to reach their first World Series since 1945.

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