When people think of a team leader, certain positions on the field spring to mind: A slugger who can pace the offense and command the clubhouse, an ace pitcher setting the tone every five days, a catcher acting as surrogate manager on the field. But you don’t normally think about a relief pitcher as the heart of the squad.
That’s understandable, since relievers literally spend most or all of the game apart from the rest of the team in the bullpen. They are often in their own world, some even catch a little shut-eye in the early innings when there’s no risk of being called upon.
When it comes to Pedro Strop and the Cubs, though, you can throw preconception out the window. The hard-throwing righty is most definitely one of the leaders of this team. Some may be skeptical of this, Strop has gotten abuse from a not-insignificant segment of Chicago fans who don’t like his celebrations or the way he wears his hat. But the evidence in favor of Strop as a leader is extensive and, I think, very persuasive.
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2002 at age 17 by the Colorado Rockies as a shortstop, Strop was moved to the mound after three underwhelming seasons in the field. He didn’t impress his team in that new role either, because they released him in 2008. Something clicked after that, as the Texas Rangers picked him up in 2009 and he shot through the upper levels of the system to make his MLB late that season.
Strop was traded to Baltimore in 2011 and saw his first sustained MLB time. He was excellent the rest of 2011 and most of 2012, when a sub-2.00 ERA positioned as the primary set-up man to Orioles closer Jim Johnson. Then the bottom fell out and his ERA ballooned to over 7.00 in the final two months of 2012.
When the struggles continued into 2013 the team looked to move on, packaging Strop and another struggling pitcher, Jake Arrieta, for Scott Feldman and catcher Steve Clevenger from the Cubs. As everyone reading this is no doubt aware, the trade worked out quite well for Chicago.
In the five-plus seasons Strop has worn a Cubs uniform, he has a 2.72 ERA in 317.2 total innings pitched. His 5.3 career WAR with the team is the fourth highest for a reliever in club history. Only Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith, and Carlos Marmol have had more impact. Considering the other three saw time in the closer role, it’s even more impressive for Strop to to have accumulated so much value.
While too many will point to the occasional implosion, something you’ll get with any reliever, Strop has been incredibly consistent over the last half-decade. The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma laid out just how how much so back in July (subscription required). And it’s because of that steady presence that Strop has emerged as a team leader.
Sharma shared with me on a recent podcast that Joe Maddon often cites Strop as a leader, and not just in the bullpen. Rather than bark orders or mercilessly ride his younger teammates, he feels it’s his job to lift the spirits of the team whenever he can.
“We have fun,” he explained to reporters the other day. “That’s part of the game. I don’t want to go home 10 years from now and when my kids ask me: ‘Hey Papi, did you have fun when you played?’ I want to say yes. I try to put my teammates in the same mood every time. Sometimes you’re in a bad mood, but I make sure they’re in a good mood by the time they go and pitch.”
It’s clear his teammates appreciate the effort their stylish reliever puts forth to keep them loose. The whole team enthusiastically joined in when Maddon announced a “Dress like Pedro Strop” theme trip when they headed to Kansas City. I think it’s fair to say a less loved and respected player would likely not have gotten such a terrific response.
But don’t take all this to mean Strop is just some sort of court jester, as he is also comfortable being a vocal leader in the clubhouse. Rookie Randy Rosario said the veteran has mentored him throughout the transition to the major leagues. When Javy Baez threw his bat in the air in frustration after a pop out, it was Strop advised him to apologize and learn from it.
Then there was this past Monda in Kansas City, when Strop basically predicted the future and told El Mago how to perform his next magic trick. Baez had struggled in two early at-bats against the Royals, striking out twice against sliders in the dirt, but Strop told his teammate what was going to happen after that.
Great stuff between Baez and Strop tonight. During the rain delay, Strop got Baez's head straight. After he struck out badly 2 times, Strop told him 'you're going 2 for 4.' And when Baez started to respond, Strop cut him off: "You're going 2 for 4." He then homered and doubled
— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) August 7, 2018
Huh, a speech during a rain delay to inspire a win…I feel like I’ve heard a story similar to that before. Pedro Strop has long been an incredibly important part of this Cubs bullpen over the last five years, but he may be an even more critical part of the team off the field.
Hats to the left!