These 2 Factors Could Be Contributing to Cubs’ Bullpen Wildness

The current episode of the Cubs Related podcast spent a useful amount of time on the Cubs’ consistently high bullpen walk rate. Evan Altman did as well in his quality piece Monday morning. Despite three different pitching coaches the last three seasons and turnover in personnel, the team’s relievers have remained among the wildest in baseball the past four seasons.

Corey Freeman framed it nicely on the podcast by quoting stats recently posted on Twitter by Jordan Bastian of MLB.com. In case you needed it, the parenthetical numbers are MLB ranks.

With no help coming from the farm system, the Cubs front office has harped on the need to bring in proven strike throwers. But time after time, nearly all of these pitchers have seen their walk rates increase once with the Cubs. Consider the following:

  • Wade Davis had a career 3.3 BB/9 rate prior to joining the Cubs. This rose to 4.3 with the Cubs in 2017, and then dropped to 3.6 last year with the Rockies.
  • Brandon Morrow had walk rate for three consecutive seasons under 2.0. Then last year with the Cubs this rose to 2.6.
  • Steve Cishek signed after a 2.6 season in 2017 in the American League. But in his first Cubs season, this rose to his second highest rate in the last six years (3.6).
  • Justin Wilson had a 3.4 career walk rate before the mid-season 2017 trade that brought him to Chicago. This then skyrocketed to 9.7 and then 5.4 last year. In six appearances with the Mets this year, it has dropped to 1.4.
  • Brian Duensing went from 2.0 in 2017 with the Orioles to 2.6 in his first year with the Cubs to 6.9 this year.
  • Even Tyler Chatwood – never a control pitcher – saw his walk rate double from a career 4.2 rate to 8.4 last year and 7.5 so far this year.

The rare exceptions are mostly limited to veterans. Cole Hamels saw his walk rate with the Cubs return to what it had been when he last pitched in the National League (2.7). In his last year before free agency, Jesse Chavez started the year with a career-best 1.9 rate with the Rangers last year, which he lowered further to 1.2 with the Cubs.

One is tempted to include Aroldis Chapman in 2016 in this category. His walk rate coming over from the Yankees did increase, but it still remained near his career low. He posted a career-best 2.3 in New York, then saw it rise to a still-respectable 2.8 with the Cubs.

So what accounts for this very high correlation? It is not Wrigley Field because opposing teams’ walk rates do not rise precipitously when playing there. And the Cubs actually walked 9 percent more batters on the road in 2017. This leaves two possibilities, the first of which is revealed in Jon Lester’s walk rate over his five seasons with the Cubs.

Chicago Cubs

A natural theory is to say Lester’s leap in walk rate was purely a product of getting older. However, an incredible consistency exists before and after his switch in catchers. To put it in context of the percentages quoted in the above tweet, Lester’s walk rate went from a 6.5% in 2016 to a low with Contreras of 9.2% in 2017.

Thus it is natural to wonder whether pitch framing has contributed to the seeming uncorrectable nature of the bullpen’s wildness. It is even possible that Chapman’s rise in walk rate once traded to the Cubs was influenced by Contreras, who caught the vast majority of Chapman’s appearances in Chicago.

In this light, I find it fascinating that the Cubs and Brewers took different strategic paths despite having the same need to improve starting pitching. The Cubs put all their eggs in the basket of hoping for a rebound from Yu Darvish and $20 million for one year of Cole Hamels. The gamble here is also that an offensive rebound by Contreras will accompany improvement behind the plate.

In contrast, the Brewers sunk close to the same amount of money ($16 million) as the Cubs did in Hamels for one year of Yasmani Grandal and his elite pitch framing. The goal here is to spread Grandal’s pitch-framing benefits among every pitcher on the team. Plus, Grandal is no slouch with the bat. In the early running this year, he has hit as well as Contreras, which means his superior skill as a catcher gives an early advantage to the Brewers.

But even if a correlation to pitch framing seems strong, caution should be taken with blaming it for all the bullpen’s woes. That is because another mysterious variable exists for consideration. Kind of like their ballyhooed academy in the Dominican Republic or Richard Nixon’s secret plan to end the war in Vietnam, the Cubs have hyped their Pitch Lab ($) as a game-changing black box despite it having yet to deliver a single provable positive result.

The “lab” is essentially a bunch of the highest speed cameras around and other devices used to study every aspect of a pitcher’s delivery and the thrown ball. Sources claim — and common sense dictates — it has involved a significant financial investment over the past two years to update all the tech in order to remain on the cutting edge. But its results at the major league level put the innovation less in Jonas Salk territory and more in the New Coke category of lab experiments.

Even before the advent of the Pitch Lab last spring training, the Cubs were known for providing reams of analytic data – more than most other teams – to any of their pitchers who would consume it. Despite all this data, analysis, and lab study, none of it seems to have helped the bullpen, which leads one to wonder if the it’s in fact been detrimental

This is counter-intuitive for me because I love data. The more the better, especially when I have the facility to filter out data that quickly appears to have little practical use or accuracy (such as dWAR). But most athletes don’t operate this way. Most are keep-it-simple types, both in their lives and in their style of play. The best of them crave some input, but not too much.

Even a player as keenly analytical as Greg Maddux knew the limits of investing too much time studying scouting reports. After all, those reports covered how hitters fared against pitchers without his unique Hall of Fame repertoire and command. Thus Maddux relied mostly on his own personal notebooks and the database in his brain.

But take younger, less established pitchers who make it to the Cubs clubhouse. You find yourself playing for a franchise headed by Theo Epstein, one of the reputed “smartest people ever” in baseball. He’s broken two curses and won three World Series in 14 years, so you’re probably going to listen when he and his staff recommend you consider all their data and tech regarding your pitching delivery and style.

Do you make like an established veteran such as Cole Hamels and Jesse Chavez and stick with what you know works best for you? Are you happy-go-lucky like Pedro Strop and let it go in one ear and out the other? Are you like Jon Lester and bring along your own personal catcher for your first two years? Or are you like most of the relievers who have come through Wrigley Field, trying to absorb it all at the potential risk of losing what it is that got you there in the first place?

Say you do that, then you get on the mound and the mantra becomes: Just throw strikes. But it’s not as simple as that. It’s just throw strikes while repeating that arm slot and horizontal release point you saw in the Pitch Lab, and don’t forget to aim for the upper corner of the zone where there are holes in the launch-angle hitters’ zones. But that’s also the least likely area to be called a strike by umpires, so don’t go too high.

Then you add in throwing to a catcher who’s still learning his own craft and getting used to your style, all while pitching in front of a bigger, more expectant crowd. Falling behind in the count causes you to try be even more precise with your glove tuck, leaning your head toward first base, hip turn, foot plant and…

Well, you get it. Maybe these two things — framing and data-dumping — are the simplest explanations for what causes walk rates to spike for reliever after reliever after coming to the Cubs.

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Jeff Burdick

A California-based refugee of Chicago, Jeff loves writing about baseball through the lens of his favorite hometown team.

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