Outside of sweeping the Giants and taking all three games from the Rockies to finish their home slate, the Cubs haven’t been playing a very fun brand of baseball in September. Their 11-14 record this month is indicative of a team that burned up all its emotional energy and has since been pressing to little avail, especially after consecutive late losses to the Braves. Even the wins over Colorado were filled with more anxiety than was necessary.
Much of the hand-wringing has come from relying on a bullpen that has been stretched thin by a series of injuries that left the back end almost barren. The Cubs expect to get a boost this weekend with the return of closer Adbert Alzolay, who threw 20 pitches during live BP on Wednesday and is targeting a Friday activation. Thing is, the addition could be too little, too late for a team that is currently on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
This is one of those situations in which the eye test tells us something different from what the numbers indicate, at least the ones most folks are familiar with. Since the start of September, the Cubs bullpen ranks 15th in MLB with a 4.37 ERA and their relievers are third with an impressive 109 strikeouts (10.82 K/9). That actually seems pretty good, right?
Things start to look shakier when you see a 4.75 FIP that ranks 20th and a 12.2% walk rate that stands as the fourth-highest. The Cubs have been prone to walking guys all year, but rising from what had been a 10.8% clip through August creates that much more pressure on pitchers and position players alike. Then you remove Alzolay and Michael Fulmer from the equation, forcing everyone in the pen to bump up a spot or two on the leverage meter.
Finally, we turn to the unquantifiable mystery that is David Ross‘s Circle of Trust, the cadre of stalwart arms the manager leans on time and again. This is something only the manager and his closest advisors truly understand, to the point that Ross admitted he’s often dishonest when it comes to discussing who’s available out of the ‘pen.
“I can’t always let you guys know, and sometimes I gotta lie,” the manager joked with the media around the time Alzolay hit the IL.
One guy who’s been available more often than not, literally, is José Cuas. The side-arming righty has appeared in eight of the Cubs’ last 10 games and 26 of their 50 total games since he was activated on August 2. That includes two games when he was on the bereavement list, so he’s pitched in just over 54% of the contests in which he was active. That usage is up to 60% in September and 67% since Alzolay went down, but I’d have believed it was 100% if you told me so.
Only six of Cuas’s 15 September appearances have lasted an inning or longer and three others have featured just one out, hence the ability to pitch so frequently. And contrary to popular belief, Cuas has actually done really well for the most part. With the exception of a bad outing or three, he’s succeeded by limiting walks — just three this month — and getting grounders in more of a situational role.
Results aside, it’s wild that a dude who pretty much no one in Chicago had heard of prior to his acquisition has been used at a higher rate than any other reliever in baseball. Consider that Seattle’s Matt Brash leads MLB with 77 appearances, roughly 48% of his team’s games. Not an an entirely fair comparison, of course, but it speaks to the urgency (or desperation) with which Ross has operated down the stretch.
A good portion of that urgency comes from managing a bullpen that wasn’t really built to last in the first place, then was hobbled by injuries before receiving minimal reinforcements at the deadline. Cuas was the only outside help Jed Hoyer managed to procure, which drew serious criticism at the time and is being deemed as disastrous given recent events. The manager may be making some questionable choices, but he’s doing so with highly imperfect options.
Even if Alzolay does make it back in time to close some games late, it’ll take a lot more than that to save the Cubs’ season.