Monday, August 9, 2010

Secret to Losing: Let the Bullpen Pitch More

Z is on a 70-80 pitch count. Over/Under: 3 IP?
As the options in the current fan poll suggest, watching the Cubs lately has been particularly unpleasant for the past 2 years century ever month or so. Some people think the insufferable play flows from a lack of effort, caused or made worse by Lou Piniella's retirement announcement. I'm pretty sure a lot of us just think the Cubs suck profusely. Some might trace the impetus for their newer, better, more high-powered brand of suckitude to the trade of Ted Lilly and clubhouse sparkplug (giggle-snort) Ryan Theriot to the Dodgers; the waving of the white flag (sans the W) was the Cubs' cue to quit.

I call BSP (bad starting pitching).

Seeing that tonight marks the return of Carlos Zambrano to the starting rotation (Z III, this time, it's WAR!), it's a fine time to point out that the Cubs' starting rotation has somewhat sneakily sucked it up since Zambrano yelled for a minute and then ate dinner. I say "sneakily" just because there have been plenty of fine pitching performances in the month and a half since. I wouldn't say that the starters have been bad in general since that time. I wouldn't even necessarily argue that the bullpen has been abysmal so much as they have been overtaxed because of an unhealthy dose of isolated (but not as isolated as we'd like) short starts.

Including Zambrano's last start—the one-inning 6-run affair that caused management, the media, and fans to out-overreact Zambrano—the Cubs have had eight games in which the starter failed to record an out any later than the 4th inning. That's a 39-game stretch (wherein the Cubs have gone 15-24) with eight duds from the starting pitchers, at least one abbreviated outing for every turn in the rotation. And this trend of leaving work early has plagued (almost) all of the starters. I'll break it down pitcher by pitcher:

July 30; 4.0+ IP; Cubs lose 2-17 to the Rockies.

August 8; 3.0 IP; Cubs lose 11-4 to the Reds.

Ted Lilly
July 9; 3.2 IP; Cubs lose 7-9 to the Dodgers.

Randy Wells
August 2; 4.0+ IP;  Cubs lose 1-18 to the Brewers.

July 11; 1.1 IP; Cubs lose 0-7 to the Dodgers.
July 19; 1.0 IP; Cubs lose 5-11 to the Astros.
August 1; 0.1 IP; Cubs lose 7-8 to the Rockies.

Carlos Zambrano
June 25; 1.0 IP; Cubs lose 0-6 to the White Sox.

Tom Gorzelanny’s shortest outing since Z’s pre-dinner shouting session was actually the 3 1/3 innings he pitched in relief of Zambrano that day. Since then he’s never gone fewer than 5 innings. So as much as some might like to blame this trend on Zambrano, his replacement hasn't been the problem at all. I don't think you can really blame any one person or event. It has just kind of sucked. With some well-timed consistency in the starting rotation, the Cubs easily could have won half of those games. Not much, I know, but it would have put their record during that stretch at 19-20.

The W/L record aside, it's these early exits that make Cubs baseball all the more difficult to watch. Any team's bullpen would be taxed by this amount of extra work, but the Cubs' army of rookie arms is especially likely to trigger our collective gag reflex when forced upon us in large doses. So who's to blame for this lethal injection of excessive bullpen use?

I don't know. Some bad defense. Some bad pitching. Some bad luck. Some bad health. Carlos Silva has a plethora of afflictions, which has been responsible for three of the eight sub-five-inning outings (and the three shortest since Zambrano's one-inning anti-gem). That's the only part of this I think you can attribute to a specific factor. There's no rhyme or reason to their occurrence. The Cubs have staggered the timing of these abbreviated starts with near perfect randomness.

I don't deny that this sucks, but I also don't expect it to continue across the board. Zambrano will have a short start tonight, because he's on a 75-80 pitch count. Thomas Diamond (or whoever might replace him in the starting rotation) will be subject to the occasional short stint. But longterm, I don't think this will be a problem. In the short term . . . you might want to get away from the TV for a little while.


  1. Thanks! This one taught me the most valuable photoshop lesson yet: if part of the image is problematic, crop it out of the shot.


Spill it.

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