To say that Justin Grimm got off to a slow start this season would be an insult to slow starts. In his first 33 appearances, the righty reliever logged only 25.1 innings and allowed 17 earned runs on 27 hits. Normally able to avoid the longball, Grimm gave up 4 home runs (1.42 HR/9) in that period. Needless to say, it was disappointing coming from a guy who’d really broken out in 2015.
The revelatory performance last year came largely from leaning more heavily on his nasty curve, which was set up by a 95 mph fastball. Grimm used a slider as well, but it was little more than an extra appendage in the grand scheme. While the curve was still sharp this season, the heater was not. Instead of pounding the low outside corner to right-handed hitters (low and in to lefties), Grimm was catching way too much of the plate with the fastball through late June.
As a result, the heater actually cost the Cubs 7.2 runs and cost Grimm any sense of reliability. Things began to change toward the end of June, however, and we started seeing glimpses of that 2015 form. Except for one big difference, something I’ll get to a little later. Then, just when he was starting to string together some good outings, he fell victim to the options game.
Circumstances conspired to send Grimm yo-yoing between Iowa and Chicago in early August and there were some legitimate fears that the changing scenery might mess with his performance. Well, I had legitimate fears anyway. Maybe you were more confident that a guy who had looked downright awful early on could regain and maintain the form that had made him a very solid bullpen arm.
After all, pitching is as much a mental game as it is physical, and tripping the wrong synaptic wires could easily send someone into a tailspin. When you’re talking about a guy who works in the smallest of sample sizes, everything is ratcheted up that much more. So I worried that Grimm might not be able to hold it together. I shouldn’t have. All the while, the veteran comported himself professionally and just went out and did his job regardless of which Cubs jersey was on his back.
That might not have been as important had the back end of the bullpen stayed intact, but the presence of a reliable arm has become huge with Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon on the DL. Remember those ugly numbers Grimm was putting up earlier? Well, he’s pretty much inverted them over his last 20 appearances. In 15.1 innings, he has allowed just a single run on 7 hits and 4 walks against 21 strikeouts. Not bad for a guy who got sent back down to the minors twice, huh.
While the zone profile of Grimm’s fastball in those 20 games might not look all that different from the one we saw above, it’s pretty clear that he’s locating much better. Just look at the bright red in that lower-right corner.
Even if you don’t take anything away from the temperature changes in the heat map, the results on the field tell you all you need to know. It all starts with the fastball, which has gone from a value of -3.34 runs/100 pitches to 1.48 and has saved the Cubs nearly 2 runs in Grimm’s last 20 appearances. As you might guess, that improvement better sets up the curve, which is up to 3.36 runs saved/100 pitches from 2.55 in that earlier sample.
There’s something else about Grimm’s performance that has completely flip-flopped: his splits. When he came into his own last season, a big part of his success came from baffling left-handed hitters. Grimm stifled righties to the tune of a .192/.292/.316 slash (.273 wOBA), but lefties could muster only .140/.269/.228 (.230 wOBA) against him. This season, however, lefties are hitting .266/.347/.375 (.310 wOBA) while righties are at .187/.260/.330 (.260 wOBA).
Is that perfect? Not at all. But you need to consider that those are full-season numbers than encompass the early struggles. And Grimm has pitched to a 0.59 ERA with 12.33 K/9 and no home runs allowed in his last 20 appearances. Over the most recent 18 of those (14 IP), his ERA is nonexistent and he’s struck out every batter he’s face on five separate occasions (four were one-batter outings, one on a single pitch).
This is a big deal, folks, and not just because Grimm’s lights-out pitching helps to fill the void in the late innings. With a comfortable division lead, it’s not as if the Cubs are really in dire straights when it comes to the pen. That’s the silver lining to the injuries to those two high-leverage pitchers: all the other guys in the bullpen are pushed up a spot or two and will be able to carry that experience into October.
When playoff baseball rolls around, Grimm gives the Cubs a ROOGY of sorts for Maddon to deploy when the situation calls for it. And by then they’ll have Strop and Rondon back to further shorten games. Then again, it’s probably too early to get to talking about the postseason just yet. The Cubs only have 81 wins at this point, so a 36-game losing streak, a .500 record, and a third-place finish in the Central are still possibilities.
If, however, they’re able to avoid such a slide, Grimm’s renewed excellence is going to play a big role when the games get bigger.