Jose Quintana and the bullpen put up a scoreless effort Wednesday night, but it wasn’t enough to totally erase the sins of the recent past. By the time Max Moroff singled in the go-ahead run in the 8th inning of Tuesday night’s 4-3 loss at Pittsburgh, many Chicago fans had already braced themselves for the manner in which the game would end. After all, the Cubs have notoriously struggled this season in the game’s penultimate frame.
But why? That’s the big question, isn’t it. Let’s look at a few charts and examine the situation.
Runs By Inning
|Average runs allowed||0.74||0.45||0.4||0.5||0.45||0.4||0.38||0.65||0.42||0.03|
The raw numbers shows that, yes, the Cubs have had problems in the 8th inning. Through Tuesday’s loss, they have allowed an average of 0.65 runs in the 8th, placing them next to last in Major League Baseball this season, just ahead of the Detroit Tigers (0.71). The 8th-inning run total for Chicago is its second-worst inning in terms of runs allowed, just ahead of the 1st (0.74), the team’s previous bugaboo frame.
Observing the above chart, you can also see that in the middle innings, the Cubs generally rank in the top third of MLB. So what is it about the end of the game that turns things around so dramatically?
Well, the latter innings are typically the domain of the relievers, which in the Cubs’ case is a double-edged sword. Chicago’s relievers rank fifth in baseball with a 9.73 K/9 rate and are third with a .221 average against. Both of these are obviously good things. Unfortunately, they are also the owners of a 4.24 BB/9, placing them next to last in baseball.
Giving up free passes is obviously suboptimal at any point, but that is especially true late in the game when there are fewer opportunities to overcome a deficit. Combine the walks with untimely wild pitches, errors, and bad hit sequencing and you’re looking at some rough innings. And if you think these struggles seem to have increased in frequency of late, let me assure you that you are not imagining things. It has been bad.
Monthly Totals in the 8th Inning
|Number of games allowing a run||6||8||4||6||18||3|
|Average per game||2.17||1.38||2.25||2.83||1.67||3.67|
Outcome of Runs Allowed
|Gave opposition lead||2||2||2||2||4||1|
|Cut into lead||1||2||0||2||5||1|
Every team is going to give up runs in the 8th inning from time to time. It happens. No bullpen is perfect. Through the first few months of the season, the Cubs were essentially league-average when it came to the 8th inning. They weren’t great, but they weren’t terrible either. Sure, there were runs allowed that turned possible wins into losses, but again, that happens to everyone at some point. The above charts show, however, that things have gotten pretty bad over the past two-plus months.
When the calendar flipped to July, both the number of runs allowed and the frequency at which they were given up made a dramatic jump, and not for the better. July saw Chicago allow 17 runs in the 8th, August had an alarming 30 and September already has 11 just five games into the month. A couple of big innings in July and September inflate those numbers a bit, but the larger trend remains.
So now that we know there is a legitimate problem in the 8th and we aren’t going crazy, what can be done?
Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut response to that question. The easy thing to say is to cut down on the walks. While that will definitely help, it doesn’t completely solve the issue as we have also seen normally reliable pitchers get hit hard in these innings. While it may not be the most comforting answer, hope for an eventual regression to the mean (like the one we saw with the 1st-inning problems) seems like the only “solution.”