Cubs Bullpen May Hinge on 3 Inconsistent Relievers Implementing Mechanical Adjustments
If we were getting ready for the start of the 2014 season, Cubs fans would be ecstatic about a combination of Rex Brothers and Craig Kimbrel at the back of the bullpen. One would have been coming off of a campaign in which he posted a 1.74 ERA with 19 saves in 72 appearances (67.1 IP), the other a 1.21 ERA with a career-best 50 saves in 68 appearances (67 IP). The pair had combined for 174 strikeouts and 54 walks.
Only trouble is, gee whiz, that was seven years ago and neither Brothers nor Kimbrel is close to the same pitcher. They’ve combined for just 44 total appearances over the past two seasons with the Cubs, all but three of which came from Kimbrel, with 66 strikeouts and 27 walks between them. Both are entering their age-33 seasons with serious question marks about their ability to pitch anywhere close to an elite level with any measure of consistency.
Then there’s Dillon Maples, who, believe it or not, is less than four years younger than Kimbrel but has made only 31 MLB appearances since debuting in 2017. After toiling for parts of six seasons at A-ball or the rookie leagues, Maples finally harnessed his stuff and rocketed up through the system in just a few months. Now, however, he finds himself out of options as he breaks camp with the Cubs for what could be his last chance to make good on his incredible arm talent.
While their stories are all different, the common thread with each of these hard-throwing relievers is that they’ve made mechanical adjustments this spring to either discover or recapture better control. Whether and to what extent they can do that may be the difference between the Cubs having a whiff-tastic bullpen that can offset the pitch-to-contact rotation or just a list of names through which David Ross has to doomscroll every night.
Maples has made the most obvious changes to his delivery, all the way from his setup to his hand placement to his arm stroke, in an attempt to cut down on the erratic wildness that at times makes him unplayable. His 16 strikeouts in 10.1 innings of work (13.94 K/9) tell us he can still miss bats and only six walks (5.23 BB/9) puts him about 46% lower than his MLB average.
If he can maintain that trend and even improve upon it, the Cubs will have made the right decision when it came to keeping him and trading Duane Underwood Jr. The real key will be to avoid those implosions during which he compounds multiple walks with a wild pitch or two and simply can’t recover.
Brothers represents another risk because the Cubs needed to clear a roster spot in order to make room for him after he re-joined the organization on a minor league deal. The veteran lefty hasn’t pitched a full season since 2014 and has had to work for the last year or more to undo a lot of the mechanical damage caused by pitching through shoulder pain earlier in his career.
Sahadev Sharma has an excellent story on that process and what’s gone into the corrections that gave the Cubs the confidence to find room for Brothers, but the pitcher offered a relatively simple explanation.
“My arm stroke got super long,” Brothers said. “When I first came up, I was super tight, a close arm stroke. As I was hurting, it lengthened out more and more. My knee started caving towards home plate, which was forcing me down the mound way too soon. It was an inconsistent release point, and I was just feeling bad. The more I ironed out the lower half, the last piece was getting that arm stroke nice and tight like when I was a young guy coming out of college and early in pro ball.”
Getting back to his old stroke has Brothers throwing mid-90’s strikes with greater frequency than ever before. Even if you don’t put much stock in spring performances, issuing just one walk in 8.2 innings is no mean feat for a guy with a career 5.25 BB/9 mark.
Kimbrel’s changes are a little less obvious, though their results are obviously the most important out of this particular group. Very possibly a result of a long layoff in 2019 that saw him bulk up as he waited out the market, the closer experienced a variety of chronic issues that led to decreased velocity and control of both his fastball and curveball.
It appeared at times last season as though he was tipping his breaking ball, though it may have been a matter of hitters simply sitting on a heater they knew would be thrown right down the pipe. When your velo is down and you pump middle-middle fastballs because you can’t find even the fringes of the zone with your curve, hitters are going to do damage.
The Cubs noticed something about Kimbrel’s setup and worked to tweak it late last season, leading to increased velo and improved results. Following the changes, he finished the 2020 campaign with eight scoreless, walkless outings that saw him strike out 13 batters while allowing just three hits.
Some of those old issues were back at the start of camp this spring as Kimbrel was sitting 93-94 mph and giving up tons of hard contact. It was alarming enough that Ross actually discussed his closer’s flaws publicly and talked about getting him into the pitch lab to work some things out. Whatever Ross and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy discovered must have worked because the improvement was immediate.
Kimbrel’s velocity has gotten back to the upper 90’s and he finished with four scoreless outings after allowing nine runs in his first three appearances. He struck out just one with two walks in those early efforts, but notched five K’s with one walk over the last four. That’ll play.
Now it’s a matter of seeing these three keep it up when the games matter and the batters aren’t wearing wide receiver numbers. Jed Hoyer has managed to build some pretty solid bullpen depth, so it’s not the end of the world even if any of them fall back into some bad habits and need to be replaced either permanently or temporarily. At the same time, you don’t want to have to fall back on depth when multiple Opening Day relievers aren’t up to snuff.
To end on a positive note, I keep coming back to what the Cubs’ pitching infrastructure has been able to do when it comes to identifying and correcting mechanical flaws. The adjustments mentioned above weren’t just dumb luck, nor were they solely attributable to the coaching staff, so there’s reason to believe this is all sustainable. At least that’s what I’m choosing to believe.