Michael Fulmer’s was the sixth relief appearance lasting more than three outs by a Cub this season, in their sixth game. That’s not close to being the league=leading total in this small sample, but it’s right in line with last year. The 2022 Cubs had 168 relief appearances of at least four outs, a figure topped only by the Pirates, Orioles, and Cardinals. This is a trademark of the Cubs under David Ross and Jed Hoyer.
If you filter down to appearances with an average Leverage Index of at least 1.3 (meaning that the appearance is in an important situation, not someone doing mop-up duty in a blowout), only the Rays, Yankees, and Orioles have more than the Cubs since the start of 2021. Lengthen the minimum outing by a reliever in those pressure situations to two full frames, and only the Rays do it more than the Cubs. Heck, while we’re at it, we might as well note that a handful of qualifying games for Tampa each year are really starters working behind “openers”. The Cubs are the kings of the true multi-inning fireman role in the modern game.
It was a bit of a surprise to see Fulmer used that way, but maybe it shouldn’t have been. He did want to return to starting this winter, before realizing he had a market only as a reliever in free agency. He only made four appearances lasting four or more outs in 2022, and none that stretched to six, but he still works from the windup when there’s no one on base, and is effectively using five pitches so far this year.
That might be the key to David Ross’s bullpen strategy for the whole season. He has a bunch of guys out there who are just barely unable to be starters, and he wants to use them in ways that maximize the value of the skills they have that most relievers lack. This helps explain his decision to bring Javier Assad back out for a second inning of work in the second game of the season, too. If Fulmer, Assad, Keegan Thompson, Adbert Alzolay, and even Michael Rucker and Mark Leiter, Jr. can give him six outs from time to time, it will be much easier to avoid using guys on zero days’ rest. All of these hurlers have deeper arsenals than your average reliever, and all of them have at least some proficiency against opposite-handed hitters.
When Brandon Hughes returns to the bullpen, he fits right in with this usage pattern. He had 15 appearances of at least four outs last year, including going two full innings four times.
Do you remember the 1980 Cubs? Actuarially and anecdotally, you probably don't. They went 64-98, one of the worst teams in one of the darkest stretches in the franchise's history. The one bright spot, though, was their bullpen. Three of their five best players that season were relievers, and they added Lee Smith to the mix as a fourth fireman late in the year. The trio of Bruce Sutter, Bill Caudill, and Dick Tidrow combined not only for 216 appearances, but for 346 innings pitched.
In 2023, it's unlikely that any reliever will throw 100 innings, and unthinkable that three on any one team will do so. If Ross continues to use them this way, though, this corps of relievers can do the modern version of that. Depending on health and performance, three or four of these guys could top 80 innings out of the bullpen. Working 30 pitches in relief requires a couple of days off, but if one gets five or six outs with those 30 pitches, even pitching every third day can get them close to 85 innings.
If it works, this is also a really nice fit to the Cubs' rotation, both tactically and in terms of roster-building. Drew Smyly and Hayden Wesneski will need to be lifted relatively early in games fairly often this year, so having guys who can stretch beyond three outs behind them is helpful. In a different but equally important way, it's also helpful to have that kind of pitcher available behind Marcus Stroman, Jameson Taillon, and Justin Steele, whom the team hopes will work deep into most games.
There's one more potential benefit, too. If Kyle Hendricks returns by early summer, or if one of the team's high-level pitching prospects pushes the envelope by then, the ability to get multiple innings from multiple relievers on any given day gives the team the option of shortening up the bullpen and using a six-man starting rotation. It's unlikely that it ever comes to that, since we'd need to see the incumbents stay healthy and Hendricks get that way at the same time, but it adds an option to the team's menu.
As I've already written here a few times, it seems clear that this team was not constructed to be a definitive favorite, or even a co-favorite for an NL playoff berth this year. Rather, the front office set out to give themselves more options and more paths to success than they have had during the last two years. To whatever extent that's true, they did well. Six games into the season, there's a lot of fluidity and a lot of glaring deficiency, but there are also some fascinating and exciting things happening. Especially creative and smart bullpen management could be a game-changer for this team.
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