When it became very clear that the 2016 Chicago Cubs, the 103-win Chicago Cubs, were potentially one game away from their historical season coming to a disappointing finish, the pitcher standing on the mound was Travis Wood. Wood had just been brought in to face the left-handed Jason Kipnis, and Wood had just thrown three balls in four pitches to Jason Kipnis, and then an 87-mph cutter breaking right toward the heart of the plate. Kipnis hit the very hittable cutter 10 rows deep into the right field bleachers at Wrigley Field, on a windy night in Chicago when would-be home runs were becoming warning track fly outs all evening long. Not this one.
Nothing was stopping this ball, off the bat at 105 mph, from landing in the bleachers (and then immediately being thrown back onto the field), from giving the Indians a 7-1 lead in the game, and from getting the Indians one step closer to the 3-1 lead in the World Series which they now possess. And when that ball was on its way out of the playing field, Aroldis Chapman, Hector Rondon, and Pedro Strop, the three most important Cubs relievers during the regular season, looked on from the third-base bullpen, none of them having thrown a single pitch in the game.
Rondon eventually mopped up Wood’s mess — and Justin Grimm‘s and Mike Montgomery‘s mess, too — throwing two scoreless innings, striking out two of the eight batters he faced while pumping fastballs that touched 99 mph. And the fact that it was Rondon who mopped up the mess caused by lesser relievers, while Chapman and Strop contributed nothing, highlights the key difference between the bullpens of the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians in this World Series.
It’s not that the Cubs don’t have a trio of relievers as talented as Cleveland’s late-inning triumvirate of Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, and Bryan Shaw. They do. They might even have the more talented trio. Chapman, Strop, and Rondon combined for a 2.59 ERA and a 2.55 FIP in the regular season. Miller, Allen, and Shaw combined for a 2.36 ERA, but a 2.93 FIP. The regular season results paint an almost identical picture. The projections actually favor the Cubs relief corps.
The difference is this: entering Game Four on Saturday, Chapman, Strop, and Rondon had combined to throw a grand total of four innings for the Cubs in the World Series. Miller, Allen, and Shaw had thrown double that many. The first guys out of Terry Francona‘s bullpen in the World Series have been Miller, Zach McAllister, Miller, and Miller. The first guys out of Joe Maddon’s bullpens have been Strop, Montgomery, Grimm, and Montgomery.
Only one time has a Cubs starting pitcher handed the ball off to one of the team’s three best regular season relievers, and in that one instance, in Game One, Pedro Strop faced just one batter, who he struck out, throwing just six pitches. Then came Wood, and then came Grimm, who put two men on before Rondon came in and served up the three-run homer to Roberto Perez that blew open the game.
In Game Three, it was Carl Edwards Jr. who was left in to face Coco Crisp with the go-ahead run on third base, having already thrown 23 pitches, while Strop, Rondon, and most importantly, Chapman, sat idly in the bullpen. Crisp brought that run in, and it was all Cleveland needed to win.
Game Four saw Cleveland turn an uncertain 3-1 sixth-inning lead into a 7-1 blowout the following inning by beating up on Montgomery, Grimm, and Wood without ever having to face the three-headed monster envisioned at the back end of the Cubs’ bullpen when they traded top prospect Gleyber Torres and more to the Yankees at the deadline for Chapman.
Of course, it’s easier to use your best relievers when you’ve got the lead, and the Indians’ hitting and starting pitching has afforded them more leads than the Cubs. That being said, deficits can still be held in check, and we just saw in Game Four how quickly a manageable deficit can get out of hand when a lesser reliever is on the mound. Part of this, too, is Rondon and Strop potentially not being their true selves. Strop missed more than a month with knee and groin injuries that kept him sidelined until late September; Rondon missed several weeks around the same time with arm problems. And the other part is Chapman, whose warmup routine currently prevents him from straying too far from his ninth inning role, forcing situations like the one Chicago faced in Game Three, when Edwards gave up the game-winning hit to Crisp in a situation when the Cubs would have likely loved to have their best reliever in the game.
It all boils down to this: Cleveland’s triumvirate of relievers consists of baseball’s most prolific reliever over the last four years, the fourth-most prolific reliever, and then Miller, who can not only be ready to enter the game at a moment’s notice but also has the ability to throw north of 40 pitches unphased. The Cubs, on the other hand, have a trio that’s just as talented as Cleveland’s — if not more so — but consists of two relievers potentially hindered by injury, and one reliever admittedly hindered by his routine.
“It’s hard to do that,” Maddon said after Friday’s Game Four loss, referring to Cleveland’s bullpen usage. “It really is. And everybody’s going to be clamoring, ‘That’s the way you should work your bullpens from now on,’ but you have to have the appropriate people to do that, and of course during the season it would be much more difficult as opposed to the microcosm of the postseason. So I think that’s it. They have the right guys among their pitchers to do that, and Kluber kind of like gives them a blow, like what he did tonight.”
Whether attributed to heath, routine, score, or managerial aggressiveness, the Cubs have seen two leads get out of hand and a tie game blown, all while their regular season’s most important relievers were available to pitch, but were not in the game. The Cubs paid a steep price to acquire Chapman to complement an already great one-two, late-inning punch in Rondon and Strop, no doubt in hopes of receiving World Series results similar to what Cleveland has gotten from Miller, Allen, and Shaw. Yet, those three relievers have combined to throw just six innings, and less than three of consequence. Chicago’s bullpen has been a non-factor in the World Series, a hindrance, even, but it isn’t for a lack of talent.