Near the end of May, the Cubs bullpen put together the fifth-longest scoreless innings streak by a bullpen of the modern era. Behind the strength of a rejuvenated Craig Kimbrel and a mishmash of thirty-somethings, the Cubs have stayed afloat in the National League Central behind the strength of their bullpen. As we near the end of June, the Cubs bullpen boasts a 3.11 ERA, the second-lowest such mark in the Majors.
General Manager Jed Hoyer deserves credit for putting this group together, as does manager David Ross for deploying them as he has. Bullpen management is maybe the toughest part of being a big league manager, but it’s also the surest way a manager can add value. With the Cubs’ lineup once again proving to be a…mercurial unit, run prevention has to steer the ship to keep these Cubs on course.
The Cubs have often done a better job of preventing runs than scoring them. Back in 1910, Franklin Pierce Adams wrote a poem lamenting his Giants’ inability to push baseballs past the Cubs’ iconic infield of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance.
The Cubs are once again disheartening opponents with a run prevention trio of bear cubs. This time, it’s Ryan Tepera, Andrew Chafin, and Tommy Nance shortening games and ruthlessly pricking gonfalon bubbles around the league.
The Setup Men
Nance is the least consequential of the three, but he’s also the most fun because he’s a 30-year-old rookie who throws in the 80th percentile for fastball velocity and looks dope in a turtleneck. He came out of nowhere, though you wouldn’t know it to see him: a towering 6’6″ presence throwing sinker/fastball heat and a curveball/slider combo for offspeed. His stuff plays — when he can corral it.
Some backstory: After graduating from Santa Clara, he spent one season with the Windy City ThunderBirds of the Frontier League in independent ball, where the Cubs found him. It’s a stretch to call him the Cubs’ Nick Anderson, even if he does physically resemble the Rays’ bullpen ace and come from a similar pedigree. Despite a shallow farm system, Nance has never earned a mention on any Cubs’ prospect lists from Baseball America or FanGraphs. He’s been older than average every step of the way — an easy reason to discount his production.
But here he is, suddenly a key cog for a strong Chicago bullpen. He’s made 18 appearances since his debut on May 17th. His bottom line numbers aren’t tremendous — 5.06 ERA/4.52 FIP — but only recently had some hiccups, allowing runs in each of his last five outings.
Where he shines, however, and where he has a chance to make a difference is in limiting hard contact and putting the ball on the grass. He drives the ball toward the ground with that heavy sinker that earns a 58.3% groundball rate. He’s picked up four holds and tabbed himself as one potential option to bridge the gap to the bigger arms at the back of the Cubs’ bullpen. If he can stick it, he’s the type of surprise contributor that can make a difference in helping a team to exceed their expectations.
Tommy Nance, Gross 97mph Front Door Two Seamer. 🤮 pic.twitter.com/AMY0FglOxa
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 31, 2021
But he’s not the most important piece of the pen.
Enter The Sheriff, Andrew Chafin, long one of the most underrated bullpen arms in the game. After 6 1/2 years toiling away in the relative anonymity of the desert, the Diamondbacks traded Chafin to the Cubs at the deadline in 2020. The Cubs brought him back for the not insignificant sum of $5.25MM, with a mutual option for 2022 at the same price.
His strikeout numbers are down to a 24.2% K-rate, his lowest such mark since 2015, but his walk rate is also down to 8.1%. That’ right about league average, which is where he’s been since joining the Cubs. This season, being around the plate more has paid dividends, as he’s racked up 17 holds while pitching to a 1.64 ERA. He’s had some balls bounce in his favor with just a .198 BABIP, but a 2.81 FIP suggests there’s more fire than smoke here. Chafin’s been good for a long time, so this should be no surprise.
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 6, 2021
Tepera’s arrival as Kimbrel’s setup man was more difficult to project coming into the season. The former Blue Jay, however, has also had some solid seasons in the past, but off the national radar in Canada. He did, however, get some notoriety for accidentally getting an MVP vote last season. Maybe this is a see it, then be it kind of situation, because he came out hustling to win the Reliever of the Month away in May.
Like Chafin, he’s throwing strikes at a better rate than in years past with a 7.2% walk rate. He had 26 combined holds/saves for the Jays in 2018, and with 15 so far this season, he has a chance to set a new career-high in that department, especially now that Ross has entrusted him with the eighth inning.
He throws a lot of different pitches for a reliever, but none more so than a devastating slider that soaks up over 40% of his usage. He doesn’t throw that hard, with his fastball averaging 93.6 mph, but he nonetheless ranks in the 91st percentile for whiff rate, 83rd percentile for chase rate, 96th percentile for expected batting average.
Tepera just landed on the injured list, but it doesn’t seem like he’ll be out for long. Hopefully, he returns shortly to continue either setting up games for the Cubs. If Chicago falters, look for Tepera to draw some trade interest as the deadline approaches.
When opponents are done with the frustratingly competent setup men trotting in from the bullpen at Wrigley, they are greeted by Craig Kimbrel. Forget what you might remember about Kimbrel from the last couple of seasons. He is no joke. His stuff is nasty, his locks are curled, and hitters don’t stand a chance.
The beat reporters in Lakeview are certainly taking notice. They were collectively aglow after Kimbrel struck out the side to close out a 4-3 win against the Padres earlier this month. Pitching Ninja took notice, too.
That might be the best Kimbrel's looked all season and that's saying something. He strikes out the side.
The Cubs are 13-9 vs plus-500 teams. After the Rays, that's right at the top of the league vs winning teams.
— Jesse Rogers (@JesseRogersESPN) June 2, 2021
Craig Kimbrel was absolutely nasty that frame. Made a 4-3 lead feel gargantuan. Cubs win again, have a chance to sweep a really strong Padres team tomorrow before they head out on a tough west coast trip. They're 31-23 and will hold onto first for at least another night.
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) June 2, 2021
Craig Kimbrel, 88mph Knuckle Curve and 99mph Fastball, Overlay. pic.twitter.com/G9XYWydY8F
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 2, 2021
Kimbrel’s catcher likes what he’s seeing from the Cubs’ closer as well.
Willson Contreras on Craig Kimbrel: "I've been catching Kimbrel since 2019. I think this is the best stuff he's had with us. … Right now, he's unhittable, to be honest."
— Russell Dorsey (@Russ_Dorsey1) June 2, 2021
The Cubs’ bullpen arms had no idea they had a no-hitter going in this game until it was over. That’s who this group is. They’ve been better than expected, and unlike the many heralded stars that have found their way to Chicago, these guys arrived before we even knew they were coming.
Photo by Annie Spratt/Unsplash | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)