A Reversal of Fortunes in 2011?

In his recent article on Rooftop View, the ever spot-on Jack Nugent analyzed recent claims that the Cubs suffered some bad luck in 2010:
An unusually good or poor record in one-run games can mask how much better or worse a team really is than it’s overall record, and while I’m not saying I think the Cubs weren’t as bad last year as their awful record suggests they were, this is one area the team can expect to improve in with just a little better luck.
Nugent then continues, asserting the improved 2011 bullpen (we had the 2nd worst FIP in the NL) will help flip this one-run game record.

I also discovered this several months back, before Quade took over. At the time, the Cubs had a putrid one-run game record -- something like 8th worst all time. After Quade's arrival, the team went on a stretch of one-run game wins, helping to balance out their luck.

This leads to my suspicions of Mike Quade. As I mentioned in the comments on Rooftop View:
When Quade took over, the Cubs had one of the worst 1-run game records since 1885. During the final stretch of the season that luck balanced out and Quade was (likely wrongly) hailed as a hero.
Furthermore, I'm not convinced an improved bullpen would actually translate into a better one-run game record. The 2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays had one of the worst bullpens in modern history, yet they finished above .500 (at .503) in 1-run games.

The mere presence of a one-run game is the sign of a mediocre team. The best teams win in blowouts, the worst lose in blowouts. The rest approach .500 via 1-run games.

Let's hope the Cubs don't have too many 1-run games to worry about in 2011.

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  1. Not to worry, Brad. The Cubs should lose lots of games 5-2.

  2. I'm guessing offense is a bigger factor in losing 1-run games than the bullpen. As you say, Brad, it's not like this bullpen is all that better. They added Kerry Wood and that was it. Marmol and Marshall are going to regress so I still think the Cubs have a bad bullpen, but you never know with bullpens.

    The reason I think offense is a bigger factor is that because if you can't score you're going to play more close games. The better team will win most of the time and the Cubs aren't a very good team in 2011.

    Also, when you're talking about wins and losses, I don't think you want to use FIP. You're better off looking at Run Average. The Cubs bullpen posted a 5.57 RA and wasn't 2nd worst in the league. What affects RA? Defense. The Cubs were below average in UZR, but far from terrible. Is there any reason to think they're a better defensive team? Pena replaces Lee and Lee was a good fielder. Colvin is going to get a lot more playing time in RF. Ramirez will get more PT at 3rd base and he's not at all good. Castro could improve. I don't see much of an improvement out of the defense. The Cubs bullpen only left on base 67% of the runners. That's an area they can improve, but as you know, LOB% is tied to OBP and wOBA allowed. Basically, shitty pitchers won't strand as many runners. I'm not convinced the Cubs bullpen is that much better. Home runs? The Cubs xFIP was 4th worst so they didn't get unlucky there. The bullpen's BABIP was .305. Wrigley average is about .307 for all pitchers and roughly .295 or so for relievers so maybe they got a little unlucky there. Maybe not. They gave up more line drives than other teams did. They were 3rd worst in BB/9 and the addition of Wood doesn't improve the bullpen's control.

    So I think the bullpen is likely to be bad in 2011. Can't expect it to be as bad as it was last year, but probably still among the worst in the league. I expect they'll have worse than average LOB% and the defense isn't any better than last year and it wasn't terrible last year.

    Whatever wins and losses are controlled primarily by the bullpen isn't going to have much of an impact because it's still a bad bullpen.

    The offense is still bad. The starting pitching is a bit improved, but not tremendously. You never know with 1-run games. The 2007 Dbacks (IIRC) were out of this world in 1-run games, but a pretty bad team otherwise. It's certainly one of the areas the Cubs have to improve at if they're going to contend and fortunately for them it's mostly luck.

  3. Fine points, mb, as always.

    One of Jack's suppositions is that our top prospect talent will be filling out the bullpen by July or so. I think we can expect Cashner's results to improve, and cameo from Carpenter or Jackson wouldn't probably hurt either.

    Still, I agree the most important element in avoiding 1-run games (for this Cubs team) is the offense. They hold the key to making luck irrelevant.

  4. As of right now, there is no guarantee whatsoever that the Cubs have a greatly improved bullpen all set for this year. I'm confident that Kerry will take nicely to the NL once again, but like you just said, the potential for a a great bullpen will be dependent on a dark horse candidate stepping up and making an impact. I'm cautiously optimistic that Chris Carpenter could get major league hitters out right now based on the stuff we heard about him touching the upper 90s in relief during the AFL.

    Between he and Cashner, whose results I think would drastically improve if they left him in the bullpen, I'm assuming one will be a nice arm to file behind Marmol and Wood, not to mention Sean Marshall.

    The thing is, we know better than to rule out the possibility of a good bullpen being put together on the fly-- the fact they weren't a great unit last year has almost no bearing on its prospects for 2011.

    FWIW-- according to WPA, last year the Cubs bullpen was really more middle of the road than horrible. So even if the performance wasn't great, the results may not have been as bad as some believe.

  5. Technically it has no bearing in terms of what they actually do, but as far as what we should expect it does. We also have to realize that there's a ridiculous amount of variance for any reliever that it could go either way. Wouldn't be surprising to me to see John Grabow post an ERA under 2. It's well within the realm of possibility. Wouldn't surprise me to see Marmol post an ERA over 5. That's also well within the realm of possibility.

    The more important point I'm trying to make is that the bullpens aren't as big a factor in 1-run games as we may think. Consider first that the bullpen is basically responsible for pitching 1/3 of the innings. Then consider that fielding is roughly 10% of defense (pitching plus fielding). Then consider the offense is worth about 50% of the value and 50% of the value in the later innings.

    Furthermore, let's say the Cubs bullpen posted an ERA 1 full run better than they did. They've have prevented about 50 fewer runs than the bullpen did. Divide by 10.5 to convert to wins and you get 4.8 additional wins. That's huge in terms of adding wins and they could easily post an ERA that good. They could also post an ERA as bad or worse than they did in 2010.

    In my opinion, it comes down to stranding runners and in order to do that they're going to need to better performance. I'm not convinced they're that much better in terms of talent level. I don't think anybody thought the 2010 bullpen was going to be any good and I think in terms of talent the Cubs are still in the bottom third entering 2011.

    But Jack, your point is spot on. Don't mean to make it sound like I'm complaining because I'm not. You're absolutely right that this is one of the ways the Cubs can win more games. However, based on the current projections that have the Cubs somewhere between 70 and 80 wins, that also includes a better record in 1-run games so for the Cubs to really improve overall because of that performance, they're going to have to be very good in close games.

  6. "...last year has almost no bearing on its prospects for 2011."


    Bullpens are incredibly volatile. Just as much as Marmol and Marshall should regress, they could just as easily maintain their fortunes another year.

    "Furthermore, let's say the Cubs bullpen posted an ERA 1 full run better than they did. They've have prevented about 50 fewer runs than the bullpen did. Divide by 10.5 to convert to wins and you get 4.8 additional wins."

    Five wins from a bullpen is huge. It's crazy to think each individual player adds something like 0.4 wins, such an insignificant amount. At the same time the bullpen could be great, it also could get ruined by another "John Grabow is Not a LOOGY" Insanity Campaign.

    A good bullpen is ultimately a product of synergy -- if all (or most) the parts aren't decently effective, then the pen is a wash as a whole.

  7. I agree that they'll have to be very good for it to have a really profound impact. I think there's better than an outside shot they're that good though. I honestly think this team is about to reach a critical mass of sorts where there are simply too many good arms available not to make a good unit.

    That said, we don't have a great idea of what Quade's tendencies will be in the deployment of his bullpen. Naturally, this is probably the one things we should keep a closest eye on in his first year on the job.

  8. It is huge, Brad, but part of ERA is defense and sequencing, which pitchers have no control over. That being said, I don't really have anything else to say. I've already said too much about a unit that is very likely going to end up being irrelevant, which is true for most every bullpen. The Cubs aren't going to win or lose their division because of their bullpen. They'll lose it because of their offense and lack of top shelf pitching in the rotation. the defense and baserunning just makes things even worse.

  9. "The Cubs aren't going to win or lose their division because of their bullpen. They'll lose it because of their offense and lack of top shelf pitching in the rotation. the defense and baserunning just makes things even worse."

    Yeah, this is the real tragedy. :(

    But hey! You never know! Maybe it's time I put on my optimism goggles and think about the best-case scenarios.

  10. I stopped putting on those goggles about 5 years ago. I've been a Cubs fan since about 1981 and wore them for more than 20 years. Didn't work.

    By the way, I posted the PECOTA projections for the relievers on the Cubs next year. Not that impressive at all. The Cubs hope to have a good bullpen is really quite simple: hope they get lucky, which isn't difficult to do for a bullpen.