The current makeup of the Cubs’ bullpen is very different from what it was before the July 30 trade deadline. Gone are the days of knowing the last three innings of close games would be in the hands of Ryan Tepera, Andrew Chafin, and Craig Kimbrel.
For the past month, pitching coach Tommy Hottovy has been working to figure out how best to utilize all of the new faces.
That has meant spending time learning different pitchers’ routines, seeing how they respond to things like pitching in back to back days, and what matchups are likely to work best.
In short, Hottovy said it’s finding out “what makes them the best version of themselves.”
For instance, some guys can handle pitching in back to back days and actually look better the second time around. Hottovy pointed to Rowan Wick as an example. Wick pitched in both Thursday and Friday’s games against the Pirates; he blew a save opportunity Thursday and then retired the side to earn his second save of the season the next day. Wick pitched two innings (37 pitches) for the save in the 11-8 victory against the Pirates on Sunday.
“I think he gets better as he pitches at times,” Hottovy said.
There’s also figuring out what situations will work best for different pitchers. Hottovy said that’s why they get one pitcher up in the bullpen based on how an inning is going and then potentially sit him back down for someone else.
“A lot of times where the lineup ends, where the inning ends, we may like a guy to come in and finish the inning, but then it actually lines up as a really good pocket for somebody else. We’re trying to manage that as we are trying to get to know guys,” Hottovy said.
As the Cubs move through the season’s final month and then start thinking about who belongs in the 2022 bullpen, Hottovy and company are focusing on trying to find the best pockets to use their relievers, and then gradually trusting them in more high leverage spots.
“Obviously, as guys start pitching more and start gaining success and having good stretches, you start to trust those guys in some big moments,” Hottovy said.
The Cubs’ bullpen has been very successful lately: entering Sunday’s game, they had a combined 0.35 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 26 innings in their last five games.
The Cubs got 23 saves from Kimbrel this season before he was traded, but since then they have looked to several other pitchers to pick up the final inning.
Wick is the only other pitcher with more than one save, and nine other relievers have one. Hottovy said that’s intentional. Rather than trying to hand over the closer’s role to someone new, he wants to see who else might be closer material.
“Until you put guys in those situations and have multiple guys that you’re running out there and getting in those situations, you don’t really know how they’re going to react,” Hottovy said.
Codi Heuer came from the White Sox with high praise from Liam Hendriks, who said he believes Heuer will be the Cubs’ closer one day. But for now, Hottovy wants to keep his options open.
“We have guys in the bullpen who have the makeup and stuff to be closers,” Hottovy said. “The big thing for me is to continue to give them those opportunities.”
CUBS VS REDS
Monday: Justin Steele (3-2, 3.48) vs. Sonny Gray (7-6, 3.89), 1:20 p.m., Marquee, 670-AM
Tuesday: Adrian Sampson (0-1, 1.59) vs. Wade Miley (11-5, 2.97), 6:40 p.m., Marquee, 670-AM
Wednesday: Alec Mills (6-6, 4.25) vs. Vladimir Gutierrez (9-6, 4.17), 6:40 p.m., Marquee, 670-AM