Sports are exercises in imitation.
The NFL has spent the last three years trying to build their secondaries around tall secondaries.
The NBA has just now caught up to Gregg Popovich’s “Pace and Space.”
And in baseball, Ned Yost and the Kansas City Royals are showing us just how effective a lethal 7th-8th-9th inning bullpen trio can be.
Naturally, the league has started to gravitate toward that dominant backend mentality in lieu of a star-studded rotation. The problem is, KC’s devastating threesome of Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis isn’t all that replicable. Herrera and Davis could both close for pretty much every other team in baseball.
That’s a roundabout way of saying that the Royals’ three-headed monster – much like a 5th round pick/former wide receiver becoming the best cornerback in football – are exceptions, not rules.
Most baseball teams are lucky to have two guys they can trust with the game in balance. There are still exceptions like the Pirates – who boast three top-flight arms out of the pen in Mark Melancon, Joakim Soria, and the criminally underrated (Anthony Rizzo kryptonite) Tony Watson.
The Cubs have three of those same types of nearly unhittable bullpen arms if you happen to catch them on the right day. And Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, and Justin Grimm have had a lot of right days so far down the stretch. The bullpen has seven different members with a save this year, but that can be misleading as the relieving corps has also struggled mightily at points this season.
With the recent loss of Jason Motte, the middle relief section is certainly iffy. Tommy Hunter has been pretty bad since arriving at the deadline, Travis Wood is spotty and James Russell usually only faces one batter a game.
But like Kansas City found out last year, a solid backend covers a lot of other flaws.
The Cubs could very easily count on their starters to give them six strong innings, turn it over to some order of Grimm-Strop-Rondon, and win a lot of ballgames. But here’s where we get to why the Cubs cold-heartedly let Rick Renteria go in favor of Joe Maddon this winter. You aren’t paying him to think like everyone else and follow the trend.
The Royals and their conventional wisdom certainly aren’t wrong, as they look like the favorites for the AL pennant. But conventional wisdom and Joe Maddon very rarely find themselves as traveling companions.
In true Joe fashion, he has bucked the current trend with an eye toward starting his own. Armed with a 115+ game sample size, it’s fair to conclude the Cubs’ best reliever isn’t their closer or setup man but rather Justin Grimm, a guy who has thrown in seven different innings this year. Conventionally, I guess you’d call Grimm something like “High Leverage Ace” but in a sport famous for its nomenclature, his role this year lends itself toward the nickname of “Fireman.”
Putting the kibosh on dicey situations; stranding runners, striking guys out and preserving leads or manageable deficits before they get out of control.
It isn’t a new form of baseball, in fact it’s a drum that Sabermetricians have been banging for quite a while; use your best pitchers in the best situations, not their assigned inning. Why shouldn’t Aroldis Chapman pitch to Anthony Rizzo with the bases loaded in the 7th? Especially when the alternative is saving him to protect a lead that Rizzo may snatch away in that instance?
Grimm has been used in whatever situation Maddon deems as turning points. 3rd inning after a rainout? 1-2-3. 5th inning when the starter runs out of gas? Big strikeout. Leading 8-1 but the defending world champs are showing just a small spark of life? Extinguished.
With all due respect to the excellent jobs that Rondon and Strop have done, the numbers would support Grimm as being the Cubs best and most valuable reliever. In most bullpens, his job would be to get the 25th, 26th and 27th outs – but in Joe Maddon’s bullpen it’s to get whatever outs he deems most important so those last three aren’t so difficult.
If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery then major league baseball is currently doing its best to make Ned Yost blush. But for better or worse, Joe Maddon, Justin Grimm, and the Cubs don’t seem all that concerned with flattering anyone. The concern appears to be winning baseball games by whatever means the situation requires.
And they’ve done quite a bit of winning thanks to their one-man fire brigade.