Erich Uelmen learning on the fly in Cubs bullpen
Back on July 28, the landscape of the Cubs bullpen was completely different.
The MLB trade deadline was only a few days away and the Cubs were expected to trade at least a couple of their top relievers, paving the way for the next generation of bullpen arms.
Erich Uelmen was one of the first of those young relievers who got the call to Chicago this season. He was promoted on July 17 and appeared in his first game on July 22.
As manager David Ross tried to formulate what his bullpen might look like after the trade deadline, Uelmen was one of the arms who looked to be ascending into a higher-leverage role.
The 26-year-old righty had a great series against the Giants in San Francisco to end July, tossing 4 innings of scoreless relief in a pair of outings while allowing only 1 hit and striking out 5.
After the Cubs dealt away a quartet of relievers (David Robertson, Mychal Givens, Chris Martin, Scott Effross), Uelmen earned a place in Ross’ circle of trust. The rookie was pitching in late-inning roles, earning 3 holds in mid August and posting a 2.25 ERA in his first 13 MLB outings.
But then he hit a skid in late August, surrendering 8 runs over a span of 4 outings (2.2 innings).
He has since righted the ship, with 3 straight scoreless appearances including 4 strikeouts in 2 innings Sunday against the Rockies.
During that lull, Ross felt like Uelmen’s stuff was down and didn’t have quite the same nasty movement. Instead of hitting 95-96 mph on the radar gun, Uelmen was at 92-93 mph.
Part of that could be attributed to a bout of runner’s knee that affected his plant leg and impacted how violent he could be with his deceptive motion (he kind of jumps towards home plate as he delivers).
Uelmen refuses to make excuses and blame the knee and believes it’s more a matter of getting used to life in the big leagues.
“It’s a lot to learn,” he said. “You try to prepare as best you can in the minor leagues for it but it’s a whole different thing with workload. All things considered, it’s a lot but it’s good. It’s been fun.”
The only other time Uelmen has been pitching this late in the year was last season…when the minor league schedule didn’t start until May and ran through September.
And in the minors, Uelmen never once pitched on back-to-back days. He began his career working as a starter but even in relief, he was on a different workload.
In the majors, he has to be ready every single day. It’s no longer about development and growth and more about getting big-league hitters out and winning games.
“It is a long season and only big leaguers have really ventured into this space consistently. It’s tough to do,” Ross said.
Even with the knee issue, Uelmen felt like the adjustment to be ready on back-to-back days was more mental than physical.
“The body is ready for it, the mind is learning,” he said. “You get so much adrenaline and so much pours out of you in one game. If I was to come back [the day after pitching], it’s that rebound from the shock of the nervous system.
“If you take care of all the little things well, you can handle it.”
Uelmen is still learning how to handle all the little things.
He had a couple weeks before the trade deadline to learn from veterans like Robertson and Martin. Now, he’s still picking the brains of fellow relievers like Brandon Hughes and Rowan Wick.
Uelmen was a 4th-round pick in 2017 and he emerged as a dominant multi-inning reliever with Triple-A Iowa this season (2.79 ERA, 11.1 K/9, 6 saves) prior to his promotion. The Cubs hope he can apply the lessons learned from his rookie season and fill a similar role in the 2023 bullpen.