Cubs

Adam Warren emerging as essential piece on Cubs pitching staff

Adam Warren emerging as essential piece on Cubs pitching staff

Adam Warren was the lowest-profile addition of the Cubs' offseason, but he's already emerged as a vital part of the team out to the hottest start in baseball.

Jason Heyward, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist (plus the re-arrival of Dexter Fowler in spring training) got all the headlines as new acquisitons over the winter.

In fact, Warren wasn't even the main focus in the deal that made him a Cub as the return from the New York Yankees for Starlin Castro, the former face of the franchise who tallied 991 hits in six seasons in Chicago.

Yet where would the Cubs be right now without Warren?

The 28-year-old right-hander has pitched the most innings in the National League without giving up an earned run this season (8) and has allowed just two hits and three walks for a sparkling 0.625 WHIP.

"Just as I thought: outstanding," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "I try not to abuse him, pretty much. ... I"m very comfortable pitching him in the latter part of the game, whether it's the seventh, eighth, ninth — it doesn't matter to me. 

"I think this guy could finish games. He's got that kinda ability; he's got that makeup. You got that kinda weapon in your toolbox — he's good against righties and lefties, he's durable, he's got all this variety of different pitches, fits our culture beautifully. I just don't want to abuse the guy."

Warren has worked as a starter in the past and said the Cubs initially told him they wanted him to work in the rotation at some point down the road. 

But for right now, Warren is set as a jack of all trades in the bullpen pitching with confidence.

"I like being versatile," Warren said. "I like being able to do a lot of different things. So if I can continue to do that, that's where I like to be in the bullpen, just because I feel like that helps our team out the most."

Warren — like the rest of the Cubs — doesn't like to think too far ahead. He doesn't worry about what his "title" is in the bullpen, which is a necessary attitude to have with a manager that loves to play the matchups and is constantly tinkering with his relievers.

But Warren has emerged as a high-leverage arm Maddon can combine with Pedro Strop (2.89 ERA, 0.64 WHIP, 4 holds) and Hector Rondon (0.00 ERA, 0.29 WHIP, 4 saves) at the back end of the bullpen.

As the new guy on the pitching staff, Warren made it a point to get out to a good start.

"With a new team, you really want to prove yourself," he said. "So I think you have that chip on your shoulder a little bit to want to go out there and start off hot. But really, I think it's just going out there, having a gameplan with our scouting report and just executing."

Warren feels comfortable with his new team and in the bullpen, crediting his teammates and the Cubs coaching staff for welcoming him in.

Coming from the Yankees — a historic franchise with 27 World Series championships and a penchant for doing things a certain way (such as their no facial hair policy) — it was a little bit of a culture shock for Warren to come to a Cubs team that hasn't won the World Series in more than a century and essentially has no rules in a clubhouse designed to let everybody be themselves.

But the transition has gone as smoothly as possible, Warren said.

"It's completely different," he said. "Here, they've created the atmosphere of just be yourself, be laid back. I like that. I like being able to grow facial hair if you want.

"You start focusing completely on baseball. The atmosphere that fans create out there has been unreal to me. Even when it's been cold, they've been up for every pitch. It's really refreshing to see the excitement around the team."

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

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AP

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

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USA TODAY

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

On July 15, Brandon Morrow recorded his 22nd save of the season with a scoreless inning in San Diego. It wound up being the last time he pitched in a game for the Cubs in 2018. 

Four days later, during the All-Star break, the Cubs made a move to bolster their bullpen, acquiring Jesse Chavez from the Rangers in exchange for minor league hurler Tyler Thomas. It wasn’t even the biggest trade they’d make with the Rangers that month – a little over a week later they dealt for Cole Hamels. 

Despite pitching nearly half the innings, Chavez was almost as valuable as Hamels.

2018 with Cubs IP fWAR
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.1
Cole Hamels 76.1 1.5

Chavez made his Cubs debut on July 21; from July 21 through the end of the season, 187 pitchers tossed at least 30 innings. 185 of them had a higher ERA than Chavez, while 184 of them allowed more baserunners per 9 innings.

Best ERA, July 21-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP ERA
Blake Treinen 32.1 0.56
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.15
Blake Snell 61.2 1.17
Trevor Bauer 35.0 1.29
Trevor Williams 71.2 1.38
Robert Stock 36.0 1.50

Fewest baserunners per 9 innings, July 32-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP BR/9 IP
Blake Treinen 32.1 5.85
Blake Snell 61.2 7.15
Jesse Chavez 39.0 7.15
Jacob deGrom 93.2 7.49
Scott Oberg 30.2 7.63
Josh Hader 33.1 7.83

But how did Chavez transform into one of Joe Maddon’s best bullpen arms down the stretch?  According to Chavez, his own transformation started on Mother’s Day.

Chavez entered a game in Houston with a 5.48 ERA in a dozen appearances, but pitched three innings with no hits, no walks and four strikeouts. From that point through the end of the season, he posted a 1.70 ERA and 0.892 WHIP. 

Chavez points to a change in arm slot which resulted in better consistency and a slight jump in velocity. A glance at his release point charts show that consistency, and he added roughly one mile an hour to his fastball.

"It's kept me more consistent in the zone," Chavez said. "Things have been sharper, velocity has been a lot sharper. I was huffing and puffing trying to get a 92 (mph fastball) out there and it wasn't coming.

"Next thing you know, I dropped it and it's right there, and I'm like, 'something's wrong here.' But I just took it and ran with it."

Jesse Chavez 2018 four-seam fastball velocity

  Average Max
Prior to May 13 92.6 mph 94.6 mph
May 13 on 93.6 mph 95.7 mph

Can Chavez be valuable in 2019?  The 35-year old reliever posted the best ERA (2.55), WHIP (1.059) and walk rate (4.5% - nearly two percent better than his previous best) in 2018, and he continued to get better as the season went on. 

He’s a former starter who can pitch multiple innings if needed, and that’s a valuable thing - especially for a manager like Joe Maddon, who uses his pitchers in a variety of ways. It’s unlikely he’ll have a second consecutive career year.

But he’ll likely be well worth the price tag; he only made $1 million in 2018, and even with a slight raise he should be very affordable. There’s definitely room in Maddon’s bullpen for a pitcher like Chavez.