Ben Zobrist stabilizes Cubs World Series lineup with Babe Ruth-esque performance

Ben Zobrist stabilizes Cubs World Series lineup with Babe Ruth-esque performance

When the Cubs signed Ben Zobrist, they hoped his postseason resume and veteran leadership would help stabilize a young lineup.

Nobody expected him to turn into Babe Ruth in the process.

With three hits in Game 1 of the World Series Tuesday night in Cleveland, Zobrist became only the second player ever to have three hits in the first game of a World Series in back-to-back seasons.

The other was Ruth, in the 1927 and '28 World Series.

"Unbelievable at-bats, hitting the ball hard all over the place," Kris Bryant said of Zobrist. "He's the toughest guy to pitch to right now. He's been through this before, which is huge.

"He's calm up there. He looks great. That's nice to know that every time he goes to the plate, it's gonna be a pretty good at-bat."

After his three-hit night in Game 1, Zobrist stayed hot in Game 2, collecting two more hits and a walk, including an RBI triple.

The Kansas City Royals acquired Zobrist for the stretch run in 2015, hoping he would help stabilize their lineup. The veteran switch-hitter delivered, posting an .880 OPS in 16 postseason games while leading the Royals to a championship.

Zobrist is trying to win a second straight World Series and has flipped it on at the plate on the biggest stage.

"It's just trying to realize I've been here before," Zobrist. said. "You do whatever you can to slow the moment down. I think when you've succeeded and failed at this point in the season, it loses as much of the nervousness or anxiety involved with it the first time.

"I was [in the World Series] in '08 [with the Rays] for a little bit and I got my feet wet and was able to get I think one hit that series and have some good quality at-bats and that gave me confidence last year that, 'Hey, I've been here before.'

"Yeah, there's a lot of attention right now, but it's the same game and try and slow it down and have a quality at-bat. Don't worry about the result. Take the mindset and it seems to get a little bit easier to slow things down when you have already been there before."

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Even though he's been through this before and in his sixth postseason, Zobrist struggled at the start of October, hitting .167 in 10 postseason games entering the World Series, but the Cubs felt he was getting a little unlucky, though his approach and attitude never changed.

Addison Russell took notice and saw how Zobrist continued to have professional at-bats each time up even though things weren't bouncing his way.

Joe Maddon has seen the way the Cubs young players - like Russell or Javy Baez - look up to Zobrist.

"He's such a calming influence because he doesn't get excited," Maddon said. "You watch his at-bats and they are absolutely the same all the time. You look at the ascension like of a Baez or an Addison, I know they're watching him.

"They watch how he's never in trouble at the plate. Two strikes don't bother him. He accepts his walks. I anticipate over the next couple years, you'll see our young guys working those same kind of at-bats."

Zobrist leads by example with his play on the field, but he also is a presence in the clubhouse.

As reporters crammed in the visiting locker room at Progressive Field after Game 2, Zobrist answered question after question about The Legend of Kyle Schwarber. 

At one point, he noticed the media contingent surrounding him was blocking a teammate from accessing his locker coming out of the shower.

So Zobrist ushered the media group to take a couple steps back, not even missing a beat while talking more about Schwarber.

It was just a small showing of the way Zobrist impacts the Cubs clubhouse, though he feels he doesn't have to do much.

"All these guys, I mean, I look at Willy [Contreras] over there - his first pitch he ever saw in the Major Leagues, he hit a home run," Zobrist said. "It's like, what am I gonna tell him about handling his nerves?

"He did something I haven't ever seen anybody do. And what Schwarbs is doing. And Javy and Addy. How young these guys, it's in their makeup. It really is. 

"The Cubs did their homework getting these guys that have this kind of makeup to be able to perform in this moment and they're doing it."

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

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?


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.