Can Cubs trust Pedro Strop in big moments against Cardinals?


Can Cubs trust Pedro Strop in big moments against Cardinals?

ST. LOUIS – Pedro Strop stood at his locker and smiled at reporters, patiently answering a few questions and showing no signs of defensive body language at all.  

Most of the media had cleared out of Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse by then. There had been bigger stars to chase and more pivotal moments for sound bites. But if the Cubs are going to escape this National League division series, they are going to need their bullpen to come through in big situations.

“There’s no pressure,” Strop said after Friday’s 4-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. “I feel confident.”

Stephen Piscotty crushed Strop’s slider out to left field for a two-run homer in the eighth inning, giving St. Louis some breathing room and essentially ending any realistic hopes the Cubs had of making a comeback.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Strop insisted the Cardinals aren’t in his head, even after giving up nine runs on 10 hits and six walks in 7.1 innings against St. Louis during the regular season.  

Before Game 1, manager Joe Maddon was asked again about Strop’s issues with St. Louis in an otherwise strong year – 2.91 ERA, 81 strikeouts in 68 innings, .167 batting average against – for the hard-throwing reliever. 

“I won’t run away from him,” Maddon said. “He’s one of our best relief pitchers. He’s one of the best in the National League. We’ll just run him out there at the appropriate time. We will not run away from that.”

Jon Lester had left a runner on for Piscotty and Strop got Matt Holliday and Jason Heyward – the heart of the order – to ground out to end the inning. Strop pointed out that he pitched in the playoffs before with the Baltimore Orioles and once excelled in the American League East.

[MORE: Playoff-tested Lester comes up short in Game 1 of Cardinals-Cubs]

“No pressure at all,” Strop said. “We got to take one from them here. And then that’s going to put us in a really good position. 

“We’re just going to come and fight, like we’ve always been. They got to beat us three times to take (us) out. So we’re going to try to do it first.”  

The bullpen is always magnified in October, and especially for the Cubs with Jake Arrieta making complete games look easy, the days off built into the postseason schedule and Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel on a short leash if they start twice in this best-of-five series.    

“It becomes real big, absolutely,” Maddon said. “At this time of the year, you can utilize your bullpen without really killing them with the days off interspersed there. The bullpen’s always huge, man. You win championships because your bullpen does a great job. Our guys are rested and I have a ton of confidence in them.”

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.