Chris Coghlan embraces intermittent role with Cubs

Chris Coghlan embraces intermittent role with Cubs

Chris Coghlan had, by WAR, the best year of his career in 2015. By the same measure, 2016 has been among his worst seasons since he broke into the majors and won the 2009 National League Rookie of the Year. 

But the 31-year-old still has an important role as part of a deep, flexible Cubs bench that should be an asset as Joe Maddon looks to keep his team fresh for the final weeks of a season that should result in a second consecutive playoff appearance. 

Coghlan started and batted sixth for the Cubs in Sunday night’s series finale against the St. Louis Cardinals, three nights after he pulled off a season highlight: With the Cubs down 2-0 in the sixth inning Thursday, Coghlan tried calling for time and stepped out of the box — but his request wasn’t granted, and Cardinals right-hander Carlos Martinez quick pitched him. Coghlan quickly got both feet into the batter’s box and roped a game-tying two-run single to right. 

“Fortunately it worked,” Coghlan said. “… Hopefully I don’t have to do that again.”

The Cubs re-acquired Coghlan June 9 from the Oakland Athletics, and he’s been more productive since returning to Clark and Addison. Coghlan entered Sunday hitting .208/.387/.292 in 25 games with the Cubs — as opposed to his .146/.215/.272 line with the A’s — and has more walks (12) than hits (10). Those consistently-competitive at-bats have been helpful in pinch-hitting spots and when manager Joe Maddon calls on Coghlan for a spot start. 

What’s impressed Maddon is how Coghlan hasn’t tried to do too much in those intermittent at-bats, which could be the case for a guy who’s pressing to earn a starting role back, either this year or next. Coghlan played in 148 games for the Cubs last year but is on pace to barely play over half a season in 2016.

“His attitude’s been fabulous, he’s been a great team guy when he’s not playing, he’s ready to pinch hit when it’s possible,” Maddon said. “He’s undergone a lot of changes over the last couple years but I know how much he likes being here. We love having him here.”

Still, Coghlan isn’t the first, second or even third choice to come off the Cubs’ bench in a neutral setting. Matt Szczur has been one of baseball’s most prolific pinch-hitters this season and homered twice in his start Friday, and all that positional flexibility means some combination of Coghlan, Szczur, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, Miguel Montero and David Ross will be available off the Cubs’ bench on a given day (all but Coghlan and Montero are right-handed hitters. 

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Maddon prefers to rely on matchup planning to determine when to deploy those guys. Coghlan got the start Sunday due to his success against Cardinals right-hander Mike Leake (10/16 with two home runs and no strikeouts in his career), and who starts or gets used in high-leverage pinch-hitting spots will be partly dependent on that matchup factor. 

That means Coghlan’s playing time will remain sporadic as the Cubs churn toward clinching the National League Central. But Coghlan, at least for this season, is accepting of that role. 

“It’s easier to do, to put your ego aside, when you’re chasing history,” Coghlan said. “And as close as we are, and we feel like we’re pulling for each other, and as good as we are — you’re chasing to win a World Series. So it’s easier to put your ego aside and do whatever you can and think of it as this year, this is your role, and the role’s not going to define me for my career but this is what I need to do for this year to be the best for this team.” 

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.