Cubs aim to keep Kyle Hendricks ‘spiffy’ for stretch run


Cubs aim to keep Kyle Hendricks ‘spiffy’ for stretch run

ATLANTA — A solid bullpen stocked with veteran depth has allowed the Cubs to practice some risk aversion with right-hander Kyle Hendricks.

The 25-year-old starting pitcher has a solid 3.44 ERA over 18 starts this year, though he rarely pitches deep into games. He’s averaging about six innings and 87 pitches per start and has thrown 100 or more pitches in only two outings.

Hendricks is an efficient pitcher who rarely walks batters or gives up home runs, but manager Joe Maddon is less willing to unleash him deep into games than he is with other starters. Opposing hitters have a .333 batting average and .907 OPS when facing Hendricks for a third time, compared to slash lines of .250/.288/.375 and .203/.238/.314 the first and second times through the order, respectively.

[MORE: Outfield not part of Cubs’ plan for Kyle Schwarber just yet

On Friday, Maddon pulled Hendricks with two out in the sixth so he could have Justin Grimm face A.J. Pierzynski, a matchup the Cubs manager thought was better than letting Hendricks face the former White Sox catcher.

“With our bullpen as strong as it is, I know we got plenty of guys behind me,” Hendricks said. “I definitely want to get deep in games but more importantly it’s not giving in, keeping the team in the game and not just trying to throw strikes.”

Instead of just trying to get the ball over the plate, Hendricks feels comfortable challenging hitters to make weak contact with the knowledge that if his pitch count gets high, the guys behind him can take care of the game.

Hendricks pitched into the eighth July 5 (91 pitches) and fired seven scoreless innings July 10 (90 pitches), and both of those starts came in close games. His 3.02 ERA over 31 major league starts has earned him a certain level of trust, though not to the level of fellow right-hander Jake Arrieta, who’s often afforded the opportunity to work late into games.

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Arrieta, for comparison, has a 1.65 ERA in innings seven though nine this year and opposing hitters have a .211 batting average and .610 OPS against him when facing him for the third time. But Arrieta has a mid-90’s fastball and a curveball hitters swing and miss at nearly 20 percent of the time. Hendricks relies on a sinker/changeup combination and lives between the low and upper 80’s.

There’s an added benefit to Maddon picking his spots with Hendricks, though. If the Cubs are still in the playoff race come September, the right-hander may not have as much mileage on his arm as other second-year starters in similar situations.

“You’re looking about September, man,” Maddon said. “And a guy like him, if you can keep him spiffy in September, that’s going to benefit you in the stretch run.” 

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.