Cubs

The Cubs are Anthony Rizzo’s playoff team now

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The Cubs are Anthony Rizzo’s playoff team now

You could smell the stale booze from the top of the staircase, as soon as the clubhouse door opened to the media on Saturday afternoon at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs don’t need to clinch a playoff spot to celebrate. They party after every win, dancing, chanting and spraying beers all over the room as the light show comes down from the ceiling.

Those details get hazy, but Anthony Rizzo gets a lot of the credit as the All-Star first baseman/wannabe DJ who tries to make it feel like a South Florida nightclub.

“We have to enjoy this,” Rizzo said. “Hopefully, this is the flip of a new generation of Cubs fans and Cubs players and an organization where we can do this every year.”

[MORE: Cubs party at Wrigley and celebrate their return to the playoffs]

Rizzo walked around the field with a champagne bottle in his hand after a 4-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates that didn’t really matter because the Cubs had already guaranteed their spot in the postseason.

It was Rizzo who challenged the Cincinnati Reds last summer, walking over to their dugout and almost sparking a bench-clearing brawl. It was Rizzo who said it was time to compete in the National League Central after Game 162 last season (and the franchise’s fifth consecutive fifth-place finish). It was Rizzo who predicted the team would win the division during a promotional stop before Cubs Convention in January.

“I love it,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I want us to aim high. Always, man. Never run away from expectations or the word ‘pressure.’ Run towards the moment.

“I want us to expect that every year. Not just this year. Every year. I want us to get to that point where we can talk that kind of talk on an annual basis. Not in a bragging way. Not in a disbelieving way where it’s a reach or a stretch.

“You gotta start somewhere, man. You got to make some bold moves or maybe say some bold things on occasion. But then you got to back it up.”

Rizzo has definitely walked the walk, leaning over the plate and forcing his way into the MVP conversation, putting up 30 homers, 95 RBI and a .905 OPS while handling his face-of-the-franchise responsibilities.

[RELATED: Bring on October: Cubs ready to handle the playoff pressure]

“He’s been phenomenal for us,” catcher David Ross said. “He’s the guy that’s posting up there every day and carrying the load in the middle of our lineup. He plays great defense. He’s our leader out there on the field.”

This is Rizzo’s team. Jon Lester knew it when he signed a six-year, $155 million megadeal last December. Dan Haren noticed it when he got traded here from the Miami Marlins at the July 31 deadline.

“You don’t really see too many quote-unquote ‘leaders’ out there that are that young,” Haren said. “Even guys like (Mike) Trout and (Bryce) Harper – they’re perceived as being too young to take on that leadership role and they leave it up to more of a veteran guy like (an Albert) Pujols or a Jayson Werth.

“Whereas here, Rizzo is just like one of the guys. But I think a lot of guys (still) look to him for guidance on and off the field and motivation during the game. He always brings it.”

Rizzo is not necessarily a natural leader. He showed bad body language and looked lost at times during the 2013 season, when he hit .233 and still produced 23 homers and 80 RBI. That was the year then-manager Dale Sveum bungled a question about holding players accountable and floated the idea of sending Rizzo and Starlin Castro to Triple-A Iowa.

[SHOP: Get your official Cubs postseason gear]

But Rizzo doesn’t back down, surviving a cancer scare and justifying the faith Cubs executives Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod had in him as he got traded from the Boston Red Sox to the San Diego Padres and to the North Side. In many ways, Rizzo has the ideal temperament for the Wrigleyville circus.

“Everybody has respect for the guy that plays every day, the guy who tries to be out there every day,” Castro said. “If he’s struggling, he never puts his head down. He comes in here to play every day and help us to win.”

Rizzo turned 26 last month and remains under club control through the 2021 season because of what turned out to be a club-friendly extension, making him the heart of what could be a playoff beast for years to come.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Rizzo said. “We’ve had some tough years. But we’re a confident group and we’re going to have some fun.”

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.