Cubs expecting Kris Bryant to fuel power surge


Cubs expecting Kris Bryant to fuel power surge

ST. LOUIS — The Cubs built their team around power hitters at a time when the game is tilting toward power pitching. 

Kris Bryant — a 6-foot-5 slugger, the second overall pick in the 2013 draft and Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect heading into this season — became a huge part of that against-the-grain philosophy. 

Despite generating only 20 home runs through 24 games — with no three-run shots or grand slams — the Cubs still woke up on Cinco de Mayo with a decent chance of making the playoffs. Baseball Prospectus set the odds at 52.9 percent, while FanGraphs crunched the numbers and came up with 47.2 percent.

[SHOP: Get a Kris Bryant jersey here]

The Cubs believe Bryant — who still hasn’t homered in his first 17 games in The Show — will fuel that power surge this summer.

“There’s more to the game than just hitting home runs,” Bryant said. “Especially nowadays, a lot is being said about getting on base and on-base percentage. I just try to be the complete player and help the team win in any way possible. If I’m on base, then I’m giving my team a chance.”

Bryant showed that again during Tuesday’s 7-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. He produced an RBI single in the fifth inning and then hustled to score from second base when the Cardinals couldn’t complete a double play. He also struck out twice and committed a fielding error at third base.

The night before, the Cardinals walked Bryant four times, a sign of respect for someone who blasted 43 homers in the minors last season. He’s hitting .283 with 16 walks, 12 RBI and an .808 OPS since his much-publicized promotion from Triple-A Iowa.

“For a young player, having your reputation precede you is incredible,” manager Joe Maddon said. “With the way data is collected and videos are processed and put out there, that information probably would have taken at least three weeks to a month a couple years ago to get all that stuff out there. But it’s out there like immediately, so everybody’s been playing the same game.”

It will be like this for all the young hitters the Cubs are trying to incorporate at once. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein watched his team strike out 37 times in the last series against the Milwaukee Brewers.

“Joe said it well: They’re not all going to be oil paintings,” Epstein said. “I think we had a couple moments this weekend that were Pollocks.”

[MORE: Kyle Hendricks searching for answers after Cardinals expose Cubs]

Jackson Pollock could probably put together an interesting heat map.

“It’s part of the growth process,” Epstein said. “There are going to be these reminders of how raw we are in certain aspects. And then the league will adjust to young players and then young players have to adjust back.

“They’re still figuring out who they are as players and still getting their foundation underneath them as big-league players. Yet they have to adjust to very targeted attacks from the other team. That’s what makes it fun. We’re young and talented and embracing the struggle.”

That’s not to say Bryant is actually struggling.

“If he keeps on-basing .450, I’ll be pretty happy,” general manager Jed Hoyer. “He’s done an unbelievable job of staying patient (and) it shows a lot of maturity. I think most 23-year-olds would be frustrated, swinging to try to get that monkey off their back. He hasn’t done that. I’m not worried at all. He’s too big and too strong and too good of a hitter to not hit a lot of homers.”

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.