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Cubs feel every Jason Hammel start is a chance to win

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Cubs feel every Jason Hammel start is a chance to win

Jason Hammel is on fire.

Hammel gets the ball Friday in the second game of this weekend's four-game set with the visiting Reds, and he brought in a recent string of success that's made him one of the best starting pitchers in the National League.

Entering Friday's game, his 2.76 ERA over his first 11 starts placed him in the top 10 in the NL among starters, and he ranked just outside the top 10 with 76 strikeouts.

And Hammel's been particularly strong of late, posting a 2.03 ERA and striking out 60 opposing hitters in his last eight starts, during which he's 4-1.

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It's all part of a campaign that could send the right-hander to Cincinnati as a part of this summer's All-Star Game.

But if he sounds like a surprise All-Star candidate to you, he doesn't to his teammates.

“He hasn’t surprised me at all," fellow Cubs starter Jake Arrieta said. "It’s kind of the Jason that I’ve seen in the past. We had him over here last year, and he had a tremendous run with us leading up to the trade to Oakland. I saw him have an extremely good year in 2012 in Baltimore. He made that transition from being a guy who struggled, a guy who went up and down, back and forth from starting to the bullpen to really transforming himself into an extremely durable, quality starter and a high-level starter for us. He’s extremely consistent. You know what you’re going to get when he toes the rubber. He’s going to pound the strike zone with all three of his pitches, he’s not going to walk many guys and he’s going to pitch deep into the game. And he’s been showing us exactly that thus far this year, and I expect nothing less from him.”

“Jason’s been my teammate for a while," outfielder Dexter Fowler said. "This is probably the best I’ve seen him pitch. He looks comfortable, and he’s executing his pitches. Everything’s going his way.”

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Hammel's excellence on the mound isn't just giving him his own eye-popping stats, it's also making life easier for his teammates.

Be that a daily expectation that Hammel will deliver or specifics of playing the field, Hammel's teammates love it when he takes the hill.

“I don't know if his performance specifically gives us added confidence, it’s knowing what you’re going to get from him every time he’s out there, and that gives us the feeling of, ‘OK, we’ve got a chance to win today.’ Every time he’s out there, we’ve got a good shot to win the game," Arrieta said. "And that’s kind of the reputation that he’s starting to develop over the past couple of years, and it’s a tribute to his ability to take that next step not only out there every fifth day but in between starts. Understanding scouting reports, refining his stuff in the bullpen and getting ready for the next lineup. And that’s what he does really well.”

“His pace of game is great, keeps the infield active. He’s a solid, solid pitcher for us," catcher David Ross said. "He’s been doing everything you could ask from the starter. He goes deep into games, saves our bullpen. There’s really not a whole lot of innings where you feel stressed out, no real bases-loaded, nobody-out situations. He keeps the game pretty much at bay and is really, really consistent. We enjoy when everybody’s on the mound around here, but for sure Jason’s been one of our most consistent starters.”

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Hammel's been striking out guys at a rapid pace this season, averaging nearly seven strikeouts a start. In his last six starts, he's struck out 49 batters. In his last four, he's struck out 35 batters. He sat down 11 Miami Marlins in the Cubs' win on June 1.

His teammates like it when he does that, too.

“It kind of gives us a day off," Fowler joked. "You don’t have to run for too many balls, it’s just him and the catcher.”

And though Hammel might be the guy (or one of the guys) representing the Cubs at the All-Star Game, he's got plenty of talented company in the Cubs rotation. Arrieta ranks just a few notches below Hammel in ERA (3.16) and ranks higher in strikeouts (83). Jon Lester has 70 strikeouts. Kyle Hendricks' ERA of 3.96 also has him in the top 30 in the NL.

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That confidence Hammel provides when he takes the ball carries throughout the whole rotation.

“It’s great, especially as a catcher, to have that much fun with this staff. There’s so many weapons that each guy possesses," Ross said. "It makes it real easy as a catcher, and fun, to be a part of this staff.”

Maybe more than one Cubs starter will make the National League's All-Star roster. But for now, the team is simply enjoying the fact that these pitchers are giving their teammates a chance to win every single day.

“It gives you a chance when you go out there and you’re like, ‘OK, all we have to do is put up some runs,’” Fowler said.

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?

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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.