Cubs

Cubs: Jake Arrieta doesn't want to make a big deal out of Opening Day start

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Cubs: Jake Arrieta doesn't want to make a big deal out of Opening Day start

MESA, Ariz. - Jake Arrieta didn't exactly shrug off the opportunity to start Opening Day for the Cubs, but it's not like he's screaming it from the rooftops, either.

Between Joe Maddon, Jon Lester and Arrieta, the Cubs continue to pull on the same rope, projecting the same message that the April 4 starter is not as big of a deal as media or fans make it seem.

[RELATED - No surprise: Cubs giving Jake Arrieta the Opening Day start]

After all, the Cubs didn't even make the official announcement until March 1 - almost two weeks after pitchers and catchers reported to camp - even though the rotation features the reigning National League Cy Young winner.

"It's kinda something that maybe's made a little too much of," Arrieta said. "But it's done now and really after Opening Day, we have 161 games left to play. That's really our only concern."

The Cubs refuse to get caught up in hyping just one game when they have a World Series or bust mentality.

At the same time, Arrieta takes pride in being able to start Opening Day for the second time in his career (he also got the ball to open the 2012 season for the Baltimore Orioles).

"It's an honor, obviously," Arrieta said. "I was able to get an Opening Day start earlier in my career during a different point in my career.

"It's kind of a new chapter, not only for myself but for everybody here. We're just looking forward to the journey."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Arrieta threw seven shutout innings for the Orioles in that 2012 opener, picking up the win in the process.

He feels like he can draw from that experience a bit, even if 2016's Game 1 is a completely different situation.

"There are some things I'll use from that," Arrieta said. "Some things I'll use from many other experiences like playoff atmospheres, just to kind of really hold that adrenaline at bay and use it when I need it.

"That's really the biggest thing there is just to keep your emotions in check and be able to kinda control your breathing and your heart rate and not let things speed up on you too much."

Lester got the Opening Day nod for the Cubs last year - his debut with the team - in front of a raucous Wrigley Field crowd against the rival St. Louis Cardinals in a nationally-televised game that opened the season for all of baseball. Talk about adrenaline.

[MORE - Jon Lester feels like he's 'ahead of the game' this spring with Cubs]

With the opener coming on the road against the Angels in Los Angeles this year, Arrieta admits that may help him stay a little more even-keeled.

But the soon-to-be-30-year-old starter also dropped one of his favorite phrases, saying it's "business as usual" once he steps between the lines, regardless of where the game is being played.

Arrieta said his body feels great and his arm strength is "exceptionally good" after a season in which he threw 248.2 innings including playoffs. The Cubs plan on easing Arrieta into the season with an eye on saving some bullets for September and October.

"He's throwing really well already," Maddon said. "Like 'I'm gonna pick up where I left off' kinda thing. Having said all that, [we] still wanna monitor it."

Between Arrieta, Lester and John Lackey, the Cubs conceivably could have chosen any one of the three to start Opening Day, but Arrieta was the obvious choice after putting up the best second half in the history of baseball and taking home the game's most coveted pitching award.

"Somebody's gotta start that game," Arrieta said. "It just so happens to be me. ... It's nice to be in that role, but I don't put a whole lot of weight into it.

"We're gonna need five guys [in the rotation] from start to finish to try to get to where we're trying to go and we all know where that is."

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.