Cubs: Jake Arrieta plans to come back strong after Cy Young year


Cubs: Jake Arrieta plans to come back strong after Cy Young year

Jake Arrieta ended his victory lap by receiving the National League Cy Young Award from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s New York chapter, amid a blizzard that dropped 26.8 inches of snow on Central Park.

Record-setting and historic are words used to describe both Arrieta’s season and Winter Storm Jonas and maybe even his arbitration payday.

But the Cubs shouldn’t have to worry about Arrieta getting too comfortable or digging himself too much after a no-hitter at Dodger Stadium, an unbelievable second half (12-1, 0.75 ERA) and that complete-game wild-card shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

To be honest, Arrieta talked like a No. 1 starter and carried himself as an ace even when he had to make a detour to Triple-A Iowa after getting traded from the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season.

Arrieta earned his reputation as a workout freak, doing yoga and Pilates, studying nutrition and kinetics and leaving no doubt he will report to Arizona in optimal physical shape.

“Pro NY weekend to finally conclude the ‘15 season,” Arrieta tweeted last week. “Time to turn the page! Ready to work on this 2016 campaign.”

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The immediate question is whether Theo Epstein’s front office and Boras Corp. will settle on a one-year deal around the $10.25 million midpoint or push this to a salary arbitration hearing scheduled for the middle of February.

The Cubs filed at $7.5 million while Arrieta’s side countered at $13 million. Epstein has never taken an arbitration-eligible player to a hearing, either in his first four years running baseball operations on the North Side or his nine years as the Boston Red Sox general manager.

The bigger-picture question is how Arrieta responds to accounting for almost 250 innings during his breakthrough year, or 92 more than he threw in the big leagues in 2014.

“There’s unknown in pitching,” Epstein said. “There’s not too many certainties when you start thinking about pitching in general. So I think we’ll just be smart about it with how he goes about his spring training and how we try to manage his workload early in the season and ease him into it.

“But I think the fact that he was able to throw a ton of innings last year and stay healthy throughout the whole season is a really good sign for him handling a significant workload (again). We’ll just try to be really smart about it and keep him really fresh for the most important time of year.”

Arrieta made the Cubs feel invincible as they piled up 97 wins and made it through two playoff rounds, but 2016 will be about seeing what sort of price they will have to pay for that success.

[MORE: Cubs: Dexter Fowler plays the waiting game in free agency]

“It was something that was uncharted for me,” Arrieta said. “To now be at that point, I feel like I know how to handle it. My body (should) respond very well to a similar workload this season. I’m just looking forward to getting close to that mark again this season.”

Speaking in general terms, Scott Boras also admitted this would have to be a concern during his media session at the general managers meetings in November, when the super-agent was feuding with the Miami Marlins about the Jose Fernandez situation and Matt Harvey’s innings-limit controversy was still fresh in the minds of New York writers and Mets fans.

“I’m not an orthopedic surgeon,” Boras said, not talking specifically about Arrieta, who unlike Fernandez and Harvey is not recovering from Tommy John surgery. “But when you talk to the doctors that do this, they’re always going to tell you that once you get 30 or 40 innings above where you were the year before – and you’ve never been there – there’s always a concern.

“The percentages of it are that some are just fine with it – and they weather it and they go through it – and some are effected by it. The exactness of those percentages vary from doctor to doctor, but that’s certainly what they tell us.”

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Boras would also tell you that his data shows the hardest thing for a major-league pitcher to do is get beyond the fourth year. If you’re healthy and effective at that point, the agency’s numbers project a 10-year career.

Arrieta – who will turn 30 next month – is in the right place at the right time. He came across as someone who appreciated the journey to the top, giving credit to his teammates and taking the newfound fame in stride.

Now the Cubs will find out how many bullets are left in Arrieta’s right arm.

“It’s just kind of the unknown,” Arrieta said. “Not having gone over 200 innings before in my career…it is a significant jump. Regardless of how you prepare and how good a shape you’re in, there are certain things that are difficult to prepare for. But having that workload already under my belt, I think moving forward I’m going to be very capable of handling it.” 

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.