Cubs: Jake Arrieta ready for do-or-die format of one-game playoff


Cubs: Jake Arrieta ready for do-or-die format of one-game playoff

Don't be surprised if Jake Arrieta comes out throwing a knuckleball Sunday.

Arrieta's start against the Pirates comes 10 days before he figures to square off with this team again in the one-game wild-card playoff.

So the Cubs ace was joking he might try to mix things up with a knuckleball or a new changeup or wacky sequence of pitches or something.

"It's a chess match, really," Arrieta said. "They've seen what I throw. They know what I throw. But the sequences are things that I constantly change and switch up."

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Arrieta probably won't actually throw a knuckleball, but with the Cubs locking up a playoff spot and sitting 5.5 games behind the Pirates for homefield advantage in the wild-card game, Sunday's matchup doesn't exactly jump off the page in terms of importance.

The Cubs are on pace for around 95 wins, but their season will still come down to a winner-take-all game (probably in Pittsburgh).

That's just fine by Arrieta and his 1.88 ERA.

"A lot of hard work's paid off as a team to be in this situation," he said. "Not many teams get to move on and play into October.

"And even though it's a one-game, do-or-die type of scenario, it's what we have to deal with. So we'll deal with that. We'll prepare for that situation and be ready for it when it comes."

The Cubs are 23-8 (a .742 winning percentage) when Arrieta starts as he's made a serious case for the NL Cy Young Award.

He reveled in the Cubs' postseason celebration on Wrigley Field Saturday afternoon, responding to fans' "Arrieta! Arrieta!" chants by spraying champagne into the crowd gathered behind the home dugout.

Arrieta and his major-league leading 20 victories are a major reason why the Cubs could celebrate a playoff berth with more than a week left in the regular season.

But he's also blown past his career high in innings in a season and he's still penciled in for two starts before the wild-card game.

Arrieta is in fantastic shape and his conditioning is off the charts, but he still understands the need to take it easy. He acknowledged his pitch count probably won't climb much over 100 Sunday night.

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"No reason to change anything now," Arrieta said. "At this point in the season, I'll take a day or two off throwing throughout the week and honing some things and continuing to work on flexibility. I'll have a good side session and kind of shut it down at that point.

"Just be ready for start day, knowing that this time of year is to save some bullets and be out there helping."

Arrieta has emerged as one of the top pitchers in the game, thanks in large part to an incredible work ethic and a desire to never get complacent and always be searching for ways to improve.

He's taking that same mindset into the Cubs clinching a playoff berth.

"Obviously we're not popping bottles or losing our minds," Arrieta said before Saturday's game. "We know we're in now. We still have some business to take care of.

"We'd like to finish the regular season with our guys healthy, everybody's legs under them, everybody feeling good about October baseball and we'll go from there."

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.