Cubs: Joe Maddon figuring out how to deploy Aroldis Chapman

Cubs: Joe Maddon figuring out how to deploy Aroldis Chapman

The Cubs are still trying to better understand Aroldis Chapman after last week’s win-now trade with the New York Yankees, lost-in-translation press conference and must-see debut at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs made that blockbuster deal while envisioning mad-scientist manager Joe Maddon unleashing a 105-mph closer at the highest-leverage moments, changing the entire shape of their bullpen and shortening playoff games. Except Chapman doesn’t like to get four-out saves.

“I didn’t know that,” Maddon said Sunday. “Not that it would matter, but I didn’t know that. I was not aware of that.”

At least that’s what Chapman said through translator/teammate Pedro Strop after Saturday’s 4-1 loss to the Seattle Mariners, telling reporters “it’s not my favorite thing to do, but that’s my job. It’s the manager’s decision. I’m ready to do anything.” 

The Yankees essentially used Chapman one inning at a time after he served his 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy, never deploying him for a four-out save and watching him go 20-for-21 in save situations.

Maddon is an aggressive, outside-the-box thinker who already had Chapman get the final four outs last week against the White Sox for his first save in a Cubs uniform. Maddon’s outcome-bias radar started beeping after Leonys Martin’s two-out, two-run, go-ahead double off Chapman in the eighth inning on Saturday afternoon.

“There’s nothing really tricky about it,” Maddon said. “If you choose to not use (Chapman) right there, and the lead goes away without having utilized him, then you’re really upset with yourself.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Maddon felt that Chapman had been well-rested and would be a better no-contact matchup than Hector Rondon. The Cubs saw the heart of Seattle’s lineup coming with Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager. This is why you acquire a game-changing lefty who has triple-digit velocity as a default setting and knows how to pitch.

“Just say you utilize him right there and you score four or five runs the next inning, which is possible,” Maddon said. “Then you would take him out again, anyway, and just save him, because we have enough bullpen after that. So there are all these different moments.

“Do you wait to use him the next inning, not knowing if the lead’s going to be there or not? You knew the lead was there. He’s the perfect guy in that particular moment. It just didn’t work.”

The bigger questions revolve around how well the Cubs really know Chapman, and how to maximize his impact in October after that World Series-or-bust trade.

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.