Cubs

Cubs: Joe Maddon still believes in Pedro Strop despite ‘strange’ struggles

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Cubs: Joe Maddon still believes in Pedro Strop despite ‘strange’ struggles

ATLANTA — Cubs manager Joe Maddon still believes Pedro Strop can be an important part of his team’s playoff push despite the right-hander’s pair of high-profile losses over the last week and a half.

Eury Perez’s go-ahead two-run single in the eighth off Strop sent the Cubs a 4-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves Friday night at Turner Field, leaving the 30-year-old to wonder how a promising first half has started to come unraveled recently.

In Strop’s last appearance before Friday, he gave up a go-ahead two-out two-run home run on a 1-2 fastball to St. Louis Cardinals All-Star Jhonny Peralta that delivered the Cubs a gutting loss to the National League Central leader. Friday in Atlanta was another frustrating night for him.

“I don’t know. I really don’t what to say about it,” Strop said. “It’s either been really good or either really bad. I think I gotta do a better job staying on one level. We all know we’re going to have bad outings but I gotta minimize it.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs will give Kyle Schwarber a ‘soft landing’ at catcher]

Joe Maddon, though, said after the game he hasn’t lost confidence in Strop.

“It’s so strange,” Maddon said. “I have so much faith in this guy, I really believe he’s that good. He let it get away from him, but I really believe he’s one of the best. We just gotta continue to work him through this moment.”

The common thread between Strop’s two rough outings is a pair of walks to players to whom he should’ve pitched aggressively.

Before Peralta’s home run, Strop issued a four-pitch walk to a struggling Matt Carpenter (who had eight hits in his previous 57 at-bats). On Friday, Maddon had Strop intentionally walk A.J. Pierzynski with first base open to face Andrelton Simmons, who had a .233 batting average since June 1 entering Friday.

Strop walked Simmons, too, firing both a 2-2 slider and 3-2 fastball into the dirt.

“I wanted to throw a slider for a strike and I couldn’t execute the pitch,” Strop said. “I might’ve went too fine on that at-bat, I should’ve just attacked him.”

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Perez then jumped on Strop’s first-pitch slider and knocked it into right for the game-winning hit.

Strop said he’s feeling fine health-wise, though Maddon said it’s more mental and hasn’t seen him be assertive enough in recent appearances. This is a guy who had a 2.21 ERA for the Cubs a year ago and rebounded from a rough stretch in early May to post a 1.78 ERA between May 8 and July 7.

Maddon’s confident Strop can fix the problem again. But as the innings grow more important into August and September, the Cubs can’t afford to have Strop continue to give away close and late games.

“I know they’ve been rough performances lately, but I really think this guy’s outstanding,” Maddon said. “… We gotta get his confidence back up because stuff-wise, he’s got premier stuff. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

 

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.