Cubs

Cubs: Kris Bryant proves he's even better than the hype

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Cubs: Kris Bryant proves he's even better than the hype

Kris Bryant started playing guitar around the time the Cubs made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft and immediately turned him into a face of the franchise.

People told Bryant he would need something to help get away from the game. The National League’s Rookie of the Year frontrunner tries to compartmentalize everything, binge-watching episodes of “Friday Night Lights” and “Game of Thrones” on Netflix and HBO to clear his head.

Bryant had shown enough potential as a student at the University of San Diego that he turned down the chance to pursue a Rhodes Scholarship. He also doesn’t take things too seriously, shooting a Red Bull commercial with a goat and going undercover as a Lyft driver in Chicago.

All that helps explain why Bryant has proven he’s even better than the hype, becoming an anchor for a playoff contender that saw its magic number cut to two even with Wednesday night’s 4-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field.

“The scrutiny that KB was under in spring training was something I’ve never seen,” said catcher David Ross, who’s in his 14th season in the big leagues. “The way he’s handled it — and had a phenomenal year — has been really impressive.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs silenced by Zach Davies, can't complete sweep of Brewers]

Bryant blasted his 26th home run on Tuesday night, breaking the franchise’s rookie record held by Hall of Famer Billy Williams. Bryant needs to drive in only two more runs to reach 100, putting the offense on his shoulders at times and helping elevate Anthony Rizzo into an MVP candidate.

Anything less and Bryant would have been considered a big disappointment by the Cubs fans who’ve been burned by overhyped prospects before.

There would have been a major media backlash after super-agent Scott Boras and the Major League Baseball Players Association made service time such a big issue for the game’s No. 1 prospect.

Bryant Day finally came on April 17 against James Shields and the San Diego Padres, delaying his free-agency clock until after the 2021 season and dropping him into the Wrigley Field fishbowl.

“That was absurdly kind of blown up,” Bryant said. “I guess it’s just natural now in baseball with the social media. People were telling me that ‘SportsCenter’ would go to each of my at-bats. That’s just crazy to me.

“I don’t think anybody wanted (that). I definitely didn’t want that.”

[MORE CUBS: Jake Arrieta’s dream season for Cubs continues with 20th win]

Bryant went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts during his big-league debut, waited 21 games before hitting his first home run, batted .168 in July and could finish with close to 200 strikeouts this season.

But Bryant hasn’t wilted or pouted or let it impact his defense at third base. He’s unselfishly moved to the outfield and even made game-changing plays with surprising speed on the bases for a 6-foot-5 slugger.

“He does not wear it,” Boras said. “Bryant has the absolute professional approach where 'I’m going to show up, and I’ve got a routine to deliver. And I’m not going to worry about what happens.'

“He has that belief, that structure, that confidence. And it’s rewarded.”

Bryant also hasn’t relaxed too much or let all the attention go to his head or isolated himself in the clubhouse.

“I don’t think outwardly we’ve seen frustration from him,” said Jason McLeod, the Cubs executive who oversees scouting and player development. “He’s a very professional, even-keeled guy.

“I’m sure when he was going through some of the struggles it was eating at him inside somewhat. But he’s got a process and a mindset of coming in and working every single day. And that helps him, I think, not get too low.

“Or when he’s hitting walk-off home runs, the next morning he’s going to be the same guy. He’s going to come to the park (and) work on his approach. And I think it takes a certain type of makeup to do that.”

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon brings zoo animals to Wrigleyville circus]

Bryant is clutch, beginning the day with a .956 OPS with runners in scoring position. He’s been hitting .368 with two outs and runners in scoring position, getting on base almost 50 percent of the time in those situations. He led all rookies in on-base percentage (.371) and slugging percentage (.505). He had 27 more RBIs than any other rookie in the majors.

“I’ve always been like this,” Bryant said. “I’ve always been a player that would just leave it at the field. I just try not to think about the previous game — or my successes or struggles or any of that off the field — because there’s really no need to.

“I don’t think we’re normal people. We live a crazy life. But I think anybody out there kind of just leaves their work where it needs to be.”

That’s why the Cubs believe Bryant will deliver in the biggest moments in October for years to come.

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.