Cubs

Cubs: Kris Bryant tries to see big picture in middle of mental grind

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Cubs: Kris Bryant tries to see big picture in middle of mental grind

Kris Bryant had already crushed a Felix Hernandez changeup in the first inning when he homered a second time against the Seattle Mariners. Billy Williams turned to Rick Sutcliffe during that Cactus League game in March and said: “We got to call him Roy Hobbs.”

Williams is a Hall of Famer who first joined the Cubs organization in 1956. Sutcliffe is the ESPN analyst who won Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards and threw almost 2,700 innings in the big leagues. Moments like that set the baseline expectations: Bryant would do unbelievable things for the rest of his career.

“The Natural” has become it’s natural for young players to wear down and look lost while trying to find their way out of slumps. The mental grind is so intense that Bryant has said you almost feel “brain-dead” at the end of every day.

“I don’t want to come out here and be Babe Ruth in my first season,” Bryant said. “I want to embrace the struggles and learn from it. I think I’m setting a benchmark so that I can improve on a lot of areas.”

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Bryant generated so much buzz as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft, Baseball America’s top prospect heading into this season and a national story in spring training.

But Bryant is trending in the wrong direction now, heading into Thursday’s huge game against the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field with two homers since the Fourth of July, watching his batting average drop to .246 while his OPS plunged 86 points down to .786. His 130 strikeouts led the National League.

“It’s probably a combination of first time in the big leagues and really good pitching and making adjustments,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “And also probably some fatigue, both mental and physical. He’ll snap out of it.

“We’ve seen Anthony (Rizzo) have a swoon and come back out of it. We’ve seen Addison (Russell) start to come back out of his struggles. I have no doubt Kris will as well. Guys go through it, and he’s really kind of going through it for the first time.”

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Bryant comes across as so polished that it’s easy to forget this is only his second full season in professional baseball. And remember the Cubs looked at the service-time clock last year and didn’t make him a September call-up, pulling the plug after 138 games combined at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa.

“I do believe you hit a wall, but I also believe you do catch a second wind,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s so talented. He’s going to be good for so many years. But when your confidence takes a hit, how do you get it back?

“And then furthermore, playing more games, under more scrutiny, going to the All-Star Game, being part of the Home Run Derby, family in town, text (messages), phone calls. It’s crazy. So get back into your routine, take a deep breath and understand what’s going on here.

“Part of catching a second wind is being in things — like having a legitimate shot to win.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get a Kris Bryant jersey right here]

Bryant carried so many responsibilities as the Cubs emerged as a potential playoff team, hitting in the middle of the order, going all-out while running the bases and playing good enough defense at third base. All this for a marquee franchise in a major market with all eyes on him.

“It’s good to go through the struggles,” Bryant said. “I’ve been through struggles in every year of my life in baseball, and I’ve learned from it. I’m going to come back here stronger from this.

“It’s all a learning process. We’re winning along the way. My teammates are picking me up — and that’s all I can ask for.”

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.