Cubs

Cubs: Kyle Hendricks trying to tune out all the noise in rotation battle

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Cubs: Kyle Hendricks trying to tune out all the noise in rotation battle

PHOENIX, Ariz. - If Kyle Hendricks is healthy, it would be surprising to see anybody else beat him out for the fifth starter spot when the Cubs break camp to start the 2016 regular season.

The Cubs have four pitchers in their projected bullpen - Adam Warren, Travis Wood, Clayton Richard, Trevor Cahill - with track records as starters, but entering spring, it seemed as if it was Hendricks' job to lose.

Joe Maddon has insisted there are no final decisions made on the rotation beyond Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey, but also admitted the incumbents (Jason Hammel and Hendricks) have a leg up on the rest of the competition.

Hendricks struck out four and gave up a run in two innings Thursday in the Cubs' 2-1 loss in their Cactus League opener, and said he's just trying to block out all the noise.

"I'm pretty good at focusing on what I gotta do," Hendricks said. "It's just coming in every day and not really looking around, just keeping your head down and working hard.

"I know I have a lot to work on mechanically, but also getting my arm strength up for the first game. There's a lot to do to focus on yourself, for sure, and not think about all that."

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Maddon said he wanted to see Hendricks out in some game action to watch how the 26-year-old right-hander handled his mechanical adjustments and tempo in game. The Cubs want Hendricks to slow things down a bit and make sure he gets into a rhythm.

After a stellar rookie campaign (7-2, 2.46 ERA, 1.08 WHIP), Hendricks regressed a bit in 2015 (8-7, 3.95 ERA, 1.16 WHIP). But his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) was almost identical to 2014 (3.36 compared to 3.32) and he also saw his strikeouts rise significantly (from 5.3 K/9 to 8.4).

Hendricks made 32 starts last season and it's safe to say any team in baseball would take those numbers from their fifth starter.

Hendricks, however, feels like he has room to grow entering his second full big-league season.

"I wasn't too happy with last year," he said. "I expected a lot better - more innings, better performance, honestly, going deeper into games. Just being better for my team.

"I think there's a lot more."

Hendricks got lit up by the Chicago White Sox in mid-August last season (eight hits, three walks, five runs in 3.1 innings), but feels like he turned a corner when he realized some mechanical issues on video after that outing.

He posted a 3.88 ERA in nine starts from that point on, including 12 straight shutout innings to close out the regular season.

"I felt good at how I ended," Hendricks said. "I kinda salvaged at the end there and finished strong, but I wanna be that guy that is consistent every time out and the team can know what to expect from me every time out.

"I wasn't that all last year, so I'm looking to have consistency from start to finish."

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Hendricks said he has different "cues" in his mechanics now and feels like he has a better understanding of how to fix any issues in-game. He also listens to his catchers and Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio, who know what to look for now.

Hendricks - a Dartmouth graduate - admitted he can think too much at times on the mound and is trying to just see the glove and throw the ball.

With all the competition around him in Cubs camp this spring and his inconsistency last year, does Hendricks feel like he has something to prove?

"Possibly," he said. "I'm not really thinking about it. I'm just trying to go out there and make good pitches and really simplify as much as I can.

"If you start thinking too much, you can get in your own head."

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.