Cubs make bid and wonder: Who is Yu Darvish?


Cubs make bid and wonder: Who is Yu Darvish?

This is the question that no one in the baseball world really knows the answer to: Who is Yu Darvish?

Bobby Scales described Darvish as freakishly athletic, almost like Carlos Zambrano. The Japanese superstar liked to mess around with switch-hitting, and had an extra glove because he can also throw left-handed.

Scales didnt really know if this was a joke, because it came through an interpreter, but the 6-foot-5-inch pitcher said his favorite sport used to be ice hockey, until he outgrew playing goalie.

Micah Hoffpauir called Darvish a good dude. Darvish didnt speak much English, but understood the language, and could keep up with Hoffpauirs slow Texas drawl. The two played practical jokes by putting pine tar inside each others shoes.

These two ex-Cubs went overseas to play for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters last season and got to see what the hype is all about. At the age of 25, Darvish is already rich and famous, but the next great challenge is in the United States.

A major-league official confirmed that the Cubs submitted a bid before Wednesdays deadline, though the amount and their true interest level was unclear. Another industry source with ties to Japan said that the Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays were among the most visible teams scouting Darvish last season.

Theo Epstein has promised that the Cubs will be aggressive in the international marketplace. But the president of baseball operations went through this process before with the Boston Red Sox. Between the posting fee and free-agent contract, it cost more than 100 million to import Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Darvish helped his country win the 2009 World Baseball Classic, and has dominated Japans Pacific League for years, going 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA and 276 strikeouts last season.

I have no idea if his talents will translate at the major-league level, said new Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, who became a popular figure in Japan while leading the Chiba Lotte Marines. But hes a quality pitcher. He has size. He (has) velocity, breaking balls, very good hands. He makes the ball do a lot of crazy things on its way to the plate.

(Hes a) great competitor. If those things translate into another uniformwho knows?

Matsuzaka helped the Red Sox win the 2007 World Series during his first year in Boston, and went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA the following season. But across the next three years, he barely reached 250 innings combined before being shut down for Tommy John surgery.

The New York Yankees made a 46 million investment in Kei Igawa and have watched him appear in 16 major-league games. He has spent most of the past five seasons in the shadows, pitching at Double- and Triple-A affiliates.

By association, there will be skepticism about Darvish. He has an Iranian father and a Japanese mother and must already know something about bridging cultures.

Hoffpauir who played parts of three seasons on the North Side and will return to Japan next year believes in Darvish.

Being around him and watching him go about his business, Hoffpauir said, I dont see any reason why the guy doesnt succeed in the States. You put him on a team like the Yankees, hes going to be a No. 2 or No. 3 guy.

You put him on a team like the Rangers, hes their No. 1 guy immediately. Hes got great stuff. Hes got a phenomenal work ethic.

Scales whos unsigned for next season and focused on getting another job with a major-league organization said the two games could not be more different, (even) down to the way they do laundry in the clubhouse.

Thats where all the projections can get hazy. Scales called Darvishs fastball arrow straight, but overall liked his velocity, athleticism and repertoire, the ability to keep hitters off-balance with sliders and forkballs.

Hoffpauir said Darvishs stuff is so good that he really only had to worry about the hitters batting third through sixth no one else in the lineup would be expected to do damage and hit for power.

Once he gets to the States, I think he will become a better pitcher, Hoffpauir said, because he will lock in for nine batters, as opposed to locking in for four, maybe five (against) a lineup in Japan.

Hoffpauir respected how Darvish seemed to have his own code, almost never leaving before the other starting pitcher. Japanese pitchers typically work on six days rest, but Hoffpauir said Darvish wouldnt wait that long between starts when the team needed it down the stretch last season.

The blind bidding is over for the right to negotiate with baseballs international man of mystery. If the highest bid is accepted, the winner would then get a 30-day exclusive window to agree on a contract. It will take years to figure out if Darvish is worth the money.

Hes going to have some growing pains, Hoffpauir said. Hes going to have some bumps and bruises when it comes to making adjustments. (But) hes smart enough and I think hell work hard enough that hell get that done.

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.