Cubs

Cubs prospect Kyle Schwarber keeping it 'stupid'

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Cubs prospect Kyle Schwarber keeping it 'stupid'

Kyle Schwarber Watch has officially begun.

With Kris Bryant and Addison Russell playing every day in Chicago, Schwarber is the top prospect remaining in the Cubs system.

And he's playing like it.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans]

The 22-year-old slugger is hitting .322/.440/.585 (1.025 OPS) with 13 homers, 39 RBI and a 39:46 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 54 games with Double-A Tennessee.

That actually put him slightly ahead of Bryant's pace at the level. Through the first 45 games at Double-A, Bryant posted a 1.054 OPS with 12 homers while Schwarber also hit 12 homers, but posted a 1.087 OPS.

With the hot start to the season, Schwarber now has 31 homers, 92 RBI and a 1.046 OPS in the last calendar year - 126 games of professional baseball since the Cubs selected him fourth overall in last June's MLB Draft.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs VP Jason McLeod - No rush with Kyle Schwarber]

What's his secret?

"It just goes back to what my approach is at the plate, just trying to keep it simple," Schwarber told Smokies broadcaster Mick Gillispie. "Getting my pitch and when I do get my pitch, take advantage of it.

"When things do get bad, that's when you have to really lock in and go back to your approach - keep it simple and keep it stupid and just do what you do best. It's just baseball."

Schwarber was named the Cubs' minor league player of the month for May and has been hitting so well, many thought he would be called up to serve as the big-league's designated hitter during a stretch of games in American League parks starting this week.

Schwarber hasn't been called up (yet), but he insists he's not concerned with his timeline or when the next promotion may come. He's just keeping his head down and playing baseball, focusing on the task at hand.

[RELATED - Cubs keeping Kyle Schwarber out of the DH picture]

On the final day of the 2015 Draft Wednesday, the Cubs took a pair of Schwarber's former battery mates at Indiana in back-to-back rounds (Jake Kelzer and Scott Effross in Rounds 14 and 15).

When the Cubs drafted Schwarber a year ago out of IU, there were major questions about whether he could stick at catcher or not. Schwarber insists he can hang at the position and the Cubs are giving him every chance to prove it, as he's only played catcher or DH so far this season.

The questions about Schwarber's defense behind the plate haven't gone away and the slugger knows he has plenty to learn, even if his bat is close to being big-league ready.

"Everything behind the plate is all a challenge," Schwarber told Gillispie. "You're always trying to think along with your pitcher, you're always trying to think what the best pitch is or what count to get this guy out or what are we going to do to set this guy up.

"Controlling the baserunning game - that's a big emphasis I want to improve on. Receiving, blocking, everything about that position is vital and it translates to the game, so you have to be really clean in all parts of that position."

Check out more from Schwarber's interview with Gillispie in the video above.

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.