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Cubs running out of patience with Jason Heyward at World Series

Cubs running out of patience with Jason Heyward at World Series

CLEVELAND — The Cubs are running out of patience with Jason Heyward. It’s nothing personal, because Heyward continues to be a Gold Glove defender and a model teammate. It’s not necessarily a statement on the next seven years of the biggest contract in team history. But manager Joe Maddon recognizes the urgency of the situation, benching the $184 million outfielder in the franchise’s first World Series game since 1945.

Chris Coghlan didn’t create the offensive spark Maddon hoped for against Corey Kluber and the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night, and Albert Almora Jr. became a late-inning replacement in right field during a 6-0 loss at Progressive Field.

“It is what it is,” Heyward said. “Just be ready. And if it’s not you, it’s not you. It’s a situation where — don’t be caught off guard — and be ready all the time. If you don’t get called, then you don’t get called.”

While Kyle Schwarber’s return to the lineup dominated the pregame news cycle, Heyward is coming off two playoff rounds where he went 2-for-28 (.071 average) against the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, continuing a year-long trend where he put up career lows in homers (seven) and OPS (.631).

“You want to win now,” said Maddon, who spoke with Heyward before the game. “There’s no time to really give him time to get back in the groove, like we were trying to do earlier this year. We’ll see how this looks tonight. We’ll play it out tonight — see what it feels or looks like — and then make our determination for tomorrow.

“Not giving up on him by any means. (And) I stand by (this): I love having him on the field. I feel so good with him out there.”

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But the Cubs don’t have the same luxuries anymore, the way Maddon gave Heyward a mental break for an August weekend at Coors Field in the hopes that it would clear his head and unlock his offensive game. The Cubs no longer have weeks to tinker or the comfort from having a huge lead in the division. Yet Maddon still thinks Heyward can change how Year 1 will be remembered.

“(With) human nature, sometimes you’re going to see that happening,” Maddon said. “Things maybe in the first year don’t go exactly according to plan. However, I really feel strongly that they will with him.

“He’s an incredibly wonderful young man. And he’s very strong mentally. He just has some things to work out, honestly, from the offensive side with his swing. I’m not saying anything new (here), but that’s what comes next. The offseason is going to be really important for him. But over the course of this next week, I’m certain he’s going to do something to help us win this whole thing.”

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.