Cubs taking on the force of Anthony Rizzo’s personality

Cubs taking on the force of Anthony Rizzo’s personality

MILWAUKEE – Anthony Rizzo sat down in a folding chair facing the table stacked with laptops and TV screens and joked with the Cubs staffers who coordinate the video/advance-scouting systems: “Who we got tonight?”

The Cubs were a few hours away from facing Gerrit Cole and the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 2 in their first matchup since last year’s National League wild-card showdown. Rizzo walked into PNC Park’s visiting clubhouse that afternoon wearing a short-sleeve blue jacket covered in stars – with no shirt underneath – and red shorts as part of Joe Maddon’s “Minimalist Zany” suit dress-up gimmick.

Rizzo went out that night and doubled twice off Cole, helping set the tone for a three-game sweep where the Cubs outscored the Pirates 20-5. There are so many different personalities that go into the gonzo team with the best record in baseball, but no one symbolizes that mixture of breezy confidence and intense focus more than Rizzo, a co-creator of the GrandpaRossy_3 Instagram account and an occasional karaoke singer at Stanley’s in Lincoln Park.

“I always know (who’s pitching),” Rizzo said before Wednesday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “Always.

“(But) the more experience you get, the more you realize that it doesn’t matter if it’s Kershaw, Arrieta, Bumgarner – they have to make the pitches.

“Early on (in a career), you get a couple hits off (guys like that) and you’re all excited. Well, the next day you’re facing Jon Lester, so you got to re-amp. It’s not easy to do, but if you just stay at that one level, you’ll be all right.”

Rizzo’s swagger, competitive nature and goofy sense of humor will be so important for a team that began the day as a virtual lock to make the playoffs, at least according to the projections on FanGraphs (99.3 percent) and Baseball Prospectus (98.1 percent).

Rizzo is a face-of-the-franchise, Gold Glove-caliber first baseman leading the team in homers (11) and RBI (34) with an OPS approaching 1.000. Yet it still almost feels like he’s flown under the radar during the season’s first six weeks.

Rizzo has played in three different organizations for all kinds of managers (Bud Black, Dale Sveum, Rick Renteria) but it’s hard to imagine a better fit for him than Maddon, who walks the same fine line between getting locked in and having fun.

“We do that really well, and Joe permits us to do that,” said Rizzo, who’s developed a routine where he goes to the gym in the morning, takes a nap to recharge and shows up ready for work and not more eyewash. “Sometimes you hear about teams where once you get to the park, it’s all serious, serious, serious.

“We’re having a good time. We’re playing baseball. So when it’s time to be serious, you get your work in.

“I don’t get here early. What’s the point? Joe says the same thing.

“When I first came up, I was getting to the ballpark at 12:30, 1 o’clock. I’d sit around and think about: ‘Am I going to get a hit?’ You just start thinking all crazy things.”

Rizzo tries to block out the noise, but he did hear about Cole’s dismissive comment after beating the Cubs on Sunday at Wrigley Field: “I don’t really think they’re the best team in baseball."

“That’s his opinion,” Rizzo said. “We can have the best record now. We can have the best record at the end of the year. Once you get to the playoffs, it’s a crapshoot. They know it the best, playing that wild-card game the last three years and deserving to be more than a wild-card team, because that’s how good they’ve been.

“My opinion on it is the best team in baseball is the one who wins the World Series.”

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.