Cubs

Cubs trying to find a way to unlock Jorge Soler's power

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Cubs trying to find a way to unlock Jorge Soler's power

It can be easy to lose Jorge Soler in the craziness that is the Cubs' rookie movement.

After all, he is the only one of the four rookies who made his big league debut last year, and he's not depositing baseballs in the Wrigley Field bleachers the way Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber are or making slick defensive plays like Addison Russell.

But Soler has been playing well as he flies under the radar, hitting .326 in August with a .415 on-base percentage and 12 RBIs in 13 games.

The problem is, Soler had just one extra-base hit in the month before homering with two outs in the ninth inning Sunday. It was his first homer since July 19 and only his fourth longball since hitting two on April 13 (though he did miss more than a month with an ankle injury in June).

[MORE CUBS: Addison Russell arrives ahead of schedule for red-hot Cubs]

Soler is hitting the ball hard, lighting up the stat sheet with exit velocities above 100 mph, but he's just not getting much lift right now.

"Trajectory, man. Just the way he swings," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "Probably more than anything, the flatness to his swing. There's no real lift involved. It'll happen. He's done it before; he's gonna do it again.

"Right now, if I had to guess, just the fact that he's trying to make hard contact is promoting more of a flat swing, and as he gets more comfortable, he'll be able to lift it a little bit more.

"It's gonna start going up, and it's gonna go out. But the velocity off the bat has been incredible to watch."

[SHOP CUBS: Gear up, Cubs fans]

The Cubs were expecting more power from Soler this season than the six homers he's put up in 84 games.

Soler hit five homers in his 24-game audition with the big league club at the end of last season and he also had 28 longballs and a .539 slugging percentage in 167 career minor league games.

The power is there; the Cubs are just trying to find a way to unlock it.

"I think his natural swing path lends itself to really hard line drives than lofted fly balls right now," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "But, traditionally, players who hit the ball that hard, through time, through learning their own swing, taking certain adjustments, learn how to loft the ball."

Epstein also referenced how many hard-hit balls Soler has has had over the last week-plus, where "with a little bit of elevation would've been long home runs. That's coming."

Soler showed off that power potential Sunday, and the Cubs hope he can turn it on entering the final seven weeks of the season.

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.