Cubs vs. Mets: Jake Arrieta and Matt Harvey pushing the limits in NLCS


Cubs vs. Mets: Jake Arrieta and Matt Harvey pushing the limits in NLCS

NEW YORK – Jake Arrieta and Matt Harvey have big arms and big egos and Scott Boras working for them to make their bank accounts bigger.

The Cubs experienced nothing like the innings-limit controversy that engulfed Harvey and the New York Mets. It became the perfect storm for a pitcher who wants to be a crossover star, his quotable super-agent, a suddenly hot team and the city’s tabloid newspapers.  

The Cubs still know Arrieta will be in uncharted waters during this National League Championship Series, potentially starting Games 2 and 6 at Citi Field and having an outsized influence over whether or not they win their first pennant in 70 years.

Arrieta might have won a Cy Young Award during this brilliant season. But at almost 243 innings and counting — or 87 more than he threw in the big leagues last year — you have to wonder how much he has left or if he’s nearing The End. 

“Of course,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You got to be careful with all of that.”

“The Dark Knight of Gotham” will start Game 1 on Saturday night in Queens, where pitch counts and innings caps have apparently become yesterday’s news.

“I think everybody kind of had enough talk and discussion about that whole ordeal,” Harvey said. “I’ll be the last person to ever bring that one up again.”

[MORE: Cubs know Mets are different NLCS team with Yoenis Cespedes]

Arrieta is also represented by Boras Corp., but that’s about it, because he doesn’t really know Harvey personally. Physically, both pitchers are built roughly the same way, 6-foot-4 right-handers listed between 215 and 225 pounds.

But at the age of 29, Arrieta is three years older and didn’t have the Tommy John surgery that wiped out Harvey’s entire 2014 season.

“It’s a tough situation for the player, the team and everybody involved,” Arrieta said. “It’s not something you want to see anybody have to go through. But at the end of the day, you have to understand that you might not ever be in this position again. 

“For me, it’s trying to keep your body healthy, trying to prepare yourself to go past the innings limit (and) help your team in this situation. Because you don’t know if you’re going to get back there.”

Mets general manager Sandy Alderson put it this way: “As we’ve said all along, it’s a matter of appearance to appearance and how (Harvey) feels. So that’s a determination we’ll make after his first start (on Saturday). We’ll see. But certainly starting him in Game 1 creates a certain presumption that he’ll pitch more than once in the series. But that’s not a decision we’ve made.”

The Cubs definitely don’t see Arrieta as a 24-and-1 guy, because he’s very approachable and they know that his obsessive approach to conditioning and nutrition sets a great example inside the clubhouse.

The Cubs wouldn’t be here without Arrieta’s unconscious second half (12-1, 0.75 ERA), plus his complete-game shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the wild-card game. 

“It’s beyond the physical drain,” Maddon said. “It’s the emotional drain. He went through a really difficult moment in Pittsburgh that night and he set this whole thing up for us. Any time you can give a guy both an emotional and a physical break, you take advantage of that right now.” 

The unrealistic expectations became Arrieta throwing a perfect game every time out, which would have sounded crazy when the Cubs acquired a Triple-A pitcher from the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season.

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That’s how far Arrieta has come, beating the best team in baseball on Monday and getting what-happened questions after an 8-6 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in the divisional round.

Arrieta gave up four runs in 5.2 innings in that Game 3 win, or as many earned runs as he allowed in August, September and early October combined.

As Arrieta said: “It’s pretty difficult to have a sub-1.00 (ERA) for your whole career.” 

Maddon felt the adrenaline rush might have gotten to Arrieta, noticing he didn’t have the same finish on his pitches and got out of line mechanically against the Cardinals. Arrieta admitted he felt his heart rate pumping throughout the day, and he will have to channel all that nervous energy in New York.

“A playoff atmosphere can drain you mentally,” Arrieta said. “You spend a lot of brainpower throughout the day contemplating things, thinking about different scenarios, and it can be taxing. Sometimes that will translate into some physical fatigue. 

“But I think being able to understand how to handle these playoff atmospheres and situations — especially leading into the game — is going to do me a lot more good going into this 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.