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Cubs vs. Mets NLCS Preview: Young pitching vs. young hitting

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Cubs vs. Mets NLCS Preview: Young pitching vs. young hitting

Once upon a time, the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets were bitter rivals.

But that was a generation ago. The 1969 season is in the past and so, too, is the dreaded black cat that ran in front of Ron Santo in the on-deck circle at Shea Stadium.

In fact, the Cubs' 7-0 record against the Mets in 2015 even feels like ancient history at this point as the two teams get set to square off in the National League Championship Series.

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"I feel like New York is a lot like us," Cubs veteran catcher David Ross said. "They've grown up over the year. They're a much different team than when we played them earlier in the year."

That's something of an understatement.

When the Cubs put the finishing touches on their season sweep of the Mets July 2, the "other" New York baseball team was just 40-40 and managed only one run against the Cubs in the three-game series at Citi Field.

The Mets beat Zack Greinke and the Los Angeles Dodgers, 3-2, Thursday night with a lineup that featured four key players who, combined, did not take one at-bat in any of the seven games against the Cubs this season.

Third baseman David Wright and catcher Travis d'Arnaud were injured and missed both series against the Cubs while rookie left fielder Michael Conforto didn't make his big-league debut until July 24 and centerfielder Yoenis Cespedes wasn't even acquired until right before the trade deadline.

This truly is a different Mets team - one that can put up runs in bunches and a far cry from the squad Cubs pitching limited to just 11 runs in seven games in the regular season.

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Add in the Mets' young pitching and this will be quite a tough test for the Cubs.

Young pitchers vs. young hitters

The foundation of the Mets' team is a core of young arms - Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz. All four are 27 or under, with both Syndergaard (23) and Matz (24) making their MLB debuts this season.

Those four guys are making up the Mets' postseason rotation and combined to sport a 2.77 ERA in the regular season, striking out 593 batters in 566 innings. The Mets' pitching staff as a whole struck out 54 batters in 44 innings in the postseason.

The Cubs' young hitters, meanwhile, led all of baseball with 1,518 strikeouts in the regular season, more than 100 above the next team (Houston Astros - 1,392).

So even though the Cubs clubbed 10 homers in the four-game NLDS and have shown off impressive power this postseason, they have their work cut out for them against the Mets pitching staff.

How they got here

The Mets obviously rode their young pitching to the NLCS, but they really took off when they traded for Cespedes. The 29-year-old outfielder didn't even join the NL until late July, but he was so awesome in 57 games with the Mets (.941 OPS, 17 HR, 44 RBI) that some actually believed he should be the league's MVP.

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Cespedes gave the Mets lineup a new look, but they also got healthy and hot at the right time, going bold by calling up top prospect Conforto and getting Wright and d'Arnaud back from injury. Add in Lucas Duda's hot second half (.955 OPS), Curtis Granderson's steady veteran presence and Daniel Murphy's underrated skillset and the Mets are a scary team on offense, too.

X-Factor

Speaking of Murphy, he could be the key to the series. Anybody watching Game 5 of the NLDS Thursday night could see the impact Murphy can have on a game. He collected three hits and accounted for all three Mets runs, including arguably the smartest play of the postseason when he took advantage of the Dodgers' shift and stole third to set up d'Arnaud's sacrifice fly in the fourth inning.

Murphy also performed well against the Cubs, hitting .360 with an .865 OPS against them in the regular season, though he didn't score or knock in a run in any of the seven games.

Game dates/Probables

Game 1: Saturday, Oct. 17, 6:30 p.m. (@ Citi Field, New York) - Jon Lester vs. Matt Harvey

Game 2: Sunday, Oct. 18, 6:30 p.m. (@ NY) - Jake Arrieta vs. TBD

Game 3: Tuesday, Oct. 20 (@ Wrigley Field), time and starters TBD

Game 4: Wednesday, Oct. 21 (@ Wrigley Field, time and starters TBD

Game 5: Thursday, Oct. 22 (@ Wrigley Field, time and starters TBD

Game 6: Saturday, Oct. 24 (@ NY), time and starters TBD

Game 7: Sunday, Oct. 25 (@ NY, time and starters TBD

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.