Cubs

The Cubs Way could become bludgeoning your opponent with AL East-style lineup

The Cubs Way could become bludgeoning your opponent with AL East-style lineup

PITTSBURGH – Beating Gerrit Cole in last year’s National League wild-card game became a landmark victory for The Plan. A young Cubs lineup didn’t panic or play tight and you have to wonder what the Pittsburgh Pirates are thinking right now. Because this looks like a vastly superior version of the team that won 97 games and silenced the blackout crowd at PNC Park.

While the Cubs (19-6) have used a pitching-and-defense formula to create the best record in baseball – and what they hope will be a better blueprint for October – they have also changed their offensive DNA.

It showed up again during Tuesday night’s 7-1 victory and allowed a Cy Young Award winner to go into cruise control. They’ll take it, but the Cubs don’t need a superhuman effort from Jake Arrieta every time out, and this offense still isn’t close to clicking on all cylinders yet.

Not that Pittsburgh’s Jonathon Niese – who couldn’t crack the playoff rotation for the New York Mets last year – would notice after giving up six runs, nine hits and five walks across five innings.

But the difference is dramatic enough that Cubs manager Joe Maddon keeps having flashbacks to his time with the Tampa Bay Rays and trying to take down the superpowers in Boston and New York.

“Right now, you’re seeing a group of guys playing the game today who have one thought – and that is to wear this pitcher down collectively,” Maddon said. “You’ve seen it in the past – I saw it in the early 2000s with the Red Sox and the Yankees in the American League East – they would definitely wear you down. They would get in your ‘pen, and then they’d bludgeon you at that point.”

Getting into the bullpen doesn’t exactly mean batting practice in an age of specialization, information overload and multiple options approaching triple-digit velocity. But this is a snapshot of the Cubs entering Tuesday: Ranked second in the majors in runs scored (146) and on-base percentage (.361) while leading everyone in walks (129) and dropping to 24th in strikeouts (188).

Even with Kyle Schwarber recovering from knee surgery, Miguel Montero on the disabled list resting his back and Jason Heyward (zero homers, .573 OPS) getting treatment for a sore wrist.

“We want to hit strikes,” said catcher David Ross, who won a World Series ring with the 2013 Red Sox. “We’re not out there taking pitches (just to take them). Guys are looking for their pitch.

“I see maturity in the approach from a young, talented group, which is completely different than Boston, which was more of an established veteran group that had been around the block. (But) I’m seeing that kind of approach with this group.”

Among all qualified NL hitters, five Cubs ranked between 14th and 50th in terms of pitches seen per plate appearance: Dexter Fowler (4.20); Addison Russell (4.12); Heyward (3.98); Anthony Rizzo (3.96); and Ben Zobrist (3.85).

“A lot of times when you see a positive jump in moments like that, it’s probably because of new personnel,” Maddon said. “I’ve always talked about: If you want walks, buy walks. If you want less strikeouts, buy less strikeouts.

“I also think about the maturity. Addison is a classic example of a guy that’s really matured in regards to not expanding the strike zone. Even ‘Javy’ (Javier Baez) has definitely shown a different attitude at the plate. For the most part, (Jorge) Soler is not chasing like he did for a period of time last year. The maturation of the hitter plus the acquisitions definitely helps.”

The Pirates – a pitching-savvy organization always looking for bounce-back guys and trying to do more with less – will have to deal with The Cubs Way at least 17 more times this year.

“You talk philosophy or theory with groups and everybody listens, but do they really hear what you’re saying?” Maddon said. “You have to get a buy-in from everybody. (And) these guys all believe that’s the right way to do things.”

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?

chavez_kamka_story.jpg
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.