Cubs

Do Cubs have enough pitching to finish the pennant race?

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Do Cubs have enough pitching to finish the pennant race?

For all the talk about rookies hitting the wall — and how a young and inexperienced group will handle pennant-race pressure — the biggest issue facing the Cubs might be the rotation that put them in a playoff position.

Forget Jon Lester’s yips for a moment and his control-alt-delete performance in Wednesday night’s 15-8 loss to the Detroit Tigers at Wrigley Field. It happens, even to a $155 million pitcher with two World Series rings and three All-Star selections on his resume.

The Tigers knocked out Lester in the third inning, blasting three home runs and jumping out to a 7-0 lead. The issues are bigger than Lester when outfielder Chris Denorfia is pitching in the ninth inning of a two-game interleague series sweep that saw Detroit generate 25 runs and 40 hits.

Take a wide-angle look, and there’s Jason Hammel admitting he’s been out of sync after a hamstring injury, failing to finish six innings in seven starts since the Fourth of July.

[MORE CUBS: No Chase Utley, but Cubs hope Chris Coghlan could become their Ben Zobrist]

There’s Kyle Hendricks watching old Double-A video, trying to diagnose the problems that have led to a 5.29 ERA in six starts after the All-Star break.

There’s Dan Haren in what are probably his final weeks before retirement, getting by with guts and intelligence near the end of a long and distinguished career.

“If there was health issues, I’d be more concerned,” manager Joe Maddon said. “There’s no health issues. That would be my greater concern, if it was something like: ‘My shoulder’s barking a bit.’

“During the course of a year, guys are always going to go through some struggles. I think Jason’s very fixable. I think Kyle’s very fixable. Danny Haren ... this guy is a tremendous competitor, so I have a lot of faith in him, too.”

[MORE CUBS: Jason Hammel searching for answers after Tigers overpower Cubs]

The Cubs are on pace for around 90 wins and a wild-card spot because their rotation has been so reliable, beginning the day with a 3.51 ERA overall.

The Cubs will have to lean on their pitching infrastructure and come up with some answers, because they don’t have the stockpile of young arms that helped Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays teams win 90-plus games five times between 2008 and 2013.

“The only thing with Kyle — from my mouth to his ears — is to trust yourself and pitch to contact because that’s who you are,” Maddon said. “Let our defense play. I’ve always talked about him staying in better counts. I know when he stays in better counts and works his stuff off of that, he’s pretty effective.

“Hammer, he’s probably throwing the ball harder than he has in awhile. And I think that actually works against him. I think he needs to back off and make better pitches with less velocity, more effective velocity. When he does that, he’s going to be fine.

“Again, if they were injured, I’d be concerned. But they’re not.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs waiting for breakthrough moment with Jon Lester’s throwing issue]

Even Jake Arrieta’s evolution into one of the game’s best pitchers comes with a warning label: The 29-year-old power right-hander has already reached a career-high 162 innings, and there are still six-plus weeks left in the regular season.

“You try to monitor it, but the guy’s like such a freak when it comes to working out and strength levels,” Maddon said. “I watch it all the time. (But) with him, he’s a little bit older (and) he’s been around, so I don’t have as great of a concern with him. But (we) definitely want to keep an eye on it.”

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.