The domino effect from Cubs adding Aroldis Chapman to playoff bullpen

The domino effect from Cubs adding Aroldis Chapman to playoff bullpen

The domino effect from the Aroldis Chapman trade would push Hector Rondon into an eighth-inning role, knock Pedro Strop into earlier setup situations and propel the Cubs through October.

“When it first happened, my goodness, this was like bullpen utopia,” said Joe Maddon, an outside-the-box manager who would signal for the superstar closer to face the best hitters in the most crucial moments.

Except the Cubs live in an imperfect world, rationalizing Chapman’s 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic-violence policy to start this season because he’s a left-hander with 100-mph velocity and unbelievable athletic gifts.

The Cubs made that blockbuster deal with the New York Yankees on July 25, believing Chapman could change the shape of three postseason series and help them win 11 playoff games before cashing in as a free agent.

Two weeks later, Strop tore the meniscus in his left knee. Nine days after that, the Cubs placed Rondon on the disabled list with a sore right triceps. Chapman preferred to work one inning at a time instead of getting four-out saves. A team that would finish with a plus-252 run differential can only create so many pressure-packed situations. A 103-win season saw the Cubs clinch the National League Central by the middle of September.

Now the Cubs will flip the switch on Friday night at Wrigley Field and see if their bullpen can overpower the San Francisco Giants in this best-of-five series.

“That’s an unknown right now,” Maddon admitted. “That was kind of a comforting thought from a bullpen perspective, but we didn’t get a chance to really run through that.

“I have a lot of confidence and faith in these guys, but we got to get them out there and do that. That’s going to be interesting.”

Those injuries to Strop and Rondon allowed Justin Grimm (4.10 ERA) and Carl Edwards Jr. (3.75 ERA) to gain confidence and experience and show off their swing-and-miss stuff (117 strikeouts in 88-plus innings).

To get ready for the playoffs, Strop (2.85 ERA, 21 holds) made four scripted appearances within the last 10 days of the regular season. Rondon – a 30-save closer last season – gave up eight runs and 13 hits in nine appearances since coming off the disabled list.

“The high-leverage bullpen dudes like that moment,” Maddon said. “They want that adrenaline flow, so maybe we didn’t see them as well as we could possibly see them in those moments.

“They’re still going to be put in those moments now. We’re going to find out. You may have to be less patient with that moment. In other words, you might have to have somebody backing him up, even from the first pitch they throw in a particular inning, because you just don’t know. They haven’t had that normal level of work.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs still have an edge with Chapman, a player the Giants tried to acquire around the trade deadline, leaving them with a bullpen that led the majors with 30 blown saves. The Cubs were 21 games over .500 when they finalized the Chapman deal, knowing they could maximize the closer by accounting for all the off-days built into the postseason schedule, their best starting pitchers working deeper into playoff games and a manager known for pushing the right bullpen buttons.

Already the bullpens factored prominently into both wild-card games, with Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter getting torched for not using Zach Britton in an 11-inning loss to the Toronto Blue Jays and the Giants waiting out Noah Syndergaard before winning with Conor Gillaspie’s three-run homer off New York Mets closer Jeurys Familia in the ninth inning.

“It was a different trade season for us,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Because we were in first place, we felt like we had a really good chance to win the division and we were not looking at the one-game playoff. We were looking at a playoff series. It’s been shown – when the Giants had those three (World Series) teams, they had great bullpens (in 2010, 2012 and 2014).

“Even the way the Mets used Familia last year, he was kind of their eighth- and ninth-inning guy in one, and they used him as a real weapon.”

The Cubs envision Chapman (career average: 15.1 strikeouts per nine innings) giving them a psychological advantage, getting in the Giants’ heads and making them believe this isn’t a nine-inning game anymore.

At full strength, the Cubs believe this group can be just as good as the bullpen the Kanas City Royals deployed during last year’s run to a World Series title.

“That’s what we’re hoping for,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “We got to do it on the field. (And) I really like our chances if we can just give them those opportunities.”

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.