Full speed ahead: Joe Maddon doesn't worry about post-clinch hangover for Cubs

Full speed ahead: Joe Maddon doesn't worry about post-clinch hangover for Cubs

ST. LOUIS — The Cubs held over-the-top celebrations after beating last-place teams in April, so you can imagine the champagne-and-beer-fueled blowout at Wrigley Field once they wrap up the National League Central title.

The Cubs also shrug off losses to playoff contenders, not searching for big-picture meaning or dwelling on what could have been, all part of Joe Maddon’s 30-minute rule for flushing each game.

A naturally optimistic manager — who already tries to keep every player on the roster involved and looks for breaks in a brutal schedule — won’t stress about a post-clinch hangover or worry about the best team in baseball losing its edge.

Just look at how the Cubs responded to Wednesday’s 12:46 p.m. first pitch and 84-degree heat at the end of a 10-day road trip — with a 7-0 thumping of a St. Louis Cardinals team desperate to gain traction in the wild-card race. This win at Busch Stadium dropped the magic number to one, clinching at least a first-place tie in the division.

“I really believe it’s in the approach,” Maddon said. “You could have all these different plans mapped out, whatever, but it’s up to the individual guys.

“A lot of it’s conversational. Observationally, you got to watch what they’re doing and then talk to them: ‘How are you feeling?’ And then you look and see: Well, maybe, it’s not matching up. I’m not seeing what they’re talking about. Maybe they need more work, less work. They’re saying they’re fine. But, no, they look fatigued, tired. Get them off their feet.

“I don’t know the solid answer to that. What I do know is that once we do get to the point where we have clinched, we will settle into a routine that I would want to believe is going to keep them sharp and rested at the same time.

“What does it look like? What does it feel like? And then try to either put the gas pedal down or hit the brakes a little bit.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

The Cardinals, New York Mets and San Francisco Giants won’t have that luxury, engaged in what appears to be a three-team battle for two wild-card spots. FanGraphs ran the playoff probabilities heading into Wednesday’s games and created this forecast: St. Louis at 52.9 percent; New York at 74.2 percent; and San Francisco at 64.7 percent with a remote chance to catch the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West.

The Cardinals will begin a four-game showdown on Thursday night in San Francisco, the start of what could be a season-defining three-city road trip that ends at Wrigley Field next weekend.

Whoever emerges and survives the wild-card game will either be physically and emotionally drained — or already acclimated to the pressure and intensity, locked into a playoff mindset that will pay dividends in October.

“There’s something to be said for the competitive component that they’re going for it,” Maddon said. “But then there’s also fatigue. I’ve been on both sides, man. Coming from behind, coming from behind, eventually you get there and it’s wonderful. But it’s hard to sustain that for a long period of time.

“By fighting to get there, you always think there’s some kind of an edge to be gained there. But if you really have to push guys too hard, it can catch up to you also. Classic Catch-22 situation.”

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.