Cubs

How Ben Zobrist is finding the fountain of youth with Cubs

How Ben Zobrist is finding the fountain of youth with Cubs

Joe Maddon laughed when a reporter mentioned the sense of renewal the older Cubs players are feeling now after signing as free agents, enjoying life on a young team with the best record in baseball and the vibrant atmosphere in Wrigleyville.

“They’ve been born again?” Maddon said. “That’s because they’re around Zobrist.”

Maddon can smirk because he knows Ben Zobrist’s journey to the big leagues so well after managing the Tampa Bay Rays for nine seasons. Zobrist, the son of a minister, grew up in downstate Illinois, played at Olivet Nazarene University and helps organize chapel services for his teammates.  

But even Maddon hasn’t seen Zobrist play at a higher level than right now, watching this hot streak continue during Sunday afternoon’s 7-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies in front of 41,575 at Wrigley Field. 

“I’m trying to figure out myself if I can keep this up, to be honest,” said Zobrist, who turned 35 last week. “It just helps when you feel like things are going well up and down the lineup and we’re going to score a lot of runs. It kind of frees your mind up to be able to just try to see the ball and hit it.” 

That’s what Zobrist did in the third inning against Vince Velasquez, the talented 23-year-old right-hander who began the day with a 2.75 ERA, a 16-strikeout, complete-game shutout on his 2016 resume and a prominent spot in Philadelphia’s rebuilding plan.

Zobrist launched a three-run homer that flew out toward the right-field bleachers, bouncing into and out of the basket, extending Zobrist’s hitting streak to 15 games, giving him 34 consecutive starts where he’s reached base safely and leading to a three-game sweep of the Phillies (26-24).  

“He did have it when he was a baby – he always had a good eye at the plate,” Maddon said. “The difference is when guys get a little bit older, a lot of times they have to commit to pitches sooner. That’s when it goes away, and that’s when they start chasing a little bit more. He’s still quick and short to the ball, so he doesn’t have to commit early.

“He’s covering a greater variety of pitches more consistently. Off-speed, fastball, he’s covering everything probably better than he did when he was younger.” 

Zobrist needed to spend parts of three years with Tampa Bay’s Triple-A affiliate before finally establishing himself as an everyday player for the Rays during his age-28/All-Star season in 2009. 

Now Zobrist is getting “Benjamin Button” references for his age-reversing start to this season.  

“Do I look younger?” Zobrist said. “It’s a matter of just continuing to grow and mature as a hitter. You got to keep doing that. No matter how old you are, you’ve never arrived in this game. This game humbles you quick. And you got to try to stay on top of it.”  

That’s why the Cubs wanted Zobrist’s switch-hitting presence in the middle of their lineup, making the Starlin Castro-for-Adam Warren trade with the New York Yankees during the winter meetings and signing the game’s premier super-utility guy to a four-year, $56 million contract.

“Man, he’s raking,” pitcher John Lackey said. “When he gets up at the plate right now, we’re just kind of wondering which direction the hit’s going to go. When he gets out, it’s more of a surprise."

Zobrist probably won’t win a batting title – he’s now hitting .351 –  and he can’t keep getting on base 45 percent of the time. He pointed out that he didn’t have great at-bats on Sunday, striking out twice and grounding into a double play. But the Cubs have clearly felt the effects from his age-defying start.   
 
“Probably the best I’ve ever had, to be honest,” Zobrist said. “I’ve had some good stretches where I got a lot of hits. But as far as feeling comfortable, seeing the ball, putting good swings on the ball, this is probably the best it’s been for any three-, four-week stretch of time.

“You ride it out as long as you can.”

Maddon keeps thinking about how to manage the workload, to make sure Zobrist stays healthy throughout the season and fresh for October, and thinks focusing on one position (second base) should help. But right now, Zobrist is in the zone.  

“Sometimes hitting feels like you’re holding napkins down in the wind,” Zobrist said. “I got to do this and this and this and this. And then you got the ball coming at you. But lately I haven’t even had to do that. That’s the crazy thing about it. After I do my pregame work, I feel pretty locked.”

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.