How contrarian Joe Maddon sees potential strike-zone changes impacting Cubs

How contrarian Joe Maddon sees potential strike-zone changes impacting Cubs

SAN FRANCISCO – Joe Maddon saw how the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees attacked pitchers while managing the Tampa Bay Rays during those David vs. Goliath matchups.

Theo Epstein’s front office has replicated that Fenway Park blueprint in Chicago, making controlling the strike zone a priority for the Cubs and trying to build an American League East-style lineup.

Selfishly, Maddon wouldn’t mind seeing this ESPN report on Major League Baseball’s ownership meetings come into focus next season. The competition committee reportedly took a step forward this week by agreeing to raise the lower part of the strike zone. But the Cubs manager also warned about unintended consequences from trying to speed up the game and put more balls in play.

“I’m not trying to be contrarian,” Maddon said before Friday’s game against the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park. “But then guys might just take more pitches and you’re still going to get a walk. It’s not necessarily going to create more offense.

“It can benefit a team like us, if, in fact, they call it that way, because one of the biggest things for us would be an umpire that doesn’t expand the strike zone. That’s what we would love to have.

“The Red Sox in the early 2000s wanted an umpire that will not expand the strike zone – or the Yankees, same thing. So if you’re going to shorten the strike zone like that, I think you can be counterproductive in a sense where if a guy’s pitching a lot down below that – and we’re just taking them – then we’re going to get less action.

“It’s one of those things you have to actually put into play to find out if it does answer the question.”

The ESPN report – which indicated the proposed change would go to the playing rules committee and become part of the negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement – also revealed a possible overhaul of the intentional-walk procedure, where a team could simply signal for it instead of tossing four pitches far outside the strike zone. 

“I understand why,” Maddon said, “but there are certain pitchers that are going to love that, because they don’t like making those four pitches. I’ve actually had pitchers that won’t do it. It’s a small percentage. But by taking that away, you’re (removing) the potential that a wild pitch could occur that could impact the game.”

Maddon doesn’t think that will save time, except maybe when the Cubs treat Bryce Harper like Barry Bonds, walking him 13 times during a four-game sweep of the Washington Nationals two weeks ago at Wrigley Field.

“I’m not so pent up on moments like that, worrying about however many seconds that takes to have that done,” Maddon said. “I guess when we’re playing the Nationals it becomes more pertinent. Otherwise, it’s probably insignificant regarding the amount of time saved.”

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.