Cubs

Ice in his veins: Addison Russell stunning Cubs with calm demeanor

Ice in his veins: Addison Russell stunning Cubs with calm demeanor

Ask Joe Maddon about Addison Russell and an uncontrollable smile creeps along his face.

Ask Joe Maddon about Addison Russell's potential and his eyes get a sort of glossy look in them.

The Cubs manager gushes about nearly all his players, but he speaks about Russell a bit differently.

Maddon is a wordsmith, but even he has to be running out of different ways to talk about the 22-year-old shortstop.

After an infield single in the Cubs' loss to the Pirates Sunday, Russell is now working on a nine-game hitting streak. 

He has 13 RBI in those nine games and drove in nine runs in his last four starts before Sunday. Russell is on pace for 122 RBI and 86 walks.

Look up any "clutch" stat and Russell is excelling in that category. So what makes him so different?

"Just a slow heart beat," Maddon said. "If you talk to the kid anytime, he's always suavecito. There's nothing really hurried about him. He's just got a great way about him.

"Again, he's gonna keep getting better. Everybody's liking when he's doing good. I'm here to tell you: He's gonna get better."

Maddon pointed to Friday's game when Russell moved past a bad swing-and-miss at a pitch out of the zone to deliver the crucial blow to the Pirates - a three-run homer off Francisco Liriano. 

Russell followed that up with a two-run shot into the teeth of the wind Saturday.

The Pirates outfielders took a combined one step on the two homers - no doubters.

That power potential is something Maddon has been talking up since spring training, continually pointing to Russell's strong hands and youth (players don't typically hit their power peak until 26-27 years of age). 

Russell said he feels more confident this year at the plate and is working to get pitches he can drive and do some damage with.

That calm demeanor - that "slow heart beat" - is not anything new to the second-year rising star.

"It's been that way my whole life," Russell said. "It doesn't mean that I don't get nervous or anything like that. It's just I don't show a lot of emotion out there."

Russell is comfortable in that skin and is developing a reputation as a "clutch" player 174 games into his big-league career.

"I think that's his personality," veteran second baseman Ben Zobrist said. "He's very calm. He's very focused and I think when he gets up to the dish, I say he's got ice in his veins. 

"He's not getting too hyped up there. He's ready to do the job and have a good, quality at-bat. He's just gonna continue to get better. Any struggles that he has, even at this time, it's just because he's young. He's just gotta get that experience."

While most players - especially young guys in their sophomore season in "The Show" - tighten up in high-pressure spots, Zobrist has watched Russell play without fear, whether it's with two strikes, two outs or the game on the line.

Maddon mentioned Russell's approach unprovoked two separate times throughout the weekend, talking about the shortstop's pregame routine when he's a self-described "loner."

"He's got great aptitude and he's a great listener," Maddon said. "Those are two wonderful qualities to have as a young person trying to get better in your profession."

Count Cubs ace Jake Arrieta among those at the forefront of the Addison Russell Fan Club thanks to his defense, which included a diving snare of a line drive in Sunday's game.

"I'm always impressed with Addison," Arrieta said. "Whether he's hitting .320 or not, his defense shows up every day. He's capable of some pretty special things when he's on the field.

"He's swinging the bat really well. A couple big home runs. It's just a matter of time before he really comes into his own at the plate. We've seen it in spurts. He's such a young player and to see the promise already from him is pretty incredible."

If you ever wanted to know Russell's ridiculous potential, just look at how Cubs players and coaches constantly talk about how much more is left in the tank.

This about a guy who has an OPS over 1.000 through the first 15 days of May.

"The sky is the limit for that guy," Zobrist said. "He's an incredible athlete. He's strong, he's quick. He's got all the tools to be a fantastic player.

"He's already making those adjustments. It's because he thinks along with the game. He's not just assuming it's gonna happen. He's making the adjustments and he's working hard.

"It really irks him when he's not playing the way he's capable of. He's got all the intangibles that you have to have on top of the physcial aspect. He's just gonna get better."

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.