Cubs

Jake Arrieta wants to see Cubs have a second-half killer instinct

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Jake Arrieta wants to see Cubs have a second-half killer instinct

ATLANTA — The Cubs can anchor themselves in the National League playoff race by beating up on bottom-feeders for the next few weeks.

This weekend’s series against the below-.500 Atlanta Braves was a good starting point. Right-hander Jake Arrieta pitched his side to a 4-1 win Sunday evening at Turner Field, securing a series victory against one of the teams the Cubs should beat if they’re serious about ending a seven-year playoff drought.

“We play really well against really good teams and it’s time for us to step it up," Arrieta said. "Every team’s good, but at the same time, there are teams we’re supposed to beat and we need to beat them.”

[MORE: Cubs taking a novel approach to Addison Russell's development]

The Cubs are 22-20 against teams that currently have a losing record, though that’s buoyed by a 7-2 record against the Cincinnati Reds — against whom the Cubs open a four-game series on Monday at Great American Ballpark. After that series, the Cubs return home for three against the Philadelphia Phillies and three against the Colorado Rockies, then head up I-90 for a four-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cubs won’t play a game against a team over .500 until heading to PNC Park to face the Pittsburgh Pirates on Aug. 3.

Arrieta fired seven shutout innings against the Braves on a muggy, warm afternoon in Atlanta, scattering three hits and three walks with 10 strikeouts. Jonathan Herrera’s two-run single, Jorge Soler’s solo home run — his first since May 29 — and Chris Coghlan’s RBI double provided more than enough support for the 29-year-old starter.

Over his last six starts, Arrieta has an 0.96 ERA with 44 strikeouts, seven walks and no home runs allowed — though he did himself homer off White Sox lefty Jose Quintana on July 12.

“He’s just figuring everything out right now,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s what’s going on. And I hate to tell you, but there’s actually some more in the tank there. There’s another level of him. So as he gets more self-awareness and is really able to deal with all these weapons that the has, he’s going to get even better.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!] 

Since the Cubs acquired him and Pedro Strop from Baltimore for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger in 2013, Arrieta has a 2.75 ERA in 52 starts. He’s on pace to set career highs in starts and innings pitched this year and has squarely put his disappointing four-year tenure with the Baltimore Orioles in the rearview mirror.

If the Cubs are able to make a strong playoff push over the next two and a half months, Arrieta’s going to be a big reason why, whether he’s facing a good team or one the Cubs have no business losing to.

“You have to come out with the same intensity and the same mentality regardless of the team’s record,” Arrieta said. “And there have been times throughout the first half where we came out maybe a little too laid back and didn’t have that killer instinct and that mindset where we gotta put our foot on somebody’s throat of the situation presents itself.

"And certain times we let those situations slip away. But that’s our job from here on out, to get after teams we need to beat."

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.