Cubs

Jason Heyward resets after mental break and responds to playoff-lineup talk around Cubs

Jason Heyward resets after mental break and responds to playoff-lineup talk around Cubs

SAN DIEGO – With Jason Heyward looking lost at home plate, could the Cubs be forced to sit their $184 million outfielder in October?

It’s a question Joe Maddon doesn’t have to answer directly now, one that the manager wishes will go away, because Heyward’s Gold Glove defense, baseball IQ and playoff experience should translate in cold-weather, low-scoring, one-run games.

Maddon didn’t frame this as a benching, hoping to reboot Heyward’s offensive game with a four-day break that ended with Monday night’s 5-1 win over the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. It shouldn’t be like flipping a switch for a hitter who woke up with an overall .617 OPS, a .170 batting average after the All-Star break and one home run since June 11.

But maybe this fifth-inning sequence shows Heyward’s luck is about to change. Moments after what looked like an RBI double landed just foul on the wrong side of the right-field line, Heyward lifted an Edwin Jackson pitch 365 feet out toward the top of the right-field fence, where it bounced off a fan trying to make a catch for a two-run homer. The way this season has gone for Heyward, you sort of expected an interference call to erase it.

“I’m not worried about the playoffs,” Maddon said. “I just want to make the playoffs and then we’ll take it from there.

“You still got six weeks (left). There’s so much baseball to be played. So many different things are going to occur. He can become the hottest hitter in the National League over the next month. He’s very capable of that. I don’t even think about the playoffs. I don’t think about playoff rosters. I think about Monday night in San Diego.

“To get any further than that along mentally is a trap.”

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Heyward has talked repeatedly about ignoring his own personal numbers, focusing on how to help the Cubs win that night and getting a chance to start over in the postseason. He laughed when a reporter asked if he felt any better or different and believes his luck will even out and that hot streak could be around the corner.

“You always think you’re going up there every at-bat to get a hit,” Heyward said. “Right now, if I’m going to err, err on the aggressive side. That’s a good way to be. I’m going to be ready to hit and let the ball go if it’s not there. But I’m not worried about six weeks. I’m worried about tomorrow.

“Playoff-wise, my teammates know I can help this team win. My manager, my coaches know I can help this team win. I know I can help this team win. And that’s the bottom line. We’ve done this collectively, so it’s not about one person.”

Maybe Maddon reaching into his bag of motivational tricks and relaxation techniques will help unlock the player who created a bidding war among the Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals during the offseason.

“He’s endured a lot, in the sense that he hasn’t hit like he wanted to,” Maddon said. “Being the free-agent signing, honestly, that’s got to weigh on you a little bit.

“I’ve been really impressed with how he’s been able to maneuver through all of this, not hitting to the level that you would expect, but I know that he’s going to. But in the meantime, he’s just playing (a good game of) baseball.

“I give him a lot of credit. The guy is just dripping with emotional intelligence.”

OK, this home run came against Jackson, an ex-Cub who’s on his third team since getting released last summer in the middle of a $52 million contract. And Heyward committed his first error in a Cubs uniform in the sixth inning, running in hard for Brett Wallace’s line drive and misplaying it for a two-base mistake. But the Cubs are looking for any sort of confidence boost at this point.

“I want to see a smile on his face,” Maddon said. “Just play hard, like he always does. I’d rather see him cut back on his work right now and just play the game. I want him fresh, mentally and physically, because there are so many different ways he can help you win a baseball game.

“I just want him to go play. I mean that sincerely. He can’t do any more work. He can’t try anything differently. He can’t work any harder. He can’t do any of that. It’s impossible. Just go play.”

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.