Cubs

Joe Maddon is perfect manager at perfect time for Cubs

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Joe Maddon is perfect manager at perfect time for Cubs

On the other side of the visiting clubhouse, you could hear “Joy to the World” blasting from the manager’s office on Sunday afternoon at Miller Park.

The Cubs had just beaten the Milwaukee Brewers and won their 97th game, an astonishing number for a young team that had averaged almost 93 losses across the previous five seasons.

That Three Dog Night song summed up Joe Maddon and the intoxicating feeling around this franchise.

Especially in Wrigleyville, the manager gets too much credit when the team wins and too much blame when the team loses.

But the Cubs wouldn’t have the third-best record in baseball without Maddon pumping up their confidence, energizing the fan base, distracting the Chicago media and pushing all the right in-game buttons.

There’s no one the Cubs would rather have standing in the visiting dugout on Wednesday night at PNC Park, looking out at the Pittsburgh Pirates through those distinctive glasses in what should be a high-stress, low-scoring National League wild-card game.

“Joe is the perfect manager for this team and this situation,” said Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations. “It’s authentic. He brings everybody up around him, keeps it loose. It’s great for young players. They love being around him. There’s no doubt we’re not here today without him.”

[MORE CUBS: Ready for Pittsburgh: Cubs storm into playoffs with 97 wins]

The perfect storm started last October with Andrew Friedman leaving the Tampa Bay Rays to run baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers, triggering an escape clause in Maddon’s contract.

Since taking over at Clark and Addison in October 2011, Epstein had inherited/fired Mike Quade, hired/fired Dale Sveum and chosen Rick Renteria as a bridge manager with player development in mind.

With Renteria in limbo — and already told he would be back in 2015 — Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer met Maddon and his wife, Jaye, at an RV park along Florida’s Gulf Coast. They hung out at “The Cousin Eddie” and had drinks together on Navarre Beach.

By Halloween, the team had issued a press release headlined: “Cubs Fire Manager Rick Renteria.”

But in giving Maddon a five-year, $25 million contract, the Cubs didn’t get another free agent past his prime. This is a manager at the absolute top of his game.

“He lets us be ourselves,” said Anthony Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman who last offseason made a point to visit Maddon at Ava, his Italian restaurant in Tampa. “He really doesn’t care what we do, as long as we’re ready to play — and play hard.”

[MORE CUBS: Why Cubs believe Jake Arrieta will be unstoppable in October]

Maddon is a brand now. That comes with the instant respect he didn’t have walking into the Devil Rays after three-plus decades working in the California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels organization, waiting for that shot.

“It’s somewhat easier to get my point across now,” Maddon said. “I didn’t have the same credibility, in a sense, (back then). There were a lot of tough conversations that first two years with guys that really weren’t very good major-league players and thought they were.

“Wow, that was like some really delusional stuff that you had to deal with behind closed doors. It was really bizarre, because I had come from a really good situation in Anaheim.”

Jonny Gomes, the veteran outfielder now going to the playoffs with the Kansas City Royals, remembered how much Maddon wanted to take down the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the same way the Cubs have thrived in a division with three teams that won at least 97 games.

Tampa Bay finished last in the American League East in 2006 and 2007 — losing 197 games combined — before a stunning run to the 2008 World Series.

“The biggest thing that Joe brought was belief,” Gomes said. “I remember at the time when he took over, there were actually talks of Tampa leaving the AL East (and) maybe us going to the Central. And I think player-wise and fan base-wise, we were like totally on board.

“I remember one of the first things Joe said was: ‘Hell, I don’t want to leave the AL East.’ This was powerhouse Red Sox-Yankees. (Joe says): ‘I want to win the East.’ I remember being like: ‘Um ... OK?’

“It just proved what can happen in between the lines, in the clubhouse, on the plane and on the bus when the captain of your ship not only sets goals like that but backs it and puts people in situations to succeed.”

[MORE CUBS: Why Cubs believe Addison Russell is ready for playoff spotlight]

Maddon is the 61-year-old fraternity brother from Lafayette College who loves The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen but can still relate to all the millennials in the clubhouse listening to rap music and staring at their iPhones.

Maddon is the blue-collar guy from Hazleton, Pa., who spends most of his time in Chicago on the Gold Coast, shopping and eating at high-end restaurants.

Maddon is the baseball lifer who doesn’t believe in being the first one to the stadium or taking batting practice or leading the league in eyewash.

“Joe’s been the perfect manager for this group,” Hoyer said. “He’s had exactly the right touch at the right moment. He knows when to step on the gas, when to give guys hugs, when to give guys rest. He’s been ideal.

“It is hard to imagine us having this kind of success with this young group without having Joe at the helm.”

Maddon is not the micromanager telling coaches how to do their jobs or the old-school guy going with his gut and ignoring The Geek Department.

Maddon is the perfect ringmaster for the Wrigley Field circus, bringing Warren the Pink Flamingo into the interview room/dungeon, part of a rotating cast of characters that included Simon the Magician and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star Jeff Garlin.

[MORE CUBS: Dan Haren will retire once Cubs finish playoff run]

“Maybe you’re surprised (when) you’re walking on the concourse and he’s rolling in a cheetah,” chairman Tom Ricketts said. “But you’re not surprised at the level of how it begins with the players and how much they respect him.

“That’s his reputation. He relates to every single player on this team. He just has a special kind of charisma, and he keeps everyone loose but focused. And everyone plays confident. There’s no way to objectively measure it, but it’s just a huge part of this season.”

The Cubs should have finished with a 90-72 record, according to the Pythagorean model, and their run differential drops to plus-64 when you take away that 17-0 blowout victory over the Cleveland Indians on June 17 at Progressive Field.

The Cubs didn’t have a losing month or a losing streak that went longer than five games, winning 34 one-run games and 13 in extra innings.

“I think I’m less important (in the playoffs),” Maddon said. “It’s all about the players. My intent in the postseason is I really try to stay out of the way as much as possible. Probably the only impact you should have is hopefully within the bullpen and getting some guys in there at the right time. But overall, it’s about players.”

But someone has to point the players in the right direction, handle the egos, deflate the pressure inside the clubhouse, synthesize all the analytical information, make real-time decisions on national television and deal with the media before and after every game.

For this team, this city and this moment, the Cubs couldn’t have found a better manager than Maddon.

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.