John Lackey returns as Cubs move forward with six-man rotation

John Lackey returns as Cubs move forward with six-man rotation

John Lackey hadn't pitched in a game in almost a month, but naturally came out firing with a no-hitter through four innings Sunday.

Of course. Would you expect anything less with this Cubs team?

In a way, it was almost a worst-case scenario for Joe Maddon and the Cubs as Lackey kept the Giants hitless through the first 13 outs.

Before the Cubs' wild 3-2 walk-off win in 13 innings Sunday, Maddon said he wanted to limit Lackey to around 80 pitches, which could've meant putting a run at history on the backburner.

That situation never played out, however, as Eduardo Nunez lined a double to right-center with one out in the fifth inning and Lackey was removed after five with 76 pitches under his belt.

The veteran right-hander showed no ill effects from the shoulder injury that has sidelined him since Aug. 14, dialing it up to the low 90s with his fastball and showing his typical command.

"I felt pretty good," Lackey said. "I was locating the ball pretty well today. We had a good mix goin' on.

"You're not gonna feel nothing. It's just not possible. This time of year and this point in my career. There's things you gotta grind through; there's things you gotta adjust to. I feel like I can do that pretty well."

Lackey allowed two runs (one earned) while striking out four.

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Prior to Sunday's game, Maddon confirmed the Cubs will move forward with a six-man rotation, with Mike Montgomery getting the start Wednesday in Milwaukee.

With a big lead in the NL Central and a playoff spot all but assured, the Cubs are aiming to keep every pitcher at the top of their game for a potential World Series run.

"Just trying to keep guys fresh for the rest of the year," Maddon said. "It's no more complicated than that. ... "I think every factor that can be considered right now, just makes all the sense in the world."

Maddon pointed to the rest of baseball, where young pitchers are being shut down for the season and even veterans are worn down by the grind of a six-month slate of games. 

Maddon acknowledged veteran starters like Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester may not like the addition of a sixth man to the rotation as creatures of habit, but everything is about winning that final game of the season.

He also referenced the way Arrieta ran into a wall in the postseason after pitching by far the most innings of his career.

"At the end of the day, these guys have been trained to think a certain way," Maddon said. "And I get that. I totally get it. But I also believe the training that really surpasses the conventional part is to get to a World Series.

"Last year, we saw it right before our very eyes with Jake and the jump that he had encountered and what it meant at the end of the season.

"Right now, our starters are pitching probably as well as they have all year. So I like to think that if we continue along this path, we can keep that kind of freshness about them."

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.