Jon Lester beats LA, Cubs could take over SD for All-Star Game

Jon Lester beats LA, Cubs could take over SD for All-Star Game

The Cubs dominated the early returns in the National League All-Star voting, which is about as surprising as Marlon Byrd getting busted for using performance-enhancing drugs.

Those two press releases on Wednesday afternoon — a Twitter update from Major League Baseball’s communications department and the hollow 245-word statement Byrd issued through the union — showed just how far the Cubs have come as an organization.

That night, the recruiting promises Jon Lester listened to during his initial free-agent visit to Wrigley Field again came to life. A crowd of 36,426 on its feet with two outs in the ninth inning, watching the best team in baseball, chanting “Let’s Go, Cubbies!”

Lester — the $155 million lefty who appears to be so much more comfortable in the second season of that megadeal — struck out Howie Kendrick swinging at a 94-mph fastball to end the game. Lester flexed and screamed, and fireworks exploded beyond the iconic center-field scoreboard after a 2-1 complete-game victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“Last year, we showed up and the bleachers weren’t done and it was kind of weird and rainy and cold,” Lester said. “All of a sudden, summer rolls around and we’re pretty good. You look at our young guys, last year I bragged about how mature they were going through that season and dealing with 97 wins and going to the playoffs for the first time.

“This year, they’ve just blown that out of the water. These guys are unbelievable, far beyond their years, and the thing that impresses me the most is they’re baseball smart. They’re not just talented guys going out there and swinging the bat and running around with their heads cut off trying to play defense. They know what they’re doing.”

This seems like ancient history. But remember that Byrd — who famously worked with BALCO kingpin Victor Conte and accepted a one-year suspension after his second violation of the joint-drug agreement — had once represented the Cubs at the 2010 All-Star Game.

This was in the middle of an 87-loss season, approaching Lou Piniella’s final days in the dugout, the first of five straight fifth-place finishes and their window to contend slamming shut. Now the Cubs can think about matching their eight All-Stars selected for the 2008 showcase event at Yankee Stadium.

The entire infield — Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant — showed up as leaders at their respective positions. Dexter Fowler ranked second among outfielders, in between Washington Nationals superstar Bryce Harper and New York Mets slugger Yoenis Cespedes. Plus reigning Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta would be a good choice to start for the NL on July 12 at San Diego’s Petco Park.

The big-market Cubs should be front and center if MLB and its TV partners want to reach the generation that isn’t hooked on the game and has so many other entertainment options. There’s the quest to win the franchise’s first World Series since 1908. There’s the new clubhouse filled with social-media savvy players and young stars lining up endorsement deals. There’s the manager who hates baseball’s unwritten rules and conformist mentality.

“When young people tune into our group, they can identify with them,” Joe Maddon said. “Our guys are likable. They’re approachable. They’re blue-collar, man. There’s not a white-collar guy among them. They get their fingernails dirty, and I think people appreciate that. I think they’re very Chicago.”

Lester (6-3, 2.29 ERA) seems to have relaxed here after spending almost his entire career with the Boston Red Sox inside the Fenway Park pressure cooker. Maddon thought this was Lester at his best in a Cubs uniform, allowing a home run to leadoff guy Kike Hernandez on his second pitch and dominating for the next 111 pitches, finishing with 10 strikeouts against zero walks.

Bryant generated all the offense with one swing in the third inning, driving a Mike Bolsinger curveball out toward the batter’s eye in center field for a two-run homer. The NL’s reigning Rookie of the Year leads the Cubs in homers (12) and RBIs (39) and can play all over the infield and outfield.

Already 21 games over .500, the Cubs selected for the All-Star Game will have something to play for — home-field advantage in the World Series.

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.