Jon Lester on Cubs: ‘I don’t want to sound like an a--hole, but we haven’t really done anything yet’

Jon Lester on Cubs: ‘I don’t want to sound like an a--hole, but we haven’t really done anything yet’

CINCINNATI – Jon Lester says he speaks for the entire clubhouse when he offers to trade it all in – the individual numbers, All-Star selections, Cy Young honors, MVP hardware – for a World Series ring with the Cubs. 

The Cubs are trying to have it all, 100-plus wins, the awards season, all those off-the-field endorsement deals and so much extroverted personality that it draws the attention of baseball’s fun police. But Lester understands October is where this team will ultimately be remembered.

“I don’t want to sound like an a--hole or anything, but we haven’t really done anything yet,” Lester said after the Cincinnati Reds denied him his 20th win on Saturday at Great American Ball Park.

“Amen!” might be the response from anyone sick of the coronations from the national media and tired of Joe Maddon’s “Embrace The Target” act. Their first-round opponent will feel that way, whether it’s the New York Mets, San Francisco Giants or St. Louis Cardinals. But five words summed up Lester’s attitude after this 7-4 loss: “Flush it down the toilet.”

That’s essentially how the Cubs have handled everything this year, from all the magazine covers to getting everyone’s best shot between the lines to a rabid fan base that follows them all across the country to what could have been a season-devastating injury to Kyle Schwarber.

That’s why Lester isn’t concerned about the rust accumulating during the two-plus weeks since the Cubs clinched the National League Central title, or the four days off after Sunday’s regular-season finale in Cincinnati.

“The big thing with this team is we’re just consistent,” Lester said. “We show up every day ready to play. I think that’s huge, especially with the young group that we have. That’s hard to do. That’s a hard thing to learn at a young age.

“It’s hard to show up every day ready to go – and these guys do it. They have short memories, which I think makes us really good. And we have guys that want to win.

“But really when it comes down to it, this season isn’t anything unless we do what we showed up to spring training to do – win a World Series.”

That’s why the Cubs handed Lester a six-year, $155 million contract, and the big-game lefty with two World Series rings from his time with the Boston Red Sox has so far lived up to those ace expectations in the second season of that megadeal, going 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA. 

Whether or not an ugly last start dents Lester’s Cy Young chances – the Reds scratched him for five runs in five innings and stole three bases off him and personal catcher David Ross, highlighting what could be a running-wild issue in October – he still reached the number that he believes defines the true value of a starting pitcher.

[SHOP: Buy a Jon Lester jersey]

Lester surpassed 200 innings for the eighth time in his career, feeling strong enough to start Game 1 on Oct. 7 and help carry the Cubs through what they expect will be three playoff series. 

“This is the real season now,” Lester said. “You play 162 to get to now. Yeah, it will be completely different when you step on that field come Friday with that crowd. Whoever we’re playing, I’m sure it will be electric.

“That’s when it becomes a lot of fun – every pitch is do or die.”

The Cubs are the NL’s most talented team, with enough hooks to capture casual fans and maybe help grow a stagnant sport. The Ricketts family and Theo Epstein’s crew have The Plan to be good for a long time. But this team will be judged in October.

“The hundred-and-whatever wins are great,” Lester said. “All the personal stuff is great. This is go time now. Now we got to really kind of live up to the expectations and the hype.”

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.