Cubs

Kris Bryant, Cubs make their All-Star push

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Kris Bryant, Cubs make their All-Star push

Kris Bryant's 2015 has already been a whirlwind; why not include an All-Star nod in there as well?

Bryant missed the first couple weeks of the season while biding his time down in Triple-A, but the Cubs rookie sensation is still second among vote-getters for National League third basemen with 583,583 votes, Major League Baseball released Wednesday in the first All-Star voting update. St. Louis Cardinals sparkplug Matt Carpenter is first with 1,113,060 votes.

The day after Bryant crushed a home run off the image of his face high atop the left-field video board, the 23-year-old rookie seemed in awe that fans had voted for him that many times.

[MORE - Bryant's 'shot heard round the world' steals show in Cubs walk-off]

"It never crossed my mind that [I'd be included in All-Star voting]," Bryant said. "I didn't know how it works - I still don't know how it works. It's just cool to see that.

"My goals are never really associated with those types of things. I'll continue to go out there and play as hard as I can."

Bryant is tied for seventh in the NL with 25 walks, an indicator of his advanced approach at the plate as well as how pitchers are working around him like he's already an established power hitter.

Bryant leads the Cubs in RBI with 31 and is third among NL third basemen with an .883 OPS (Carpenter sports a .972 OPS). Bryant is nearly 160,000 votes ahead of Reds third baseman Todd Frazier, who is also enjoying a solid season with a .922 OPS and 14 homers.

The Cubs slugger attributes that to the Cubs fanbase and their enthusiasm this season.

"Cubs fans are the best in baseball, so I think anybody that's on the Cubs has a great support system around them," he said. "I can't say enough about [the fans]. They've treated me great.

"Everything has always been positive, just interacting with them, signing autographs with them. It's been one of the best experiences of my life."

[RELATED - MLB draft: Will Cubs take pitcher with first-round pick?]

Bryant may have a point. The Cubs have representatives among the top vote-getters at just about every position.

Anthony Rizzo is second among first basemen behind Los Angeles' Adrian Gonzalez. Starlin Castro is second among shortstops behind St. Louis' Jhonny Peralta. Miguel Montero is the No. 3 catcher after Yadier Molina (Cardinals) and Buster Posey (Giants).

Then Dexter Fowler and Jorge Soler are 14 and 15, respectively, among NL outfielders. Bryce Harper leads all NL vote-getters with 1,116,582 votes, while Matt Holliday (Cardinals) and Giancarlo Stanton (Marlins) are 2-3 among outfielders.

"It's kinda nice," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "I heard about that today. Obviously people are paying attention to us. I think it's deserved. A lot of young guys who had a lot of advanced publicity and they're living up to it.

"We talked about expectations in the beginning of the year and about how people like to run away from them and I like to run toward them. I'm really pleased and proud of our guys.

"Again, it is validation of how well we've been playing and they've been playing individually. It's nice. It's good to have recognition come our way."

Entering play Wednesday, the Cubs had the sixth best record in the NL at 25-20, 4.5 games behind the Cardinals in the Central.

[RELATED - Why Cubs think Javier Baez is in a good place in Iowa]

As All-Star voting heats up, don't expect Bryant to start campaigning for himself to start the Midsummer Classic in Cincinnati in July. That's just not who he is.

"I just think it's the way I was raised," he said. "I've never been one to go out there and toot my own horn or show up an opponent or show up anybody.

"I think if you treat the game the right way, it treats you back the right way."

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.