No drama: Cubs ace Jake Arrieta still owns the Pirates

No drama: Cubs ace Jake Arrieta still owns the Pirates

PITTSBURGH – For all the buildup to this start, the memories of last year’s National League wild-card showdown, the benches-clearing frenzy, the champagne-soaked celebration in the visiting clubhouse and the F-bombs Cubs manager Joe Maddon dropped on the Pittsburgh Pirates the night before, this still felt like another Tuesday in early May, Game 25 of 162.

That’s the calming effect of Jake Arrieta, the new-age athlete with killer stuff and off-the-charts confidence. The Cy Young Award winner is on such a dominant run that there are times where it feels like the only real drama revolves around whether or not he will throw a no-hitter.

That didn’t happen at PNC Park, and anyone hoping for more fireworks between these two teams would have to settle for Arrieta slicing through Pittsburgh’s lineup with surgical precision. After walking the first two Pirates he faced, Arrieta allowed only two singles across seven scoreless innings before the Cubs could pull the plug at 99 pitches with a six-run lead.

“There’s going to be emotion in this division with teams like the Pirates all year,” Arrieta said after a 7-1 victory. “We’re trying to accomplish the same goals. We know there are a couple teams standing in our way. That’s just kind of the heat of the battle (where) you’ve got a couple really good ballclubs trying to compete for a spot at the top of the division.”

The Cubs (19-6) now have a five-game lead in the Central and will be going for the sweep on Wednesday afternoon with Jon Lester on the mound. Arrieta won’t admit he has a psychological edge over the Pirates – and the Cubs can’t come out and say they’re in their heads – but it sort of looks that way.

Combine Tuesday night, the complete-game wild-card shutout and five regular-season starts last year and here’s what Arrieta’s line looks like against the Pirates: Three earned runs allowed in 52 innings with 49 strikeouts against seven walks.

If Arrieta looked out of sync to begin the game – walking John Jaso and Andrew McCutchen on 10 pitches combined – he didn’t allow it to snowball into the big inning that used to haunt him during his struggles with the Baltimore Orioles.

Arrieta recognized early that has sinker had a ton of movement on it, adjusted his mechanics accordingly and started pounding the Pirates with four-seam fastballs. He took some speed off his slider, trying to create enough of a differential against a good fastball-hitting team. He got 12 groundball outs, taking advantage of Javier Baez and the spectacular defense at third base.

Arrieta (6-0, 0.84 ERA) is the first Cub to win his first six starts to a season since 1908, when Mordecai Brown won each of his first 11 starts to begin that championship run. The Cubs have now won Arrieta’s last 19 regular-season starts. Arrieta also broke Rick Sutcliffe’s 16-game winning streak spanning the 1984-85 seasons. It only took a Cole Hamels no-hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies to beat Arrieta on July 25, 2015.

Arrieta went on Twitter and told Pittsburgh fans he wanted it loud last October, but even the booing from a crowd of 22,195 feels halfhearted when there’s no suspense.

“It’s expected,” said Arrieta, who responded in the second inning with a bases-loaded RBI single. “It’s a good fan base kind of recognizing the recent past and trying to amp the home club up and swing the momentum in their favor.

“It’s not frowned upon from my part. Baseball fans – especially the diehard fans that stick up for their team – that’s what you want to see. Coming here and playing these guys in this park is always a good time.”

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.