Cubs

Not another no-hitter, but Cubs getting Jake Arrieta ready for bigger and better things

Not another no-hitter, but Cubs getting Jake Arrieta ready for bigger and better things

The no-hitter drama lasted about two minutes on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field. Milwaukee Brewers leadoff guy Jonathan Villar reached out and made contact with Jake Arrieta’s fifth pitch, knocking that 95-mph two-seam fastball into shallow left field for a soft broken-bat single. The Cubs wouldn’t have any Johnny Vander Meer flashbacks.  

Arrieta wanted to jam Villar inside but missed his spot with a pitch that tailed down and away – and he still shattered the bat into pieces. As veteran catcher David Ross had to remind reporters in the clubhouse after a 7-2 win: “He is human.”

And not some cyborg that had to be rewired and rebooted after that franchise-altering trade with the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season. 

What a week for Arrieta after no-hitting the Cincinnati Reds. Speaking in full paragraphs at his locker for almost 15 minutes on Tuesday, he had already answered and dismissed the questions about performance-enhancing drugs and his metamorphosis into one of the game’s best pitchers.  

The clubhouse TVs turned to ESPN and MLB Network on mute showed the talking heads running with that chemistry debate for the next two days. To be honest, on some level it felt like Arrieta didn’t mind attention and getting it off his chest.   

Arrieta could be a repeat Cy Young Award winner, a Game 1 starter in the playoffs and the recipient of a seven-year megadeal worth somewhere north of $200 million. But so much can happen between now and the end of the 2017 season, which means the Cubs have to maximize this two-year window to win a World Series with Arrieta.

The front office and coaching staff obviously won’t root against a no-hitter, but that 16-0 victory at Great American Ball Park was exactly the kind of situation the Cubs outlined in spring training, how they didn’t need to ride Arrieta so hard and could keep him fresh for October after throwing almost 250 innings last year. 

Arrieta – who gave up one run, three hits and four walks across five innings – saw the end of his consecutive quality-starts streak (24) and scoreless-innings run at Wrigley Field (52.2). That was the longest stretch since Hall of Famer Bob Gibson’s 26 quality starts across the 1967-68 seasons. Ray Herbert – who put together 54 straight scoreless innings at home for the 1962-63 White Sox – still holds the modern-era record.  

This felt like a total mismatch, Arrieta (5-0, 1.00 ERA) vs. a rebuilding Milwaukee team (8-13) that is so much closer to the beginning of a five-year rebuilding plan than the end. So the Cubs pulled Arrieta for pinch-hitter Jorge Soler with a four-run lead and runners on the corners in the fifth inning, trying to play the long game. 

“Under the circumstances, I thought that was plenty for him,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I saw 92 pitches. I saw Jake Arrieta. I saw the Cubs trying to win a World Series. I saw the next five years of his career. I know his kids really well. All that stuff mattered much more than breaking Gibson’s record right there.”

“In this position last year, I might have been a little more frustrated with that decision,” Arrieta said. “It’s a spot where you take everything into consideration – the extra off-days, the rainout last night, cold weather, extended pitch counts, a long first inning – it is the right way to go.

“Obviously, our most important ballgames are still ahead of us. From this point moving forward, we’re still lined up pretty well.” 

Arrieta wasn’t perfect, but the Cubs have now won his last 18 regular-season starts. The PED references were Cubs fans booing admitted juicer Ryan Braun before each one of his at-bats, right up to the final out in the ninth inning of a game that lasted three hours and 45 minutes. 

The Brewers made Arrieta throw 31 pitches in the first inning, trying to disrupt his rhythm with three stolen bases before he struck out Chris Carter and Kirk Nieuwenhuis swinging. That’s what the Cubs expect at this point – their ace never looking nervous or rattled.

Arrieta got ready for the biggest start of his life – last year’s National League wild-card game – by trolling Pittsburgh Pirates fans on Twitter and telling them the blackout atmosphere at PNC Park “doesn’t matter.” It got real quiet during that complete-game shutout. 

Arrieta has become a fashion model, signing endorsement deals with SAXX underwear and the Mizzen+Main clothing line. He even says he finds the PED accusations to be “flattering.” 

“I haven’t seen him change a bit,” said Maddon, who last year compared Arrieta to a male Jane Fonda. “He really handles those particular moments when he’s confronted really well, because he’s very matter of fact. 

“He’s very self-confident. He knows who he is. So when he answers the questions, he can answer them in a genuine manner and feel really good about himself. 

“Wouldn’t we all like to be like that? It’s a pretty good way to live. And I think he’s got it down. He takes care of everything about himself. So I’m all about Jake. We all are. We support everything he does and says.”

Which sometimes means telling Arrieta what he doesn’t want to hear, because if the Cubs keep up this best-in-baseball pace (16-5), then Jake will become a legend in Chicago.  

“At the end of the day, I’m pretty realistic,” Arrieta said. “I understand that the guys on the other side are really good as well. Even on your best days, you’re going to give up runs. We’re going to make mistakes. That’s just part of this game. That’s why we get to play 162. That’s why we get 30 to 34 starts, because it all evens out in the end.”

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.