Playoff audition? What a bad game in Milwaukee means for Cubs and Jason Hammel

Playoff audition? What a bad game in Milwaukee means for Cubs and Jason Hammel

MILWAUKEE — This sure looked like Joe Maddon proving a point, leaving Jason Hammel out there in the middle of Miller Park, the subtext screaming: You want to pitch deep into games? OK, fine, here’s your chance.

Maddon didn’t exactly manage this one like the Cubs were playing Game 7 of the World Series, refusing to give Hammel the quick hook during Tuesday night’s 12-5 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers.

Of course, Maddon had all the answers during his postgame press conference, patiently giving detailed explanations after Hammel surrendered six hits and a walk to the first seven Brewers he faced. Without any feel for his slider, Hammel gave up a leadoff homer to Jonathan Villar, spiked two wild pitches and didn’t get his first out until Martin Maldonado’s sacrifice fly gave Milwaukee a 5-1 lead in the first inning.

That usually gets Maddon’s mind racing, especially with an expanded September bullpen and his awkward history with Hammel, which dates back to their time together as Tampa Bay Rays. Hammel (14-8, 3.50 ERA) is no longer that unproven pitcher, now a respected veteran teammate and a major reason why the Cubs are on the verge of going back to the playoffs for the second straight year.

But Hammel didn’t have it against the rebuilding Brewers (61-77), giving up at least nine runs for the third time this season, and he might not have a spot on the postseason roster, depending on how everything shakes out across the next month.

“I’m not trying to pitch for anything,” Hammel said. “That’s a decision that comes at the end of the season. We got plenty of capable guys here that can pitch in big games. Obviously, you want to be a part of that. But I’m not trying to pitch for a chance to pitch in the postseason.”

“No, not at all,” Maddon said, this isn’t an audition for October, before listening to the follow-up question and not automatically ruling out the idea of putting Hammel in the bullpen to see what he could do there.

“I haven’t even thought about that,” Maddon said. “Absolutely, you could do that, no question, if you chose to look at it that way. But for right now, we haven’t even talked about that.”

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Maddon saw enough on Aug. 27 at Dodger Stadium that he pulled Hammel after only 39 pitches, which led to a meeting in the manager’s office and left the pitcher still seething by the time reporters walked over to his locker.

This time, Maddon kept Hammel out there with two outs in the sixth inning, when Ryan Braun hammered a 92-mph fastball into the picnic area beyond the right-field fence for a two-out, three-run homer that made it a 9-2 game.

The reasoning: Milwaukee presents “entirely different” than a Los Angeles lineup stacked with left-handed hitters, making lefty swingmen Travis Wood and Rob Zastryzny less appealing. Hammel had been 10-1 with a 2.50 ERA in 14 previous career starts against the Brewers. Plus, Maddon wanted to rest certain relievers and not burn out his bullpen.

If this seemed like Maddon thinking big picture and not pressing quite as hard and not going all-out to win that night ...

“There was nothing to press with,” Maddon said. “There was nowhere to go with the full-court press. It was a great lineup for him, and he’s done really well against the Brewers. He had a bad first inning, and he settled in. And then the homer makes it look really bad at the end.”

Take away those three starts with at least nine runs — and that early exit at Dodger Stadium — and Hammel would have a 2.11 ERA that would rank second in the majors behind teammate Kyle Hendricks.

“The (tale) of the tape for me this year is when I’m bad, I’m really bad,” Hammel said. “The overall body of work is really good, so I’m not going to beat myself up.”

With a division lead over the St. Louis Cardinals that’s now 15 1/2 games — and a magic number to clinch the National League Central stuck at 10 — the Cubs can afford to rest the All-Star left side of their infield (like they did with Kris Bryant and Addison Russell), experiment with their pitching staff (Mike Montgomery will start Wednesday night in Milwaukee opposite Matt “I’ll Pitch on the Freaking Moon” Garza) and hold auditions for the playoffs, no matter what they say publicly.

“I didn’t really set the tone for us early, so this one’s on me,” Hammel said. “It obviously doesn’t sit well, but we’re fortunate to have a very comfortable lead right now. Just brush this one off and move on.”

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.