Cubs

Samardzija, Russell closing out solid seasons

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Samardzija, Russell closing out solid seasons

Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011
Posted: 12:54 p.m.

By Tony Andracki
CSNChicago.com

The Cubs didnt know what they were going to get from Jeff Samardzija. At 26, he was out of minor-league options and pitching for his future.

With little more than a week left in the season, Samardzija leads all major-league relievers with 86.2 innings, a sign hes earned the trust of the men at the top step of the Cubs dugout.

The best part about relieving is you get to pitch a lot, Samardzija said. I know the more I work, the better I am. Under Lou (Piniella), if you werent pitching that great, you could be sitting around for a week, eight days. And I know for me, thats not the best situation.

Samardzija owns a 7-4 record and a 3.01 ERA this year while averaging a strikeout an inning and holding opponents to a .194 average, the best mark on the team. In a disappointing season, the emergence of the bullpen has been a bright spot.

Hes a big, strong guy, and hes come on like gangbusters, Cubs manager Mike Quade said.

James Russell also began the season as question mark, and it took awhile before his role was defined. Once Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner went down with arm injuries during the first week of the season, Russell was thrust into the starting rotation.

There he posted a 9.33 ERA and took the loss in all five starts as opponents hit .381 against him. But as a reliever, the 25-year-old southpaw has seen much more success, compiling a 2.23 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 46.1 innings, limiting opposing hitters to a .243 batting average.

Ive just been more consistent with my pitches, Russell said. If I make a mistake, I make sure its not over the middle of the plate and it doesnt get crushed.

Russell laughed because hes established himself in a bullpen that should again feature Sean Marshall, Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol in 2012. Entering play Tuesday, the Cubs rank 11th in the MLB with a 3.59 bullpen ERA, a real asset considering the relievers have pitched the sixth most innings in the league. (Theyre also tied for fifth in the majors with 23 blown saves.)

Samardzija and Russell have picked up good habits from the veterans, observing how they go about their business. Russell also consults his dad, Jeff, a former major-league reliever who saved 186 games across 14 seasons.

The two have banded together, playing long toss and keeping an eye out for each other. When one starts slacking off, the other picks him up and gets him back on track.

Since were going into the game around the same time, we can kind of keep our schedules the same, Samardzija said. Its a day-to-day understanding of where you need to be. When you get out of that comfort zone, thats when things start going awry. Weve been able to stick together and have each others backs.

The work has paid off. As the summer wore on, the two earned Quades trust and found themselves in big-game situations more and more.

Jeff and I have been throwing pretty good out of the bullpen, Russell said. I love it. I like that theyre putting us in tighter situations and relying on us a lot more.

Samardzija boasts a 1.83 ERA in his last 40 outings. Russell carries a 2.38 ERA over his last 34 innings.

We had some new guys step up and really show what theyre capable of doing, Wood said. It was fun watching them get better and have success and go out and dominate at times.

Russell and Samardzija are both under team control for the 2012 season. What their roles become depends on the next regime, though Samardzija clearly has his sights set on a rotation spot. Either way, both young guns figure to be a prominent part of next years Cubs.

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.