Seven Cubs will be thinking World Series during All-Star Game

Seven Cubs will be thinking World Series during All-Star Game

Ben Zobrist understands what home-field advantage means in the World Series after experiencing all that energy last year at Kauffman Stadium. More than 40,000 fans felt so much pent-up excitement around the Kansas City Royals after Madison Bumgarner's Game 7 MVP performance for the San Francisco Giants the previous October. 

The Royals slowed down a New York Mets team that looked like a runaway train while sweeping the Cubs during the National League Championship Series. Alex Gordon hammered a Jeurys Familia quick pitch in the bottom of the ninth for a game-tying homer against the Mets closer, and the Royals would win Game 1 in 14 innings and head to New York only two victories away from their first world championship since 1985. 

So when Major League Baseball unveiled the All-Star rosters on Tuesday night, the seven Cubs chosen won't just be getting some national exposure, marketing opportunities and fun in the San Diego sun next week. 

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The fan ballot yielded the entire starting infield — Anthony Rizzo, Zobrist, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant — plus outfielder Dexter Fowler while the players voted in pitcher Jake Arrieta and Mets manager Terry Collins selected pitcher Jon Lester. Together, they could impact where the World Series begins in October. 

"Certainly, you think about it," said Zobrist, who earned his third All-Star selection. "You want that home-field advantage if you get there."

"The All-Star Game matters," said Arrieta, a first-time pick who's at least in the conversation to start the showcase event. "As much as you want to enjoy your time out there and stay relaxed and have fun, there's still emphasis on winning the ballgame. The mindset is going to be enjoy the moments leading up to the game. But then when the game starts and we're in between the lines, we're trying to win the game."

That's yet another culture shift for Rizzo, who led the NL fan voting and will be making his third straight All-Star trip and returning to Petco Park, where he flopped during his big-league debut with the Padres in 2011, setting up a franchise-altering trade for Theo Epstein's front office.

"My first time there, I was just happy to be there," Rizzo said. "I don't think our team was anywhere in contention. The last two years, we're expecting to go deep in the playoffs. We want to win the game, no doubt. We want home-field advantage in the World Series." 

A 52-31 team can think like that, even if it's hard to find a player who thinks a made-for-TV exhibition should influence the World Series. 

"I'm not big on that mattering," Zobrist said. "I wish it didn't, to be honest, because I think the All-Star Game is an individual game. It's for individual accomplishments. It's for the fans to see a collection of great individuals - and not really for the team. 

"For the (final) score to really matter, team-wise, I'm not big on that. (For) the team that gets to the World Series, I wish it was just that team's play that gave them home-field advantage or not." 

Imagine the electricity inside Wrigley Field if the Cubs hosted their first World Series event since a Game 7 loss to the Detroit Tigers in 1945, the year World War II ended and back when Harry S. Truman ran the White House. 

That helps explain why Zobrist turned down more guaranteed money elsewhere and signed a four-year, $56 million contract with the Cubs, hoping to be part of the team that ends a century-and-counting championship drought. 

"We have an incredible fan base, an incredible fan engine that's in our corner," Zobrist said. "With that, we become the benefactors. That's why people want to play for the 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?


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.