Cubs

The spotlight shouldn't blind Yu Darvish

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The spotlight shouldn't blind Yu Darvish

Being the center of attention is the default setting for Yu Darvish.

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters traveled commercial, and thats supposed to be standard in Japan. Getting out of the plane and moving through the concourse, Micah Hoffpauir and Bobby Scales watched the paparazzi snap pictures. Fans swarmed their famous teammate to ask for autographs at the airport.

As Scales put it: Could you imagine the Cubs walking through OHare every road trip?

The Cubs are among the teams that submitted a blind bid before Wednesdays deadline. This is for the right to negotiate with Darvish, even if the sense is that it could just be due diligence, like checking in on Albert Pujols and not completely ruling out Prince Fielder.

Word could leak out earlier, but the Fighters have four business days to consider the highest bid. The final answer is due by Dec. 20.

If the final bill is close to the more than 100 million it cost the Boston Red Sox to import Daisuke Matsuzaka five years ago, then Darvish automatically becomes one of the games most intriguing players, a marketing and promotional force.

The Japanese media had Texas Rangers president Nolan Ryan pinned against an elevator bank at Milwaukees Pfister Hotel during the ownergeneral manager meetings last month. They needed something on Darvish.

Foreign reporters surrounded Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos last week at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas. There was curiosity and gossip about Darvish in the lobby at the winter meetings.

Whenever Darvish arrives on American (or Canadian) soil, he may not be in for total cultural shock, but the 25-year-old pitcher will face a series of adjustments.

Hoffpauir who spent nearly a decade in the Cubs organization before heading to Japan last season described a style of play that almost sounded like soccer.

The No. 1 difference (between) American (and) Japanese baseball, Hoffpauir said, is (that) Japanese baseball is very, very concerned about scoring one run. Theyve got to get that first run on the board and I (had) never in my life seen (that before).

If our leadoff hitter gets on in the top of the first inning, our two-hole hitter nine out of 10 times is bunting and everybody in the stadium knows it and its not even a question. Thats just the way it is. If we have the opportunity to get (him) into scoring position and take two shots at it with our No. 3 and 4 guys, then were going to do that every time.

If Darvish doesnt live up to the hype, he will have to deal with a backlash that may seem jarring. Scales who got called up to Wrigley Field in 2009 and 2010 described Japanese culture as very reserved, very respectful.

People drink in the stadiums in Japan, Hoffpauir said, but you dont have the constant heckling. You dont have people being booed and stuff like that. It seems to be more of a positive-type atmosphere. The fans everywhere are great.

Hoffpauir had been there only a few weeks when he felt the Tokyo Dome Hotel shaking. A tsunami and earthquake would devastate the country last March. Still, overall he enjoyed the experience and picked up his option to return to Japan next year.

Hoffpauir was joined by his wife Tiffany and their daughter Addyson, whos now three years old. They ate more McDonalds than they probably wanted, but that was a place where you could point at what you wanted.

The Fighters had two interpreters for their four American players. Scales a midseason replacement brought over from Triple-A Iowa used a Slingbox to watch University of Michigan football games. But with the time difference, he was usually falling asleep in his hotel room by the time his school started the second half.

Off the field, these are the little things that Darvish will have to get used to in a new country, all while learning the game new league, new teammates, deeper lineups at the highest level. Even professional athletes cant stay always stay in the bubble.

Hoffpauir is convinced that Darvish will approximate a No. 2 major-league starter as soon as he reports to spring training. The Japanese ace has strung together five consecutive seasons with an ERA below 1.89. What else is left to prove there?

At least Darvish whos reportedly in the process of divorcing his wife, a high-profile actress shouldnt be blinded by the flashbulbs and TV lights. He performed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2009 World Baseball Classic. This is his world.

He will have no problem with the media, Hoffpauir said. Hes dealt with that all of his career.

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.