Cubs

This is the Starlin Castro the Cubs had been waiting to see

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This is the Starlin Castro the Cubs had been waiting to see

CINCINNATI – The postgame celebration/clubhouse dance party obviously included Adrian Grenier, the guy who played Vincent Chase in “Entourage” and is in town here shooting a movie.

That’s how the Cubs roll now, magnets for celebrities, national TV networks and so much playoff buzz. Starlin Castro isn’t a leading man anymore, but he finally gets it in a way he never did before.

The Cubs have been talking about this for years, Castro getting locked in, eliminating the mental mistakes and maximizing his unique physical talents.

A supporting player starred in Wednesday night’s 10-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park, showing why he’s still in the playoff picture.

Castro went 4-for-5 and blasted his 11th home run in this up-and-down season. He also made a highlight-reel play at second base, diving to his right and throwing from his knees to steal a base hit from Brayan Pena in the fifth inning.

“Right now, he’s in the present tense, man,” manager Joe Maddon said. “His at-bats – I watch him walk up to the plate and he is absolutely in tune with each pitch. And I think he’s that way right now on defense.

“That’s what we’ve been shooting for – just to get him to understand the concept of one (pitch) and being involved in the moment.”

[MORE CUBS: Jon Lester gave Cubs exactly what they needed]

Castro isn’t worried about what happens to a three-time All-Star shortstop after losing his job to Addison Russell. Castro isn’t sweating Maddon’s daily lineup decisions or sulking if he’s on the bench. Castro isn’t listening to too many voices telling him how and when to swing.

Castro has made a few mechanical adjustments, closing his stance and moving closer to home plate, but otherwise he’s cleared his head. The results in September: a .426 average with five homers, five doubles and 20 RBI in 68 at-bats.

“I always trust the people that say: ‘Hey, you never stop learning in baseball,’” Castro said. “Now I know it’s true. Because sometimes you think you know everything and you don’t.

“Every year you got to (make) a little change to make you better.”

After being stuck on five fifth-place teams, Castro isn’t going to stress about whether or not he will start at second base next week against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League’s wild-card game.

But this is the Starlin the Cubs had been waiting to see.

“He is playing with such tremendous focus,” Maddon said. “Starlin is a great teammate and right now he’s playing at the top of his game. He’s playing the complete game of baseball.

“It’s not just about hitting. You saw the play on defense, how hard he’s been running to first base. Everything he’s done, he’s playing a complete game of baseball. And that’s what I love about watching him play right now.”

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.