Cubs

Theo Epstein knows what Cubs are up against vs. Indians skipper Terry Francona

Theo Epstein knows what Cubs are up against vs. Indians skipper Terry Francona

CLEVELAND — While his belief in statistical analysis has gained notoriety with the non-traditional usage of reliever Andrew Miller this postseason, Terry Francona has always gone against conventional baseball wisdom.

Since his days in Philadelphia, the Cleveland Indians manager has never been afraid to trust the numbers in order to find an edge that might help his team. Francona’s shrewd style, one he’s most certainly honed over the years, has come into focus this October for the willingness to employ his best reliever far earlier than most managers traditionally would ever imagine. Even though his decisions have had a significant impact on the Indians’ fortunes, the club’s veteran manager likes to downplay his role in an aw-shucks manner.

But he isn’t fooling his former boss. As the Cubs began their first World Series appearance in 71 years on Tuesday night, the team’s president of baseball operations, Theo Epstein, knew his old Boston Red Sox manager would undoubtedly have a few unconventional ideas in store.

“Tito has always been great at blending the numbers with his gut and his knowledge of the game and the same thing he’s doing now,” Epstein said. “Back when he was with the Red Sox, he always took his managerial game to another level in the postseason. He was willing to be assertive in situations where maybe he wouldn’t have over the grind of the regular season and be very decisive and very proactive.”

Francona’s progressive use of Miller has become a focal point as the situations in which managers utilize their key relievers has been a talking point among analysts for several years now. Whereas the majority of managers normally save their top relievers for last, analysts believe the best skippers don’t hesitate to use theirs in the highest-leverage of situations.

So when Francona trotted Miller out in the fifth inning of Game 1 of the American League Divisional Series on Oct. 6 only two days after Baltimore’s Buck Showalter didn’t use Cy Young candidate Zack Britton in a wild-card loss, the national conversation gained steam.

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But this isn’t Francona’s first foray into making decisions based on analysis. He used to write down the splits of batters and pitchers on the back of lineup cards when he managed the Phillies from 1997 to 2000. Then he added a computer into the mix when he made decisions as the Oakland A’s bench coach in 2003, and it grew from there. Not only did he spend eight seasons with Epstein in Boston, Francona now has one of baseball’s largest analytical front offices as his disposal. That has resulted in a number of decisions the old guard might find eye-opening.

Consider that Francona used the slow-footed Carlos Santana in the leadoff spot 85 times this season even as his own front office thought the Indians might be losing too much offense. Cleveland also became the first team since the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals to lead the majors in both offensive and pitching platoon advantage.

Even though he’s unconventional, Francona’s players trust his decisions.

“He does a great job of putting us in the best situations possible,” outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall said earlier this postseason. Of Chisenhall’s 418 plate appearances, 366 (87.5 percent) came versus right-handed pitchers, against whom he has a .784 OPS. Chisenhall has a .642 OPS against left-handers.

But it’s more than just giving his players an edge that has earned Francona their trust. Miller said it's his ability to communicate the basis for decisions that helps players better understand.

“It’s all about finding a way to communicate that information in a way that players can use it,” Miller said. “I think if you throw a bunch of numbers at us that we don’t understand, it doesn’t do us any good. But when we have a manager like Tito who is almost translating that as it gets to us and he communicates well with guys ... whatever it is, he’s just a natural when it comes to that and we’re thankful we have him because he’s really good at that.”

As Epstein pointed out, Francona seems to improve his decision-making in the postseason. He doesn’t hesitate to give his starting pitcher a quick hook, nor is he afraid to use his best reliever in the fifth inning.

“Just a fantastic postseason manager and he’s done that same thing here in this postseason,” Epstein said. “We know what we’re up against.”

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?

chavez_kamka_story.jpg
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.