Cubs

Trying to make sense of Aroldis Chapman’s lost-in-translation rollout with Cubs

Trying to make sense of Aroldis Chapman’s lost-in-translation rollout with Cubs

Aroldis Chapman lost the press conference, which won’t matter if the Cubs win the World Series. That’s the calculated decision chairman Tom Ricketts, team president Theo Epstein and their inner circle made in trading for the 105-mph closer from the New York Yankees.

But Chapman’s lost-in-translation introduction to the Chicago media (and, by extension, the fans) should force the Cubs – and anyone covering the team – to reassess that system-wide failure.

“It’s over with,” Chapman said through a different translator – catcher Miguel Montero – after finishing off the White Sox during Wednesday night’s 8-1 victory at Wrigley Field. “I just got to move on.”

This isn’t diminishing the seriousness of the allegations Chapman faced after a domestic dispute in South Florida last October, leading to a 30-game suspension to start this season. Or completely falling for the sleepy/nervous defense presented after Chapman – under repeated questioning – said he had no recollection of the off-the-field expectations Ricketts outlined during that phone call the Cubs absolutely needed before closing the deal with the Yankees.

Major League Baseball required all teams to hire a Spanish-language translator this season, and the Cubs deployed quality-assurance coach Henry Blanco, a widely respected former big-league catcher who doesn’t have any real experience handling such a sensitive media session. This wasn’t asking Jorge Soler about a hamstring injury or a game-winning home run. Chapman’s agent, Barry Praver, watched the entire scene unfold in the visiting dugout on Tuesday afternoon before a crosstown game at U.S. Cellular Field.

ESPN’s Pedro Gomez – who asked the only question in Spanish during the group scrum – then got a one-on-one interview with Chapman that yielded more insight into the player and the conversation with ownership.

“I really don’t know what happened there,” Montero said. “Whether it was miscommunication (or he was) misunderstood, I don’t know.

“That’s already over. We got to move in a different direction. Whatever happened yesterday, we just want to be on the positive side and move forward.”

Ricketts – who released a statement when the trade became official on Monday afternoon and appeared on the team’s flagship radio station (WSCR-AM 670) on Tuesday morning – declined to comment when approached by reporters on Wednesday during batting practice: “I think we’ve said enough this week.”

At a time when newspapers are diminished and the media business is splintering, there simply aren’t enough Spanish speakers within the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Chapman – an All-Star performer who is 28 years old and has been in the big leagues since 2010 – doesn’t speak much English and grew up within a society that most of us will never understand.

Even for native speakers and proficient translators, there are linguistics variations in Spanish and wide cultural gaps among those born in Cuba (Chapman and Soler), Venezuela (Blanco and Montero) and the Dominican Republic. There are also fundamental personality differences, with Chapman being described as an observer, quiet and withdrawn during his time with the Cincinnati Reds.

While the talkative Montero, 33, didn’t know any English when he signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks as a teenager, he picked up enough of the language to become a translator for teammates by the end of his rookie-ball season in Missoula, Montana.

“I just kept on practicing, asking questions,” Montero said. “I remember people laughing about my accent or whatever. And I never really cared. That’s what a lot of Latin guys get intimidated by, because they don’t want people to make fun of them. That’s why they get intimidated. That’s why they don’t learn.

“That wasn’t my problem. I didn’t care if you laughed. I didn’t care about any of that, because this is not my language, you know? It’s something that I (was) learning and I became fairly good. Good enough.”

That’s why Montero can understand MLB’s directive to hire translators – and still see the limitations.

“It’s OK,” Montero said. “But on the other hand, I feel like it’s important for us to learn the language. Not only as a player, but when your career’s over, you’re bilingual. You can actually use it for different areas (of your life) later on.

“That was my biggest goal. If I didn’t make it to the big leagues, at least I’m going to be bilingual, and I can do something because it’s productive for any other job.”

Chapman has one job between here and October – to win the franchise’s first World Series in more than a century – and that success or failure is how he will ultimately be remembered in Chicago.

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

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AP

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.