What's factored into Addison Russell's offensive funk with Cubs?

What's factored into Addison Russell's offensive funk with Cubs?

LOS ANGELES - Addison Russell made his big-league debut three months after his 21st birthday and has never really looked overwhelmed in the nearly two years since.

The All-Star shortstop doesn't believe the playoff pressure is getting to him right now, but he admitted fatigue may be playing a factor in his offensive woes.

"The speed of the game is pretty much the same," Russell said after the Cubs' workout at Dodger Stadium Monday. "The intensity has changed. Having played 168 games-plus is new to me. I'm doing what I need to do to make sure my body's prepared and then we'll go from there."

"...It's my first time playing this long for this many consistent games. It's different, for sure."

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Cubs manager Joe Maddon stressed the importance of rest all season, ensuring even young players like Russell and Kris Bryant got regular days off to stay fresh.

But this is still the latest Russell has ever played into a season, having missed the 2015 National League Championship Series due to a hamstring injury suffered at the end of the NLDS.

Monday, Maddon chatted with Russell at the batting cage and discussed staying through the ball and finishing his swing, something Russell called "an easy adjustment. It's something I can do the first time they tell me."

Russell is just 1-for-22 in the postseason, but only has three strikeouts in six games. He pointed to his low batting average as the result of some bad luck and - much like the rest of the Cubs offense - believes balls will eventually find some grass.

However, Russell did fade down the stretch in the regular season with only three hits in his last 31 at-bats and posted a .161 batting average in his final 18 games.

He still finished with 21 homers and 95 RBI, but those stats don't mean much when the Cubs are just three losses away from the end of their season.

"It's definitely something you don't want, for sure," Russell said. "It is a little frustrating, but you can't think about that. You gotta think about this pitch, this at-bat, this play.

"When it comes down to it, yeah it's a little disheartening, but you make the adjustments and hopefully the results will be there."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Russell also said teams have started pitching him differently in October, working the outer half of the plate more. He's worked to adjust back while keeping the same mental approach.

Maddon admitted Monday he may be changing the Cubs lineup around to shake up the offense, but Russell wasn't focused on that, instead using the day off to reset mentally.

In his brief career, Russell can't recall a slump of this magnitude.

"I feel like I haven't been at a standstill. Now I'm facing this," Russell said. "This game's gonna throw some challenges at you. It's how you overcome it.

"I know that I deserve to be in the lineup playing for this club. I don't have to go out and prove anything. Just go out there and do my thing. Stay within my approach. Balls are gonna drop."

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.