Cubs

Why Cubs can't take Jake Arrieta’s brilliance for granted

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Why Cubs can't take Jake Arrieta’s brilliance for granted

ST. LOUIS – When the Cubs returned home to Wrigley Field after Jake Arrieta’s second no-hitter, veteran catcher/media go-to guy David Ross stood in front of his locker and listened to a question about whether or not he had seen anything like this before. 

Surrounded by reporters in the new state-of-the-art clubhouse, Ross immediately cited two other examples he witnessed up close during a big-league career now in its 15th and final season: Kris Medlen and Eric Gagne.  

This is not at all suggesting that Arrieta is heading toward Tommy John surgery or a performance-enhancing drugs scandal or a steep drop off the cliff. But Medlen’s narrow window of greatness and Gagne’s game-over flameout shows the Cubs can’t take Arrieta’s brilliance for granted.  

Arrieta proved he’s not a cyborg on Wednesday afternoon at Busch Stadium, even as the Cubs hung on for a 9-8 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals and won his 23rd consecutive regular-season start.   

Since 1913, only three other pitchers had seen their teams win 22 straight starts, according to STATS Inc.: Carl Hubbell (New York Giants, 1936-37); Whitey Ford (New York Yankees, 1950-53); and Medlen’s 23-start run with Ross and the Atlanta Braves between 2010 and 2012.    

“I don’t take it for granted,” Ross said. “When you look at the daily performance, you see him just carrying you as a team. You can’t take that for granted, because you realize it’s special. It almost adds a little bit to your energy level, because you’re expecting great things from him and you don’t want to let him down as a teammate. 

“You’re like: ‘I’d better bring my A-game, because this is our stud and he’s doing some special things and I want him to keep doing these special things.’ We don’t ever want to think that one of our guys have a chink in the armor. You just want them to keep rolling.”

Medlen appeared in only two games for the Braves in 2011 and underwent a second Tommy John procedure on his right elbow in 2014. He earned a World Series ring with the Kansas City Royals last year and is now on the disabled list with rotator cuff inflammation.    

Ross also caught Gagne during the 2003 season where the Los Angeles Dodgers closer went 55-for-55 in save chances and won the National League Cy Young Award, part of a run where he converted 84 consecutive saves. 

Gagne needed the Tommy John reconstruction of his right elbow in the middle of the 2005 season, bounced around to three different teams, showed up in the Mitchell Report (featuring a due-diligence e-mail from Theo Epstein to a Boston Red Sox scout) and later admitted to using human growth hormone.     

Again, this is simply a reminder to appreciate what you’re watching here. 

This was the first time Arrieta allowed a regular-season run in the first inning since May 29, 2015 against the Royals, according to Comcast Sportsnet Chicago stats guru Christopher Kamka, and the first time he allowed four runs in a regular-season game since June 16, 2015, or Kyle Schwarber’s big-league debut.   

“I’m not a big numbers guy, but I watch how he makes really good major-league hitters who get paid a lot of money (look),” Ross said. “He makes them look not very hitter-ish. I just read the swings – and the takes even. 

“Guys are taking fastballs down and away with two strikes like it surprises them. And I know that’s what 90 percent of us are looking for when you get two strikes, just trying to make some contact. The ball explodes out of his hand because he hides it so well.”

Which made it jarring to see Arrieta give up his first home run in more than six weeks when Randal Grichuk drove a ball over the right-center field fence and into the St. Louis bullpen in the second inning. Pitching coach Chris Bosio quickly visited the mound during a stoppage in the fourth inning. Left-handed reliever Travis Wood warmed up in the bullpen during the fifth inning.

Arrieta escaped that bases-loaded jam when third baseman Tommy La Stella made a diving stop to his right on a Grichuk groundball and threw to second base for the third out. That was it for Arrieta, who threw 93 pitches and watched his ERA soar from 1.29 to 1.72.

“I walk to the park a lot, so you hear people talking,” Ross said. “It’s funny. It makes me laugh when you’re at a restaurant or something and you hear them talking about: ‘Yeah, Arrieta’s going today, maybe he’ll throw a no-hitter.’ It’s not that easy, people! 

“But you feel that energy in the atmosphere. And you know the other team is going to bring their best, because they understand they’re facing one of the best in the game, if not the best.”      

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.