Cubs

Why playing stupid is smart move for Cubs in pennant race

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Why playing stupid is smart move for Cubs in pennant race

PITTSBURGH – Jon Lester’s “Play Stupid” campaign makes sense to Joe Maddon.

They were the haves and the have-nots in the American League East while Lester pitched for the super-rich Boston Red Sox and Maddon managed the small-market Tampa Bay Rays.

The Cubs committed $180 million to Lester and Maddon to give the next phase of their rebuilding project some credibility. Lester looks around and sees the same nothing-to-lose attitude and young blue-chip talent that transformed Maddon’s 2008 Rays from a last-place team into a World Series contender.

“I kind of like he said that we played stupid, because I think that’s actually complimentary,” Maddon said. “But it really comes down to a naïvete. You’re just out there like full throttle. You’re not overanalyzing anything. You’re just in the moment. You’re playing hard and you believe you can do it.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs are now 11 games over .500 after Tuesday night’s 5-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, riding a six-game winning streak and a why-not-us? sense of momentum.  

The Rays built their franchise around young pitching. While the Cubs don’t have the same stockpile of elite arms – or blank canvas when it comes to franchise history – Jake Arrieta (12-6, 2.50 ERA) continues to look like someone who could start Game 1 of a playoff series.

“We were definitely full throttle all the time,” Maddon said. “There’s the point where you really like to have a lot of experience to rely upon in those difficult moments.

“And there are other times – you can think about your own life experience – where you didn’t know well enough to just walk into a difficult moment and just nail it because you didn’t overthink it.”

Arrieta shut down the Pirates (61-44), throwing seven scoreless innings while allowing only two hits and three walks before handing the game over to hard-throwing relievers Tommy Hunter and Justin Grimm.

The Cubs (58-47) knocked out J.A. Happ – one of Pittsburgh’s trade-deadline additions – in the fifth inning and finished with 14 hits (while leaving 15 men on base). Anthony Rizzo (4-for-5) is already on fire while Starlin Castro (two RBI doubles) showed signs of maybe ending this cold streak.

[MORE: Soler a player to watch if Cubs want to shake things up]

Jason Hammel pitched on that 2008 Rays team and believes the Cubs have a core that rivals Evan Longoria, B.J. (now Melvin) Upton and the tight-knit group that won 97 games that season.

“No offense to those guys, but these guys are even more impressive,” Hammel said. “It’s a very young lineup, and they’re going to take their lumps. But right now, it’s pretty fun to watch.”

The Cubs signed veterans with World Series rings like Lester and David Ross – and happily made Maddon the day-to-day public face of the franchise – so that they could shift the focus and take some of the heat off their young players.

But story time is just about over. These final 56 games will be revealing. Did anyone order the “Play Stupid” T-shirts yet?

“I can sit here until I’m blue in the face and talk to these guys about what to expect in the stretch run,” Lester said. “It doesn’t matter until you actually do it. The biggest thing that these guys can learn is just going through it, whether we’re there at the end or not. You just got to go through it and then you build on those experiences.”

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.