PHOENIX – Steps before the visitors’ dugout stairs, Cubs reliever Andrew Chafin heard a fan calling to him. The southpaw’s head popped up, and he scanned the stands.
“Welcome back,” the fan shouted.
The Cubs’ three-game series against the Diamondbacks this weekend was Chafin’s first at Chase Field since his trade to the Cubs at the deadline last year. He returns as a member of the Cubs’ Big 3 at the back end of the bullpen and potentially a valuable trade chip as this year’s July 30 deadline approaches.
The Cubs (46-47) won the series at Arizona, but a 6-4 loss Sunday dropped the Cubs to nine games back of the division-leading Brewers (56-39).
“Weird,” Chafin said of what it was like to be back at Chase Field. “You basically grow up here in the league, and you come back from a whole different side of the field. It's a whole different perspective. The first night I sat down and was like, ‘The stadium looks different now.’ I don’t know what it is.”
Chafin’s different now, too. His best full-season ERA with the Diamondbacks, the team that drafted him No. 43 overall in the 2011 MLB Draft, was a perfectly respectable 2.76 in 2015.
With a scoreless outing against his former team on Friday, Chafin (0-1, 1.38 ERA) extended his scoreless streak to 24 innings, the longest active streak in the major leagues and tied for the longest by a reliever all season.
“I've learned to trust myself more so than in the past,” Chafin told NBC Sports Chicago, “and just going out there and, ‘Here it is. I'm going to throw it over the plate. Good luck.’”
Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy marveled at Chafin’s approach back in April, as the mustachioed reliever rocketed into cult hero status.
“His goal is to have like 12 pitches or less,” Hottovy said. “And he jokes around about that. He's like, ‘If I throw more than 12 pitches, it's a bad day for me.’”
Of Chafin’s 41 outings this season, almost half (20) have met that frugal bar.
“You don’t want to overuse him,” Cubs manager David Ross said, “but he’s just so efficient out there and you feel like you can go to him a lot.”
Take Friday for example. Chafin didn’t use more than five pitches on any batter. His one strikeout took three pitches. He was out of the inning in 12.
“It's always been there,” Chafin said. “It's just finally decided to come out and play.”
Chafin’s efficiency helped the Cubs bullpen post the best May and June ERA in baseball (2.74) this year. On the flip side, in the weeks since the Cubs began their dive down the standings, Chafin’s steady performance has inspired trade speculation.
When the Cubs acquired him in the middle of the 2020 season, Chafin was in the midst of a down year and working back from a finger injury.
“His experience of pitching in big situations in a really good division,” Ross said of what drew the Cubs to Chafin. “Equal splits (vs.) righties and lefties, he does a nice job of getting out both. So, it’s a guy at the back end of the bullpen, not necessarily a matchup guy – especially with a three-batter minimum that mattered with that last year.
“And then it’s really easy once you meet him to fall in love with his character and how he goes about his business.”
The way he’s pitching now, Chafin could be even more enticing to a contending club, even if it takes more to acquire him.
“All the trade stuff’s above my paygrade,” Chafin said. “There's not a single thing I can do about it. All I can do is go out and try to win a ballgame tonight. There's no point in even looking into it.”
How is he able to maintain that kind of focus?
“How do you block out 40,000 people in a stadium yelling?” he said. “You just do. I can't explain some of that stuff.”