Cubs

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.

Pistons have the look of a playoff team in wide open East

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USA TODAY

Pistons have the look of a playoff team in wide open East

Finishing 9th in the Eastern Conference last season cost Stan Van Gundy his job as Pistons head coach and President of Basketball Operations. Van Gundy was replaced on the bench by 2017-18 Coach of the Year Dwane Casey, who was fired after the Raptors were swept by Cleveland in the conference semi-finals.

Casey’s job in Detroit is to find a way to develop the young players on the roster while getting the team to the playoffs. He has a pair of All-Star caliber players in the front court, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, along with highly-paid, erratic point guard Reggie Jackson.

Griffin has battled injuries in recent seasons, but Van Gundy decided to roll the dice at mid-season a year ago by trading Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley AND a 1st round pick to the Clippers for the former slam dunk champion in a desperate bid to save his job. The trade didn’t work out for Van Gundy, but it’s possible Griffin could enjoy a resurgence in Detroit this season.

The 29-year-old power forward scored 26 points, pulled down eight rebounds and dished out six assists in the Pistons’ 103-100 win over Brooklyn on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Drummond had a monster game with 24 points and 20 rebounds. As Bulls fans know all too well, Drummond has made the 20 rebound game commonplace when facing Fred Hoiberg’s squad in recent years.

As for Jackson, a severely sprained right ankle limited him to just 45 games last season, probably costing Detroit a chance to make the playoffs. The 8th year pro is lightning quick, with the ability to disrupt defenses by getting into the paint and challenging bigger defenders at the rim. Jackson scored 19 points in the season opener against Brooklyn, and he’ll be a problem for the Bulls Saturday night, especially if Kris Dunn is unavailable.

Casey is still trying to figure out how to use the rest of the roster Van Gundy built, with recent 1st round pick Henry Ellenson and former rotation player Jon Leuer getting DNP-CD’s against the Nets. Meanwhile, two other expected rotation players, small forward Stanley Johnson and swingman Reggie Bullock missed the opener because of injuries.

That left second year guard Luke Kennard and 2018 2nd round draft pick Bruce Brown as the other starters in game one, something that’s unlikely to continue once everyone’s healthy.

So, how do the Bulls even their record at 1-1 on Saturday? Here are my three keys:

1. Keep Drummond and Griffin off the offensive boards. This is much easier said than done. Drummond in particular is relentless going after missed shots, and his bulk will cause problems for 19 year old rookie Wendell Carter Jr. Hoiberg hinted at possible line-up changes on Friday morning, which could include starting veteran Robin Lopez at center to battle Drummond inside. Griffin has turned into more of a jump shooter now and doesn’t have the multiple jump capability that characterized his early seasons in the NBA, but he’s still a threat to create 2nd shot opportunities.

2. Close out on three-point shooters. Of all the defensive issues for the Bulls in Philadelphia on Thursday, losing touch with shooters in transition was probably the most troublesome. Robert Covington seemed to be open at the three-point line throughout the game, and Bulls players struggled to handle cross-match situations. Kennard had one of the best games of his rookie season against the Bulls, and Jackson, Ish Smith and Langston Galloway are all capable of heating up from long distance.

3. Attack Detroit’s interior defense. The Bulls were at their best offensively in the first quarter against Philadelphia when they drove to the basket to set up easy scoring chances. Zach LaVine was getting to the rim at will in scoring 15 of his 30 points in the opening 12 minutes, and his penetration also set up Bobby Portis for open looks from the three-point line. Hopefully, Dunn will return to stabilize the point guard position and give the Bulls' first unit another shot creator so they can sustain their pace and scoring potential over four quarters.

Saturday’s home opener is definitely winnable against a Detroit team still finding its way under a new coaching staff. Better effort and attention to detail on the defensive end along with a fast-paced, drive and kick offensive attack should make for an exciting opening night at the United Center.

Make sure to join Kendall Gill, Will Perdue, Kelly Crull and me for a special one hour edition of Bulls Pre-Game Live at 6 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago and the new My Teams app, followed by the play by play call with Neil Funk and Stacey King at 7 p.m. And, stay tuned after the final buzzer for reaction and analysis on an expanded edition of Bulls Postgame Live.