Jesse Chavez has become the most important pitcher in Cubs bullpen


Quick quiz: Who leads the Cubs pitching staff in ERA since the middle of July?

Many would probably answer with Cole Hamels, as the veteran starting pitcher has been phenomenal since coming over in a trade at the end of July.

But the answer is actually Jesse Chavez, who boasts a 1.44 ERA over Hamels' 1.57 mark (which is second-best on the Cubs). 

When the Cubs dealt for Chavez on July 19, the move received almost no fanfare. The Cubs heralded it as a depth move, acquiring a veteran pitcher who has experience starting, relieving and even throwing multiple innings in relief.

Now, Chavez is arguably the most important pitcher in the Cubs bullpen with two weeks remaining before the playoffs.

Chavez has emerged as one of the only reliable — and healthy — guys in the bullpen and is firmly in Joe Maddon's Circle of Trust.

With Pedro Strop done for at least the rest of the regular season, Carl Edwards Jr.'s recent struggles and all the question marks surrounding Brandon Morrow as he works to come back from a two-month forearm injury, it's the 35-year-old Chavez who may be forced to haul a big load for this team in the final two weeks of September and into October.

Since the day he was acquired, Chavez leads the Cubs pitching staff in walk percentage, is second in WHIP (behind only Strop) and third in strikeout percentage while pitching 8.1 innings more than any other Cubs reliever.

In the second half, here's how the Cubs pitching staff ranks in terms of WAR (FanGraphs):

Kyle Hendricks - 1.9
Cole Hamels - 1.3
Jesse Chavez - 0.8
Mike Montgomery - 0.7
Jose Quintana - 0.6

Yep, that's Chavez up there with four of the Cubs' starting pitchers (Jon Lester ranks 7th on the team with a 0.5 WAR since the All-Star Break). 

Put another way, Chavez has been worth the same WAR (0.8) to the Cubs this season as Brandon Morrow (0.6) and Yu Darvish (0.2) combined.

In short: Chavez has been the Cubs' most valuable relief pitcher for two months running.

That's a heck of a turnaround for a journeyman who is on his sixth team in four years and sported a 4.67 ERA and 1.37 WHIP in 362 innings from 2015-17. But it's just more proof that nowadays, successful relief pitchers can come out of nowhere.

He credits a lot of that success to a change in arm slot he made on Mother's Day while with the Texas Rangers.

"It was really simple, but in the end, it was a lot going on that helped keep everything stabilized and in line to make executed pitches on a consistent basis," Chavez said. "Whereas just having one pitch get away from me, it's kinda been where it hasn't hurt and when it has, the pitches have been moving — just not where I've wanted them to go. 

"It's easier to make that adjustment now whereas before, I was trying to fish for it."

He also commended the Cubs clubhouse for making him feel comfortable immediately.

"Obviously you wanna ease your way in and not really come off as trying too hard to fit in or trying too little to not fit in and isolate yourself," Chavez said. "But the way this group is, it's just so open and so welcoming that we really just hit the ground running."

Chavez has said he doesn't care what role he pitches in and understands he may sometimes need to be called on in the early innings of games or even to get the last three outs.

While Strop has served as the de facto closer with Morrow on the shelf, Maddon has never actually named Strop as "The Guy." As such, Chavez actually has as many saves as Strop (3) over the last month as Maddon has been forced to utilize Strop in the seventh or eighth innings at times.

Chavez doesn't have the upper-90s fastball or wicked breaking ball typically associated with a dynamic late-inning reliever, but he makes his money on throwing strikes, which has been a breath of fresh air in this Cubs bullpen that has struggled with walks the last two seasons.

"[Attacking hitters] has always been my mindset," Chavez said. "It's a 50-50 game if they're gonna swing the bat or not. We don't know that. The only time we know they're gonna swing the bat is if it's over the plate, which aren't our intentions.

"So I kinda look at it like 75 percent of it is in our favor once it leaves our hand and the other 25 percent is reaction from them. So with that confidence, why can't you just get up there and pump strikes?

"I'm not saying just pump fastballs down the middle, but pump fastballs in located, quality spots depending on the hitter."

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