Jesse Chavez: The Out-Of-Nowhere Man

It’s been said umpteen times by baseball scribes, coaches, and front office types alike that you can never have too much pitching. The 2014 Oakland A’s seem determined to put that adage to the test. The A’s were projected to finish at or near the top of the American League West by most pundits in the preseason, but that was before starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin went down to Tommy John surgery. Those two pitchers combined for nearly 400 innings and 26 wins in 2013, and their absence meant the A’s suddenly had to scramble to plug two major holes in the rotation. Seeing as how the A’s had just lost Bartolo Colon and dumped the injury-riddled Brett Anderson on the Rockies, filling that gap probably wasn’t going to be easy.

Enter Jesse Chavez, a 30-year-old no-name journeyman who toiled in the A’s bullpen last season as a long man after a largely unspectacular career as a middle reliever. When the injuries to Griffin and Parker hit, Chavez was thrust into the rotation as an emergency stop gap, and likely only until the A’s front office found a better option. Well, Chavez has responded to his first real shot in a big league rotation by blowing away everybody’s (including A’s fans’) expectations. In six starts, Chavez is the owner of a 1.89 ERA, whiffing 41 batters and walking just eight in 38 innings. His emergence has helped Oakland’s rotation withstand the early season injuries, and has helped carry the A’s to a 19-13 record and a first place standing in the AL West. Of all the surprises of the early season, Chavez’s brilliance in the first month has been oddly overlooked by scribes in the national media.

If you knew who Jesse Chavez was going into the 2013 season, you were probably either related to him or spent way too much of your time on Baseball Reference (if so, you are definitely not alone). Chavez was purchased by the A’s from Toronto in 2012, and then began the 2013 season in AAA as a starter. When the A’s needed some bullpen depth, they brought him up to the big club, where he threw a rather unremarkable 57  innings over the course of the season. The highlight of his year probably came when he threw five-and-two-thirds scoreless innings to get the win in this insane 18-inning game against the Yankees last June. That was the first time I had ever heard of him, anyway.

Chavez was drafted way back in 2002 in the 42nd round by the Texas Rangers. He finally made it to the majors in 2008 and threw 67 innings out of the Pirates’ bullpen, failing to distinguish himself with a 4.01 ERA on a really bad team. Still, he threw hard as heck, averaging 94 mph on his fastball, so he still got opportunities to hang around. Unfortunately, his performance in the majors went from barely mediocre to flat out untenable. From 2010 through 2012, with pit stops in Atlanta, Kansas City, and Toronto, Chavez put up a stomach-churning 7.29 ERA in 95 innings, almost exclusively out of the bullpen. That kind of crummy pitching will quickly get you on the bus to the indie leagues regardless, but to make matters worse, Chavez’s fastball velocity was declining as well. After a miserable four-game sample with the A’s after they got him from Toronto, it looked like it was curtains for his major league career.

Then something happened. Faced with having to adapt to decreasing velocity, Chavez began throwing a cut fastball more, and he immediately started getting results. His five starts with AAA Sacramento went extremely well, and his subsequent performance out of the bullpen in Oakland was easily the best of his major league career (his rate of 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings was the best of any year where he threw more than 50 innings), and he got his career-long battle with the home run ball completely under control. On the surface, his 2013 seemed like the output of a generic middle reliever, but progress was being made.

So far this year, of course, he’s been remarkable. Some of this is likely small sample size fooferah (38 innings is a darned small sample for a pitcher, after all), and he’s allowing just a .258 BABIP, which probably won’t continue. However, he is striking out more batters than ever (9.7 K/9 so far) while still keeping the home runs to an acceptable number. This has got to mean that there’s something more than just small sample size fluke. He’s also been doing it against some pretty darn good lineups, throwing dominating outings against Texas, the team formerly known as the Anaheim Angels, and the surprisingly effective Twins offense.

If Chavez finishes the season with an ERA under two, I’ll invite everyone to a gala event where I eat my keyboard; it won’t happen. However, with that being said, the way he’s pitching, he’s clearly turned some kind of new leaf in his repertoire, and it’s easy to see him throwing 180 good innings with an above-league average ERA+. In their quest to repeat as AL West champs, Chavez has been just what the injury-plagued A’s have needed this year.