“A chance — that’s the biggest thing, an extended chance,” that’s all Jesse Chavez wanted. For a pitcher who was never once on any team’s top 20 prospect list, a pitcher who has taken seven years and five organizations to pick up his first 300 innings, a pitcher who was an unknown until this year — an extended chance was a lifeline. The 30-year-old has finally gotten that now with Oakland, and he’s grateful. But the A’s might also have given him some freedom that has allowed him to shine. His pitches, and their grips, can help tell the story.
Consider the two-seamer. It’s the first pitch he threw regularly — his coach in high school had a theory that “if you can stay on top of a two-seamer, you’ll have less stress on your arm, and more movement” — and yet Chavez estimated that he didn’t throw a single two-seamer between 2005 and 2012. That was because he got to the big leagues as a reliever, and teams wanted him to throw as hard as he could and get strikeouts.
It’s not like Chavez didn’t have any agency in the matter. He liked it when his “velocity went straight up” (his 94.6 mph velocity in 2008 would have been top-20 if he qualified), so he willingly turfed the two-seamer for a while. Once Toronto asked him to be a starter again, Chavez picked it up like riding a bike.
That four-seamer that teams wanted him to throw when he was a reliever? It’s almost all the way gone. Chavez admitted that he doesn’t throw it much in games any more. Which is probably for the best — in 2013, that four-seamer got less than half the whiffs (3%) and grounders (18.5%) of an average four-seamer (6.9% and 37.9%, respectively).
But that doesn’t mean it’s completely gone. “It’s a pitch that you have to throw,” Chavez said of his four-seamer. “That’s all I throw in between days when I throw — playing catch. It builds your arm strength, gets your best wrist action and so on.” It’s now a practice pitch.
The two-seamer is not the only pitch that organizations have asked Chavez to turf. He’s been throwing the curve ball his whole life, and loves it. “That was one of those pitches that I just had fun throwing, I didn’t care when it was or who it was,” he said of the yakker. But when his velocity ticked up with the four-seamer, and his arm got quicker, Chavez started leaving the curve up. So the pitcher and the team agreed that he should throw a four-seamer, a slider, and a change-up.
But Chavez does have that slider — and a misguided change to his mechanics in Kansas City — to credit for his self-avowed best pitch. The cutter.
Chavez has been throwing the cutter on the side for as long as he can remember. “I’d always throw it to get my slider back on track, but never did get the slider back on track,” Chavez joked. He recounted a story about impressing Billy Wagner with this cutter on flat ground. “Then I got on the mound, and it didn’t do anything,” shrugged Chavez. But he kept the pitch around as a grip and as practice for his slider.
Then in Kansas City, he was asked to throw sidearm. The slider disappeared from that angle — pitches move very differently out of different arm slots. Chavez thought that if he could throw a cutter, he’d “have more control of it,” and it would be tighter. Voila, he found he could finally command the pitch with movement. And when he went over the top again, it was still there for him.
“I’ve thrown away the pitch before, but now it’s my best pitch” said Chavez. And really, that describes much of the ebb and flow of his arsenal. His four-seamer and cutter traded places as practice and gamer pitches, his curve became a slider and then turned back into a curve again, his change-up was born of a single moment with the scout that signed him — Chavez has done everything in his power to stay in the big leagues.
There were dark times. Chavez pointed to the second time the Royals sent him down as a “rough” time for him. His velocity was down — “so many different arm angles, trying to stay in the bigs, not my choice, but it happens” — and his chances grew thinner. “Shit, it can’t get any worse,” he remembers thinking. It was time to think of “Plan Bs and Plan Cs” and “different types of grips and pitches. I was tired of getting sent down.”
And that’s when Chavez started throwing the cutter more. He’d heard that the pitch could hurt his velocity, but his velocity was already down. (He also makes sure not to “manipulate the ball” because “that’s where you get in trouble.”) That’s when he started throwing the four-seamer less — at least in games. That’s when he concentrated on making sure the curve ball was as good as it can be. He still needs to fight to find it sometimes in bullpens and during games, but it’s valuable to him.
Shortly thereafter, he stepped foot for the first time in the Oakland clubhouse, and everything changed. “You look around in here, that’s all we wanted: an extended chance. All we wanted was someone behind us,” Chavez said of his teammates. “You can’t not want succeed here with the guys here. For some reason, when I walked into this clubhouse, I just got into it, this is what it should be like, this is what I was missing.”
Jesse Chavez has tried every permutation of his various pitches and arm angles in an effort to get a lasting spot in the big leagues. Sometimes that struggle has been dark. “I got over being mad, I got over looking over my shoulder,” Chavez said of his first year with the Athletics. And that peace of mind has helped him find the best mix that works for him.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.