Jesse Chavez Is Here to Pitch, Not Walk People

All things considered, the Chicago Cubs were in a pretty good place headed into the All-Star break. Their NL-leading offense had carried the team to a 13-4 record in the 17 games before the break, scoring 6.82 runs per game in that span and effecting a net five-game swing in the standings. The starting pitching, though — whose shortcomings were examined earlier today by Craig Edwards — had recorded an unimpressive 4.67 FIP coming into the break (ranked 14th in the National League) while benefiting from strong defense and perhaps, yes, a measure of good luck to record a 3.88 ERA that ranked seventh league-wide. Critical to the Cubs’ success, then, was the bullpen, which posted an 3.09 ERA (2nd) and 3.74 FIP (5th) on the back of strong performances from Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards Jr., Brandon Morrow, Pedro Strop, and Justin Wilson.

The twin problems for Cubs relievers were that they were, in the main, pitching a little bit more often than you’d like (their 3.7 innings pitched per game ranked fifth in the National League coming into the break, due to some early exits from Cubs starters) and that they were walking too many people while they were at it (their 11.3% free-pass rate as a relief corps was the worst in the game). These were problems even before the Cubs announced on Thursday that Morrow, their closer, would be placed on the disabled list with a “right biceps inflammation,” which does not sound pleasant even at the best of times and was particularly inconvenient for Chicago at this time. With that announcement, the Cubs’ public quest for relief depth acquired a more urgent flavor, and they sent A-ball starter Tyler Thomas, who’s having a nice season, to the Rangers for Jesse Chavez.

The good thing about Jesse Chavez, insofar as the Cubs are concerned with him, is that he’s used to throwing more than one inning at a time (averaging, this season, about 1.5 innings in his 30 appearances and on five occasions going at least three) and that his 5.1% walk rate is among the very best in the game. The Cubs had two problems with their relievers, and Jesse Chavez helps to address both. Joe Maddon has not particularly enjoyed having to cast about, each game, for a reliever to bridge the gap from the fifth inning to the seventh, and in Chavez he probably has someone who can take a little bit of the pressure off of folks like Wilson, Anthony Bass, Brian Duensing, and Randy Rosario early in games.

Chavez, 34, is having one his best seasons since his time with the A’s from 2012 to -15 (although he still gives up a ton of home runs), and there might be some reason to think he has even more in him. As David Laurila noted earlier this week, Chavez has regained confidence in his cutter just in time to head to a team that throws fastballs and cut fastballs more often than just about any other team in the league. Sure, Chris Bosio no longer runs the pitching show in Chicago, and so we can’t just nod at Jake Arrieta and blithely propose that cutter-heavy pitcher might see some improvement under his tutelage, but there’s nonetheless reason to imagine Chavez might feel comfortable in a pitching environment that’s still largely focused on primary pitches.

Chavez by himself isn’t going to change the complexion of the Cubs’ 2018 season or even, really, the Cubs’ 2018 relief corps. Indeed, Chicago is quite likely to keep adding to their ‘pen in the next few days. But Chavez is having a perfectly respectable season for himself as a reliever, and a perfectly respectable reliever is exactly what the Cubs needed for these few weeks, with Morrow on the disabled list and Cishek, Strop, and Wilson coming off of a first half of heavy use with what they hope is a little more than three full months of baseball ahead of them. The Cubs aren’t done adding to their bullpen, but they probably needed to make this move now in order to save their existing relievers from overuse in this busy part of the second-half schedule.

And for the Rangers? Well, 2018 just wasn’t going to happen for them, and if Tyler Thomas, Texas Ranger ever amounts to anything as a starter, it’ll be some small piece of good news for Ranger fans to come out of an otherwise entirely forgettable season. This is a fine baseball move for both teams involved, with lots of fine baseball yet to be played. For now, the important thing for Jesse Chavez is to pitch a lot and not walk people. Happily, he seems to be up to the task.

Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.

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Barney Coolio
5 years ago

And I am here to learn! Not to make out with you!

I wonder if that line from Billy Madison would be allowed today.