Jesse Chavez Isn’t Done

If your perception of Jesse Chavez, who on Tuesday signed with the Texas Rangers for two years and $8 million, is anchored by his time with the A’s from 2012-2015 — or even, honestly, with the Blue Jays (2016), Dodgers (2016), Angels (2017) or Rangers (for the first half of 2018) — then I think it’s probably worth spending a little time familiarizing yourself with the following table:

Jesse Chavez Did Well in Chicago
2018, Chicago 39.0 29 58 8.40 97.0%
Career 838.0 110 106 2.80 72.6%

After July 21st, when he joined the Cubs in exchange for an A-ball reliever, Chavez wasn’t just the best reliever in Joe Maddon’s much-taxed bullpen, though he was that. He wasn’t even just the best reliever in the N.L. Central, though he was that, too. After July 21st, there’s a reasonable case to be made that Jesse Chavez was among the most valuable relievers in baseball. Just three — all Rays, for obvious reasons — threw more innings than Chavez’s 39; just four bested his .211 wOBA over the period. Nobody better than Jesse Chavez threw more innings after July 21st; nobody who threw more innings was better.

Here is, perhaps, one reason why:

Chavez first picked up his cutter during the 2013 season, and for a few years the pitch worked much as it did in 2018: when used more, his ERA went down; when used less, his ERA went up. In 2015, that changed, as a season-long velocity decline brought on by overuse in the rotation sapped the pitch of much of its zip. By the time Chavez got his arm strength back, he’d arrived in Los Angeles for the 2016 and 2017 seasons, where he was asked to pitch up in the zone more than he wanted to, further diminishing the value of a pitch that gets outs by generating balls on the ground. The pitch didn’t click until Chavez dropped his arm slot on Mother’s Day, 2018, a month before he arrived in Chicago. See if you can pick it out on the graph above.

There are reasons to think, in other words, that this particular version of Jesse Chavez is better than the one we’ve become used to seeing. If that’s the case, it’s good news for the Rangers, who had a middling ‘pen (their 4.23 FIP was 16th in the majors last year) and a downright bad rotation (their 5.18 FIP was 27th) in 2018. Chavez can start, if that’s the way the Rangers want to go, or pitch in long relief like he did last season, or even jump into a two-inning opener role. Whatever he takes on, Chavez seems poised to bring some stability to a Texas squad that’s likely to experience another rocky season in 2019, and if he performs anything like he did last year, he should be trade bait once again come July.

I think it’s probably unreasonable to expect a 1.15 ERA out of Chavez for a full season next year — that 97 percent strand rate will almost certainly come down, and Adrián Beltré won’t be around to convert quite as many ground balls hit to third base into outs — but even splitting the difference between his strong second half and his career numbers gets you a perfectly adequate pitcher, and that’s pretty much exactly what Steamer thinks he will be. I’d take the under on his 3.85 projected ERA, especially if he comes out of the ‘pen, and I suspect the Rangers would be perfectly happy to have him hit that number on the money out of the rotation.

In fact, the case for Texas signing Chavez is pretty clear: he’s a known quantity who comes relatively cheap, had a great second half, and can do a number of useful things in the rotation or in the ‘pen. What’s odd about that case is that it’s also the case for the Cubs signing Chavez, instead, which they didn’t do. And that’s very strange. Word is apparently getting around that the Cubs aren’t planning to “spend big” this offseason. But in what universe is signing Jesse Chavez “spending big”? And if the rumors are false, and the Cubs plan to blow past the luxury tax threshold and sign one or both of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, why not throw in an extra $8 million for Chavez?

It sure sounds like Chavez would have given Chicago a discount, if they’d tried for one: when the season ended, he was overheard telling teammates that “if I’m not wearing this [Cubs jersey] next year, I’m done.” Maybe he got a good night’s sleep and decided he’d been a little rash. Maybe the Cubs’ budget really is stretched. Maybe something else happened. We don’t really know, and in the end it doesn’t matter that much. Now Jesse Chavez is a Texas Ranger. And he’s far from done.

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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Reminds me of a much flashier, higher priced free agent named Nathan Eovaldi. Chavez won’t have as much velocity, though he should be able to be an effective starter behind Mike Minor.