When the Red Sox called up Michael Chavis on April 19, they were 6-13 and had no shortage of troubles. Every member of their rotation save for David Price was regularly being lit up like a pinball machine, and their no-name bullpen was shaky as well. Reigning AL MVP Mookie Betts was hardly himself offensively, and both Jackie Bradley Jr. and Steve Pearce were impossibly cold. Amidst all of that, the team’s hole at second base was just one more problem, albeit similar to last year, when even replacement-level play in the absence of the injured Dustin Pedroia did little to prevent them from winning a franchise-record 108 games as well as the World Series.
Just over one month since Chavis’ arrival, the Red Sox are now over .500 (25-22). Their pitching has come around, as has Betts, and their leading hitter in terms of both slugging percentage (.592) and wRC+ (156) is Chavis, a 23-year-old righty-swinging rookie with “a bit of a beer-keg physique” (h/t Baseball Prospectus), one who had never played second base before this season. His nine homers (in 113 PA) is tied with J.D. Martinez for second on the team behind Mitch Moreland’s 12. He homered in Boston’s wins both Sunday against the Astros and Monday against the Blue Jays. Here’s the former, in which he drove a Wade Miley cut fastball 420 feet, a towering shot over the Green Monster:
Long blasts are hardly a rarity for Chavis. Despite his late arrival, he’s tied for fourth in the majors with six homers of at least 420 feet, and he had another estimated at 419 feet. His average home run distance of 426 feet ranks seventh among players with at least 50 batted ball events (he has 68). Monday’s 389-footer off of the Blue Jays’ Edwin Jackson was just his second homer shorter than 400 feet.
Two months ago, Chavis barely registered as a player likely to make an impact on the 2019 Red Sox, in part because he had just eight games of Triple-A experience to that point along with 100 games at Double-A. Our preseason forecasts estimated he’d get just 14 big league plate appearances. Now he’s one of the players who has helped to salvage their season. So what gives?
Part of it, clearly, was desperation. With Pedroia again slowed by inflammation and soreness in his left knee, in which he underwent an experimental cartilage restoration procedure in October 2017, the Red Sox opened the season with Eduardo Nunez and Brock Holt platooning at second, but Holt was placed on the injured list due to a scratched cornea in his right eye on April 6. Pedroia, who was limited to just three major league games last year, returned on April 9, but he lasted just six games before lingering discomfort in the knee sent him back to the IL on April 19. Nunez landed there that same day due to a mid-back strain. Misery loves company, and this company was miserable; to that point, Sox second-sackers had hit .136/.186/.152 for a -13 wRC+. By comparison, major league pitchers have hit .117/.151/.160 for a -18 wRC+. Woof.
A 2014 first-round pick out of a Marietta, Georgia high school — as a shortstop — and the recipient of a $1.87 million signing bonus, Chavis struggled at times in the low minors, enamored with his own raw power and slowed by multiple injuries, including a torn UCL in his left thumb and fracture in his right middle finger, the latter of which he played through in 2016. Once healthy, he put himself on the prospect map with a 31-homer 2017 season split between High-A Salem and Double-A Portland; the following spring, he grazed the lower reaches of the Baseball America, MLB Pipeline, and FanGraphs Top 100 lists; he was No. 95 on ours. Though he generally played third base in the minors, our prospect team saw him as a future first baseman given his mediocre fielding (grades of 40/45), albeit with an above-average arm (55/55).
Before Chavis could build upon that, he drew an 80-game suspension for a PED violation; he tested positive for dehydrochlormethyltestosterone (Oral Turinabol); according to this story by the Boston Globe’s Owen Pence, he spent “countless hours… [learning] a hell of a lot more about that metabolite than I ever intended to” while trying to figure out how he tested positive, which, whatever. Once he returned in July, he hit .298/.381/.538 with nine homers in 46 games, including 33 at Portland and eight more at Triple-A Pawtucket.
Though he slipped out of the Top 100 lists, Chavis still placed third on our Red Sox list this spring and second on that of Baseball America. Both resources acknowledged the uncertainty surrounding his eventual defensive home; our Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel noted that “pro scouts see Chavis as a first base-only type,” but BA noted that he looked better at third base in 2018 than before while also adding that he “could see time in left field, and some in the organization want him to try second base.”
Historically speaking, the keystone doesn’t spring to mind as a place to hide a 5-foot-10, 216-pound, bat-first prospect, but between the rising strikeout totals that have reduced the number of balls in play — in 2018, second basemen handled 0.7 fewer chances per nine innings than in 2008, a drop of 13.8% — the rules that limit runners’ ability to break up double plays, and analytically driven assistance in fielder positioning (including on shifts), a handful of teams have expanded their notions of who can play second base in order to shoehorn another potent bat into the lineup. The Brewers shifted Travis Shaw (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) from third base to second last year upon acquiring Mike Moustakas (6-foot, 225 pounds) from the Royals; this year, after re-signing Moustakas via free agency, they’ve reversed the pair’s positioning. The Dodgers have dabbled with Max Muncy (6-foot, 218 pounds) there in each of the past two seasons.
The Red Sox began experimenting with Chavis at second during spring training, and he made his regular season debut there at Pawtucket on April 7. Still, he had just five games at the position before being recalled, at which point Red Sox manager (and longtime middle infielder) Alex Cora conceded he was “a work in progress.” Not long after, Cora said of the trend towards unorthodox second basemen, “You still have to make the plays. Defensively they put you in spots where the ball is going to be hit. It’s not like a tough play, you know? They put you in spots most likely it’ll come right at you as a routine play. You see teams around the league doing it with Muncy, [Shaw], Moustakas, nobody expected those guys to play second base.”
Thus far, Chavis has played 21 games at second, where the small-sample defensive metrics say he’s been about average; he’s also started twice at first base and once at third. Meanwhile he’s given the Sox more offense than they could have expected via his .296/.389/.592 performance. We’re still in small-sample territory on the offensive side as well, but so far he’s hit the ball especially hard; his 92.0 mph average exit velocity is in the 90th percentile, his .408 xwOBA in the 95th percentile. His 16.8% swinging strike rate is on the high side, in the 95th percentile as well, but his 30.6% chase rate is middle of the pack, and he’s countered his 26.5% strikeout rate with a hefty 12.3% walk rate, well above his 8.3% rate in the high minors. He’s not feasting on fastballs; he’s got three homers and a .667 slugging percentage on the 27 sliders and curves he’s made contact with, though he’s also whiffing on 22.3% of the ones he’s faced, which account for about 22% of his total pitches.
Given the gap between his current production and his scouting grades (most notably his hit tool, which FanGraphs graded 40/40 but both BA and MLB have graded 50), it’s probably folly to suggest that Chavis will sustain this production, but his current depth charts projection forecasts a .254/.317/.471 (109 wRC+) line for the remainder of the season, which is certainly serviceable. Both Holt, whose stay on the IL was extended by a bout of right shoulder impingement, and Pedroia are currently in the midst of rehab assignments, but it’s anybody’s guess what the latter has left in the tank given his prolonged absences. The combination of Chavis’ production and versatility — which could expand to include the outfield — has already put him ahead of Nunez, who has returned but still hasn’t hit a lick (.173/.192/.240, 6 wRC+). One way or another, he’s given Cora the pleasant problem of finding ways to keep fitting his red-hot bat in the lineup.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.