C.J. Chatham doesn’t fit the stereotype of the modern-day hitter. At a time when driving balls in the air is all the rage, the 24-year-old Red Sox prospect channels Wee Willie Keeler. Contact-oriented, Chatham believes in hitting ‘em where they ain’t.
“When they shift me, I don’t care where the pitch is; I’m going to go the other way and get a hit,” Chatham told me early in the season. “I might even break my bat, but I’ll squeak it through the space where the second baseman isn’t standing. A lot of my hits are through the infield that way. That’s kind of what I do.”
The approach has its merits. Chatham was leading the Double-A Eastern League in batting average (insert large grain of salt here) when he was promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket yesterday. His slash line was .297/.332/.401; last year, those numbers were .314/.355/.384 in High-A. Pair those lines with a solid glove at the shortstop position, and the lack of power — 12 home runs in 1,015 professional plate appearances — can largely be overlooked. Or can it?
He’s doing his best to ignore the skeptics.
“A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, the exit velocity isn’t what we want to see,’” said Chatham. “They’ll say, ‘It doesn’t look like he projects.’ Well, I’m like, ‘If there’s no one standing at second base, why shouldn’t I hit a groundball into that space?’ I’m more interested in getting on base than I am looking good doing it.”
The 2016 second-round pick employs an inside-out stroke, which he adopted during his sophomore year at Florida Atlantic University. Concurrently, he learned to “wait back and let the ball get as deep as possible,” which resulted in fewer chases, particularly on sliders. “That’s when I started hitting for a higher average,” explained the right-handed-hitting Chatham, who batted .333 over three collegiate seasons.
But again, there’s been a paucity of power. And this isn’t Wee Willie we’re talking about. The Deadball-Era legend was 5-foot-4 and weighed 140 pounds, while Chatham stands 6-foot-4 and is a full 50 pounds heavier. A small shortstop he’s not. Even so, he is who he is.
“Different guys have different strengths,” said Chatham. “A Joey Gallo is going to hit for a lot of power. If he doesn’t hit home runs, he’s out of a job, so he probably doesn’t want to hit singles through a hole. It would be a complete reset of his swing to go to the opposite field that way.”
That said, Chatham doesn’t approach each and every at-bat with the goal of slapping an opposite-field single. In his view, a hitter needs to have multiple swings and approaches. He cited Houston’s All-Star third baseman as an example.
“You need to have more than one swing,” Chatham told me. “If you talk to Alex Bregman, he thinks about how a lot of guys will swing-and-miss underneath a high-spin-rate guy. He acts like there’s an invisible ball above the actual ball. He’s like, ‘I’m trying to hit the invisible one.’”
Ben Crockett, Boston’s Director of Player Development, sees more power production in the youngster’s future. Selectivity is the key.
“He has some of the best ability to barrel up pitches in all locations of anybody we have in the organization,” communicated Crockett. “C.J. will benefit from continued refining of his approach. If he can swing more consistently at pitches he can drive, [more power] will happen organically. His contact skills don’t need to change. It’s a matter of refining his pitch selection.”
While not elite, Chatham’s ability to put the bat on the ball is impressive. His 17.6% strikeout rate was 14th best among 63 qualified hitters in the Eastern League. But as Crockett suggested, swinging at fewer pitches he can’t do damage with would be to Chatham’s advantage.
The Fort Lauderdale native recognizes that clearing more fences would only help raise his profile.
“That’s something I’ve thought about,” admitted Chatham, who came into the season ranked No. 12 on our Red Sox Top Prospects list. “I’ve had conversations with our hitting coaches, and whatnot, and it’s sort of, ‘Hey, why change when it’s working?’ At the same time, I do need to get more backspin on the balls that I pull. That’s something I used to have, but kind of lost. My swing maybe plays too much for top-spin singles to left. I do want to hit home runs. I’m not perfectly satisfied with singles.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.