Oakland Athletics’ Jesse Chavez Should Follow Wade Davis’s Example, Move to Bullpen


The Oakland Athletics’ once best-in-the-league starting pitching rotation was dealt yet another blow on Tuesday night when the Athletics announced that Jesse Chavez’s season was coming to an end, the Associated Press reported. Chavez will join beleaguered starters Jesse Hahn, Kendall Graveman, and Chris Bassitt in the ranks of starters who are either on the disabled list or unavailable due to injury. For the latter three, the expectation is that they will nurse their injuries into the offseason and come back full strength in 2016. Chavez, however, may have just punched his ticket back into the A’s bullpen for 2016.

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Chavez’s struggles late in the season have been well catalogued. In 2014, his Pre All-Star Break stats tell the story of a different pitcher than those of his Post All-Star Break stats. Early-season Chavez threw a commanding 3.14 ERA versus the Post All-Star Break Chavez, who threw for a 4.60 ERA in those late-season games. But this was his first year as a starter; the A’s were sure he would come into the 2015 season more prepared for the physically challenging job that is sticking in the rotation for for an entire season.

But 2015 has been a haunting reminder of the late-season problems he had in 2014. In eight starts through the end of May, Chavez showed Athletics fans why Billy Beane and Bob Melvin put him into the rotation. His dominant 2.11 ERA during that span put him on the American League leaderboards during those early months. But Oakland watched his performances weaken throughout the season, and that dominating ERA ballooned to a 5.14 for the months of June, July, and August.

The most obvious explanation for this phenomenon is that he lacks the durability to throw the amount of innings that full-season starters need to throw. Chavez came into the league in 2008 as a reliever for the Pirates, and the bullpen is where he stayed until the Oakland Athletics started experimenting with his ability to start games in 2014. The highest number of innings he pitched between 2008 and 2013 was 67.1 in his second year in the league. The A’s then asked him to pitch 146 innings last year, and 157 this season. Yikes.

But the obvious explanation might not be the only force at work here. Chavez may just perfectly fit the profile of a relief pitcher.

Starting pitchers are successful when they can pitch to the lineup several times, and the key to doing this is having a variety of effective pitches (usually three or more) to keep batters guessing in multiple at-bats. Very few pitchers can power their way through seven innings throwing only fastballs (we’re looking at you, Bartolo Colon). Conversely, relief pitchers are successful when they can either overpower or fool batters one time through the lineup with one or two excellent offerings.

One of the best case studies for this is Kansas City Royals reliever Wade Davis. Of Davis’ seven seasons in Major League Baseball, only four of them were spent as the league’s premier relief pitcher. Three of his seasons were spent making mediocre starts between the Rays and the Royals. So why is it that a reliever whose name has almost become synonymous with “three up, three down” just couldn’t cut it as a starter?

The answer is that he tried expanding his repertoire, but his secondary pitches were just not dominant enough to keep batters guessing for enough innings to make quality starts. Numbers made readily available by our friends at FanGraphs can help shed some light on this.

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This season, Davis has been a lights-out reliever throwing only a fastball (sometimes it cuts, sometimes it doesn’t) and a knuckle curve. Batters are only hitting .127 against his fastball, and .184 against his curve. However, Davis also threw a changeup and a two-seamer as a starter in 2013. These were intended to give him more pitch options to use for six-plus innings, but the result was that he was throwing weaker pitches that batters hit for .488 and .337 respectively. And when the secondary pitches don’t work, the primary pitches suffer as well.

This is exactly what has happened to Jesse Chavez in Oakland. 2013 was a good year for him. It was the first year he finished the season with an ERA lower than four (3.92), and he gave the Oakland Athletics 57.1 solid innings of relief. How did he do it? He fed batters a steady diet of fastballs (like Davis, some of them cut and some didn’t) and curveballs. Opposing batters hit his fastball for .147 and his curveball for .125. Not bad! So what happened to him in 2015? Well, if Davis’ struggles as a starter are at all predictive, then this next part should not be surprising.

Chavez began relying on a changeup and slider that were not originally important pieces of his repertoire, and opposing batters have not been fooled by these new additions. In 2015, Chavez’s slider has gotten hit for .278, and his changeup for .307. This is clearly not as good as the primary stuff he used exclusively when the Athletics utilized him as a reliever.

The fact that Chavez’s performance declined drastically as early as the second time through the order further supports that his stuff was made for relief pitching where he can focus solely on throwing only his best pitches. Watch what has happened between the first and second time through the order in 2015 when Chavez is pitching. The SO/W ratio declines from 3.31 to 2.29, OPS shoots up from .696 to .842, and batters went from hitting four home runs to 11 home runs.

Chavez has great stuff, but it is definitely at its best one or two innings at a time (and the A’s could certainly use good pitching two innings at a time late in games). The Oakland Athletics will desperately need bullpen help in 2016, and the rotation will be crowded with Hahn, Graveman, Bassitt, and Sean Nolin all ready to support ace Sonny Gray.

It is unfortunate that this is the way 2015 ends for Chavez, but he can return in 2016 as an invaluable part of the A’s bullpen (which is a position that A’s fans will never, ever take for granted again).

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