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February 28, 2007
Eric Chavez has had himself quite the productive career, although it is not quite what most analysts and fans expected. He has won six straight Gold Gloves, and probably deserved most if not all of them, as he was the best American League's best defensive third basemen from 2003-2005 according to John Dewan. His offense has petered out the past two years after an age-26 season that saw improvements to his plate production. Entering his age-29 season, Chavez's PECOTA forecast is a disappointingly low .263/.358/.464 with an Improvement Rate of only 32 percent, and the four years after that aren't very thrilling either. Is this what we can expect from Chavez from here on out, or will there be a return to his pre-2005 form in his future?
Eric Cesar Chavez was a two-time Baseball America High School All-America selection at Mount Carmel High School in San Diego, and was the only junior so honored the first time he earned it. He hit .537 with nine homeruns and 51 steals his junior year, and .458 with 11 homeruns and 33 steals his senior season, which earned him the 10th overall slot in the 1996 amateur draft. Chavez did not sign with Oakland until August 27 of that year, so his professional debut was held off until 1997, when he played third base for High-A Visalia. Chavez would only spend two seasons in the minors before debuting with the major league club, splitting 1998 between Double-A and Triple-A for the most part:
AB AVG/OBP/SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% Vis.(A+) 520 .271/.321/.444 .256 36% .173 33 6.6% 16.3% Hun.(AA) 335 .328/.402/.612 .433 45% .284 28 11.1% 16.2% Edm.(AAA) 194 .325/.364/.588 .200 46% .133 18 5.8% 15.5%
Chavez had a fine debut at Visalia considering he was 19 years old and fresh out of high school, especially when you consider his BABIP was only .299, well below the level's average. He was also named the best defensive third basemen in the Cal League by Baseball America following his debut. In 1998 his BABIP was much higher-a bit over the level's average, even-and his stat line was all the more impressive for it. Even if you were to dock him a few points of BABIP to match the averages for Double-A, Chavez still put together something relatively close to .300/.370/.580 as a 20 year old. This success--and high BABIP--carried over to Triple-A Edmonton, although not with the same kind of plate patience on display.
This did not deter the Athletics from calling him up, with Chavez making his major league debut on September 8, 1998. He played in 16 of the A's contests from that point onward, compiling a .311/.354/.444 line in 45 at-bats. Chavez was named Minor League Baseball Player of the Year by Baseball America following the season, and he had earned himself a stay on the major league squad as well.
Chavez would play in 115 games for the A's in 1999, splitting time with Olmedo Saenz and Scott Spiezio at third base, but this gig as a part-time player wasn't going to last long, with Chavez earning 569 plate appearances the next year, and blossoming as an offensive player:
AB AVG/ OBP/SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 1999 356 .247/.333/.427 .309 41% .180 23 11.4% 13.9% 2000 501 .277/.355/.495 .341 38% .218 27 10.9% 16.5% 2001 552 .288/.338/.540 .337 47% .252 43 6.8% 16.4%
Baseball Prospectus 2000 covers Chavez's 1999 season well, with some information you can't glean from his stat line:
Expectations were high, so in some quarters Chavez was perceived as a disappointment. He had to be platooned, and his defense needs work, but the A's believe he's coachable. His hitting got better as the season went on; before a torn plantar fascia sidelined him from mid-August to mid-September, he was on the verge of becoming the big stick in the lineup. Among 1999 AL rookies, Chavez is still the guy who should have the best offensive career.
His progress was easily visible in the 2000-2001 campaigns, as he boosted his power game and his batting average, although there was quite a dip in his walk rate during 2001. Defensively, he still needed some work; according to Baseball Prospectus 2001, he "…still plays third base a little too upright and flat-footed, but he's got the arm for the position." According to his FRAA, it looks like he straightened that out that very season: his three year FRAA were -8, -13 and +17, from 1999 to 2001 respectively.
Chavez was able to maintain most of his production from 2001, trading in a few points of slugging for a higher walk rate. He was an offensive force at the corner from 2002-2004, and except for a 2002 season where his glove work dropped back down to league average, was outstanding defensively as well. Let's call this the Scott Rolen Lite Era of Chavez's career, because that was basically the only third basemen in the league that was better all-around:
AB AVG/ OBP/SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2002 585 .275/.348/.513 .357 42% .238 34 10.0% 18.2% 2003 588 .282/.350/.514 .345 44% .232 44 9.5% 13.6% 2004 475 .276/.397/.501 .432 37% .225 20 16.5% 17.2%
Subsequently, 2002 and 2003 are not all that different, with all of a .003 point difference in OPS and a few points of batting average separating the two. His BABIP was also consistent from 2000 to 2004 as well, with the highest total coming in at .302 and the lowest at .291.
What is most interesting from 2004 is the serious increase to his walk rate; he was in his age-26 season, so one would expect improvement, but no other facet of his game improved, even with Chavez dispelling the notion that he could not hit lefties effectively during this season. From 2000 to 2003, Chavez hit .223/.271/.381 against southpaws, and .305/.378/.572 against right-handers, but in 2004 he hit .306/.412/.481 versus lefties while only managing .257/.388/.514 against right-handers. It's somewhat odd to see such vast improvement against the bane of your existence, and nevertheless end up with almost anything to show for it overall.
Stranger still, 2005 and 2006 were downhill for Chavez. He still plays a premium defensive third base, but his bat just does not seem to be where it was just two years prior:
AB AVG/ OBP/SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2005 625 .269/.329/.466 .299 40% .197 41 8.4% 18.6% 2006 485 .241/.351/.435 .355 41% .194 26 14.6% 17.4%
That 2005 season was a shock, with many analysts, including Baseball Prospectus 2005, thinking he was going to contend for the American League MVP that year. The only positive from 2005 for Chavez is that he hit .218/.276/.317 from April through May, but .293/.353/.537 for the rest of the year, much more in line with what we expect from him in his age-27 campaign. As for the 2006 season, Chavez once more struggled against lefties, hitting only .197/.311/.339 against them in 127 at-bats. His 2006 had the opposite spread of production, with his production tailing off as the year dragged on until September, where he reemerged as a force in the lineup. This most likely is connected to Chavez playing with bilateral forearm tendonitis in both arms for much of the year; it certainly seems like the kind of nagging injury that would negatively impact your swing and mechanics. Not just that, but he also dealt with hip, back, and elbow pains, as well as a bout with food poisoning in mid-May. Chavez claimed to be feeling better in August, but it didn't show up in his stat line until September.
Besides the injuries-or maybe even because of them-Chavez had to deal with a well below average BABIP that dragged his stats down:
Year P/PA FB% LINERD% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Dif. 2002 3.9 45.5% 19.4% 35.0% 16.0% 16.0% .294 .314 +0.20 2003 3.9 35.3% 25.1% 39.6% 10.2% 16.4% .291 .371 +0.80 2004 4.1 41.3% 18.2% 40.5% 12.1% 18.5% .294 .302 +0.08 2005 3.9 43.0% 18.4% 38.6% 13.8% 12.4% .301 .304 +0.03 2006 3.9 43.7% 17.6% 38.6% 14.6% 12.9% .262 .296 +0.34
It's odd that Chavez's flukishly high line drive rate in 2003 did not come to anything out of the ordinary in his numbers. Given the proper adjustment for the difference in BABIP and eBABIP for that year, Chavez should have had a Pujolsian campaign. Since that would have been an outlier in Chavez's career, I'll ignore it past that. Besides that, his BABIP was always fairly consistent, as was his line-drive rate. Chavez is more of a flyball guy, which should give him more inconsistency, but he's been solidly entrenched in that .290-.300 region, excepting 2006. This was the lowest line-drive rate of his career, but his BABIP did not reflect that. If you give Chavez the difference, his line should have been .275/.385/.469, and that's assuming all of the lost hits were singles. If you account for his injury which sapped him of his power game for much of the season, it's easy to picture a scenario where Chavez hit something more like .290/.400/.500, or maybe even a bit better depending on how charitable you feel. This lines up fairly well with his .293/.353/.537 performance from June to the end of 2005, and fits in with his career numbers much more neatly.
Given that, is it too much to expect a healthy Chavez to hit the upper levels of his PECOTA forecast in 2007? His 75th percentile line is .275/.372/.493, while his 90th is .293/.392/.537, which looks a lot like Chavez at different times in 2005 and what he should have done in 2006, if healthy and not so unlucky. If Chavez is able to come back 100 percent healthy in 2007-or even 90 percent of the way-the A's would be able to make up for some of the offensive production they have lost to the bearded ones up north, as well as giving their fans some more of that hope and faith we've been showcasing here the past few days.