Blue Jays Pitching: Where Does Jesse Chavez Fit?

Jays From the Couch looks at why newly acquired Blue Jays pitcher Jesse Chavez should be the heavy favourite to win the Blue Jays highly contested fifth starter spot.

As much as some may have loved Liam Hendriks, the writing was clearly on the wall, Hendriks had failed to prove time and time again that he was unable to be a productive starter in the MLB. When Hendriks was traded on November 20th, 2015 to the Oakland Athletics for right handed Jesse Chavez, most fans were not pleased. Liam had been an efficient bullpen arm late in the season, (especially in a series against the Yankees) and showed great stuff during the playoffs. In his second stint with the Blue Jays, fans shouldn’t be so quick to look at Chavez and dismiss him just based on ERA. Chavez shows a ton of upside, enough to maybe win him the fifth starting spot on the Major league roster.

Chavez has quietly put up a solid two year run as a stater for the Athletics. In 2014, Chavez would make twenty-one starts, posting a 3.45ERA, 1.3 WAR, pitching 146IP, solid numbers to say the least. Pretty good for a guy who simply came out of nowhere, being picked in the 42nd round of the 2002 draft, bouncing from team to team. Pitching most of his career in the minors. Chavez reinvented himself in Oakland in the 2014 season, making him a legitimate back of the rotation workhorse who could easily be stretched out to 200IP in the future. Chavez seemed to have found his game, and while some of his numbers from the 2015 season might not please the eyes, there’s more to his game than people think.

Chavez in 2015, would have his career year by a long shot. Chavez would post career highs in starts (26), and innings (157IP). While his ERA might have ballooned to 4.18, Chavez continued to improve on his stellar play in other ways. Chavez was backed by some of the worst infield defenders in the MLB last season, with Athletics Shortstop Marcus Semien playing in 155 games, and would lead the entire MLB in Errors with 35. This is the largest amount of errors committed in a single season, since Mark Reynolds had 35 Errors with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2008. Chavez’s 3.85FIP (Lower than his 2014 ERA) and 2.3 WAR, give a better understanding of how he pitched last season. With a 43.1GB% in 2015 strong infield defense of Troy Tulowitzki, Ryan Goins, or Devon Travis, would surely help save Chavez some runs.

Since coming to Oakland, Chavez has reinvented his pitch arsenal. Before his days in Oakland, Chavez primarily relied on his Fourseam fastball and Slider nearly for 70% of his pitches. Now Chavez has almost completely ditched his Slider, and is throwing his Fourseam only around 30% of the time. His primary pitch has become his Cutter, occasionally mixing in a Changeup to mix up speeds better. Chavez pitches for contact, the main reason why good infield defense could determine a lot of his numbers. By refining his pitches, Chavez for the first time in his career, had a below league average walk rate in 2015 of 2.75 BB/9, pretty good for someone who struggled with control for much of his career.

Probably the most interesting thing about Chavez, is how he gets so much of this weak contact. We hear almost every start, Pat Tabler and Buck Martinez marvel at the mastery Mark Buehrle has at painting the outside edges of the strike zone, as fastballs of only 82mph, pitched in precise locations, are popped up to stationary defenders in the outfield for another easy out. The edges of the strike zone is a scary place to live for some; slightly off and you could have a bad day more way than one. For those like Ted Williams, who understand the corners better than anyone, mastering this 391 square inch zone, drawing walk after walk is what makes these players so lethal. Williams got to a point where he understood the zone so much, that umpires would tell opposing catchers, “Mr.Williams will let you know when your pitcher throws a strike.”

It’s the oldest battle in baseball, a batter like Ted Williams is smart enough to understand every inch of the zone at the plate with nowhere to put him. Pitch in the zone, and he will show you why he’s the last player to hit over .400 for a season, pitch out of the zone and he will show you why his career OBP is .482. The only option is to flirt with danger! Players who can work in this area with extreme efficiency like Buehrle and Ted Williams have distinct advantages over their competition. For however good Buehrle is at this art, Chavez is better.

Last season Chavez threw 2572 pitches, and of those pitches, 667 of them were right in the zone, 737 of them were outside the strike zone, for a total of 1404 pitches being easily called either a ball or a strike. For pitches clearly touching that imaginary line (which varies on umpire) he threw 1168 pitches, 45.6% of his pitches coming right on the line, that percentage led MLB last season. Almost throwing half of his 2572 pitches last season, with a career low walk rate in 2015 of 2.75, means that Chavez was incredibly efficient pitching in that area. Although Chavez’s vFA has dropped 3.3mph since coming into the MLB, he has proven to compensate with the ability to locate pitches in the strike zone.

Some would think that the Blue Jays starting rotation is still a question mark. With the potential ace Marcus Stroman pitching an entire season next year, R.A. Dickey continuing to be a fairly consistent innings eating pitcher, the bargain signing of Marco Estrada and lefty J.A. Happ, Chavez could be a solid fifth option, the lineup sounds like it has the potential to be pretty efficient. Both Roberto Osuna, and Aaron Sanchez have proven to be a very efficient 1-2 punch at the back end of the bullpen, and barring a Drew Hutchison comeback, there is no way that Chavez shouldn’t be a heavy favourite to win that fifth starting spot next season.

*Featured Image Credit: udo.d- flickr- Creative Commons

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Spencer Redmond

Spencer Redmond is a Graduate of the University of Wisconsin. His loves in life are the NBA, MLB, Stats, and his dog Parker.