Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day (minus a week in October where I’ll be mostly off) we’ll deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Michael Chavis.
2019 in one sentence
Michael Chavis was incredibly up-and-down in his major-league debut, but held his own after being rushed to the bigs while also learning new positions defensively.
For some players, it can be difficult to decide how to lead this section. Some are just, frankly, so bad that there is really no good choice. Others are so good that it can be difficult to prove just one area to highlight first. Then, you have guys like Michael Chavis, for whom the biggest positive and carrying trait is just so obvious. This dude has some power. For all of the other flaws or debatable skill sets which we’ll get into as we get deeper into this post, no one can argue Chavis’ raw power. Juiced ball or no, the Red Sox rookie sent balls into orbit on a regular basis this year, hitting more Capital-M Moonshots than anyone else on the team. His .190 Isolated Power to end his season was more fine than anything special, but it was more about his other issues than the pure power. When he gets a hold of one, he hits them as far and with as much electricity as anyone on this roster.
This kind of transitions nicely into the next part of this: His start to his career. Chavis was called up prematurely this year, with the team getting nothing from second base and desperately needing some sort of spark. Obviously they never really got out of the doldrums, but that wasn’t for a lack of spark from Chavis. He was, scientifically speaking, crazy bananapants when he first got called up. The 24-year-old (and 23-year-old at the time) started his career with a ninth inning pinch hit appearance in a tie game in the ninth down in the Trop against José Alvarado. Welcome to the bigs, kid. He was not at all fazed, though, ripping a double that eventually helped lead to the winning run being scored. It only built from there, with his first homer coming in his fourth game and the magic continuing for a couple of weeks. Over his first 14 games, Chavis hit .354/.466/.771 with six homers. When he was first called up, it was far from a guarantee he would be up to stay. It was clear just a handful of games in that he was not going back down to Pawtucket.
I think the thing I was most impressed with from Chavis this year — beyond the power, I guess, which was more being amazed than impressed if we’re being honest — was just the poise he showed. As I said above, he was rushed to the majors more quickly than was expected. This is a guy who had a combined 129 games above High-A before getting the cal to the majors, with just 29 of them coming at Triple-A. On top of all that comes with adjusting to the majors on the fly, he was also learning new positions on a team that was disappointing in the most high profile of ways. Amid all of that, he always seemed under control. Even the flaws, of which there were plenty, seemed to me at least to be more mechanical than a guy who was scared of the moment.
To that point, he was actually better when the situations meant the most. By wRC+, he was was below average in low leverage situations but above average in medium and high leverage spots. Similarly, he was at his worst with the bases empty but was above average with men on base and when runners were in scoring position. Now, I don’t really think that’s a super sustainable skill or anything, but it doesn’t have to be. The key to being “clutch” isn’t really to be better in those situations but rather to not let it get the best of you. Ultimately, if you’re the same guy in any situation, you’re doing well. Chavis doesn’t appear to be the kind of player who will let those situations get to him.
Now, back to that whole learning new positions thing. As someone who has been relatively high on Chavis’ bat the last couple of years, I was extremely skeptical of him coming up to play second base, and was even a little (though significantly less) wary of him playing first. Even beyond the question of whether or not he has the skillset for those positions, it’s really hard to learn new positions at the major-league level as a rookie. He had all of 15 starts at first base in the minors and zero at second base. I do not think he looked like a great fielder at any spot — the range isn’t quite there in both directions for second base and his footwork at first base at times looked like a guy with very little experience at the position — but given my expectations he was fantastic. With the shifting in the league I wholeheartedly believe he can now pass at second base, and I think with experience he can be a fine or even above-average first baseman.
For as impressed as I was with Chavis in his first taste of the majors, there was certainly plenty to be upset about as well. That starts with the way his season ended. That includes his performance, of course, which was brutal. He had a really tough month of August, playing in only eleven games and hitting .156/.206/.250 in that stretch. If you want to extend it out a bit, you can go back to his final twenty games when he put up a .592 OPS. As it turns out, that was at least partially because he was hurt. Chavis’ last game was on August 11, missing the rest of the year with an oblique injury. I’m generally not one to blame a player for injuries, but it’s worth noting this is not exactly a new thing with Chavis. One of the big knocks on him as a prospect was an inability to stay on the field, and we saw it here. Hell, we’re still seeing it as the team was hoping to get him some outfield reps in winter ball but decided to let him heal up. It goes without saying, but if he wants to be the best player he can be he needs to stay on the field.
The injury concerns were one knock as a prospect, but certainly not the only one. While his potential with the bat was undeniable, the one thing that could hold it back was the swing and miss in his game. As he progressed through the minors he improved his strikeout rate tremendously, but he fell back into old habits in the majors. Chavis ended 2019 with a 33 percent strikeout rate, fourth in baseball among those with at least 350 plate appearances. Unsurprisingly, he was well below average in contact rate on pitches both in and out of the zone, and according to Baseball Savant he whiffed at at least a third of every type of pitch he saw.
Statistically speaking, Chavis was best against fastballs, but that’s to be expected for every hitter. However, it was actually the fastball that pitchers clearly started focusing on as they got more tape on him. As the year went on, it became clear he had some real trouble making contact with high velocity up in the zone. It’s a little bit surprising for someone with his profile, but it was around the time this hole was found that his initial hot streak came to an end. Baseball, as they say, is a game of adjustments, and Chavis needs to make one to counteract this approach.
The Big Question
Looking at the roster for next season, I’m not sure there is a player in which I am more personally interested than Chavis. There are just so many questions about both his role and just his ability as a player. Will he be able to improve against those high fastballs? Will the strikeout rate come down? Where is he going to play? Is he going to have a firm position or move around? Will he get enough time to become a legitimate option in left field? It’s all really fascinating to me! I do have confidence in his ability to improve at the plate largely due to his reputation for his work ethic combined with his tendency to improve throughout his professional career. I also think in an ideal world his role would be one including multiple positions, though that’s easier said than done. I’m not really sure what’s going to happen with Chavis in 2020, but I’m excited to see what’s on tap.