April 19 was practically a full season ago at this point, and it seems like, well, forever has passed since then. That was the day Michael Chavis was called up to the majors with the Red Sox off to a horrendous start and in search for some sort of spark, not to mention some stability at second base. They had no answers with Dustin Pedroia not making it back, Eduardo Núñez not getting the job done and Brock Holt struggling and/or dealing with injuries. So, they were forced to turn to a borderline top-100 prospect who had spent his entire career as a corner infielder and who had only 20 games at Triple-A under his belt. It seemed like a desperate attempt with little chance of working out. Even as someone who was higher on Chavis than most, it was hard to look at his lack of experience both at Triple-A and at second base along with the very real holes in his swing and seeing this working out.
Of course, we know what happened that. He did provide a very real spark to this team when he first got called up. Chavis raked at the plate and actually handled himself extremely well at second base. Over the first 20 major-league games of his career he found himself hitting .282/.407/.563. Fast-forward to today and he is entrenched as a regular in this lineup and just another member of the team. He didn’t keep up that hot pace throughout the year, and in fact hit a big slump immediately after the hot start. Since then, he’s leveled off a bit with some peaks and valleys but not quite to the extreme as the start of his career.
Now as we sit here on August 6, with the Red Sox finally having won another game but still finding themselves 5.5 out of a playoff spot, it’s natural to start wondering about the future. That should include Chavis, who has settled in as a solid rookie with real flaws and real strengths. He’s a fascinating case and it’s fair to wonder where we go from here.
Through the weekend, Chavis had played in 90 games and stepped to the plate 365 times in his rookie year. He is hitting .263/.332/.462 for a 103 wRC+. He did add a couple of singles to his ledger on Monday, too. To put it a little more simplistically, the rookie has been very slightly better than the league-average hitter to this point. The power has been very real, but it’s been limited by his issues with making contact, as indicated by a strikeout rate of 33.2 percent. That is the highest strikeout rate in baseball among the 147 hitters with at least 350 plate appearances.
Strikeouts are up across the league and players are succeeding more and more despite a lack of contact, but there is still a line at which you cannot really succeed anymore without elite, elite power that Chavis does not possess. Right now, he is on the wrong side of the line. There needs to be some sort of adjustment to be made to get that rate even to the 25-28 percent range.
If you’ve been paying attention to his season, you know that the biggest issue for Chavis this year has been high-velocity fastballs, particularly up in the zone. According to Statcast data from Baseball Savant, the rookie has seen fastballs a whopping 65 percent of the time this year with a whiff rate of 32 percent. His numbers are actually best against fastballs compared to breaking balls and offspeed pitches, but that is to be expected. Relative to the league, he has struggled agains the fastball. According to Fangraphs pitch values, only ten hitters have been worse against fastballs than Chavis among the same 147 hitters mentioned above.
So, the goal for me was to figure out what the future looks like for the Red Sox rookie, a guy with big power but swing-and-miss issues that struggles most against fastballs. It’s a strange profile, as generally these types of young players struggle with breaking balls and/or offspeed pitches while feasting on fastballs. So, I looked for rookies with similar starts to their careers over the last decade to see if any other with similar profiles struggled so much with fastballs.
The list itself, which I found by searching for all rookies since 2010 with a strikeout rate of at least 30 percent and an Isolated Power of at least .190. There was a wide range of names on this list, with the top-end including the likes of Aaron Judge and Kris Bryant but the bottom including guys like Chris Carter, Darin Ruf and Jarrett Parket, among others.
In all there were 26 rookies that met this requirement. Among them, only one was worse against fastballs according to Fangraphs’ pitch values. That would be Matt Davidson, who is now trying to stick around in this league as a two-way player. He never really recovered. Now, it should be mentioned that Davidson was far worse against fastballs than even Chavis, with a pitch value of -12.1 while Chavis’ is at -5.6. On the other side of Chavis is Tom Murphy, another player who has yet to figure it out in this league.
That’s the negatives. The positives is that one spot ahead of Murphy on this list and a pair of players with final rookie numbers that are similar to Chavis. Those two are Giancarlo Stanton and Jesús Aguilar. Both players were negatives against fastballs (-2.5) early in their career but have blossomed into strong hitters since. Even better, both quickly turned into some of the better fastball hitters in all of baseball. They started at a higher level against the pitch, to be fair, but it does provide some optimism that turnarounds are possible.
For the rest of the year, I wouldn’t expect much change for the Red Sox rookie. Chavis is still going to have some big swings and high peaks as well as ugly strikeouts and low valleys through the end of the year. He’ll probably finish 2019 with something like around a league-average line. Then, he has some work to do. Players have adjusted to this inability to hit fastballs before, and Chavis has a history of improvement from year to year in the minors. This is the biggest adjustment he’ll have to make in his career, though, and will ultimately define where he goes in this league.