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One Big Question: Can C.J. Chatham get on base more?

It’s the easiest way to increase his ceiling.

C.J. Chatham
Kelly O’Connor;

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover C.J. Chatham.

The Question: Can C.J. Chatham up his walk rate?

With the second Mookie Betts trade, in which the Red Sox receive prospects Jeter Downs and Connor Wong rather than Brusdar Graterol, somewhat sneakily the biggest loser may have been C.J. Chatham. I am not as certain that Downs is a future first-division starter in this league as others seem to be, but there’s no doubt he places in front of Chatham just generally as a prospect and in terms of being the future second baseman for this franchise moving forward. Granted, there’s an argument to be made that Chatham was probably being miscast by those who saw him in that light as well as one that Michael Chavis may have and still may have something to say about this. Either way, as much as there are roadblocks in Boston for Chatham, the truth is that he himself is the one holding him back from the first-division classification in general terms.

We’ll start with the good, because although it won’t be the focus of this post it is worth mentioning. There’s a reason Chatham got a taste of Triple-A last year, was placed on the 40-man roster this season and is knocking on the door to the majors. Offensively, he boasts a solid hit tool. I think the minor-league numbers probably inflate it a bit, but it could very well be an average hit tool, which sounds more “meh” than it is. An average hit tool can bring you a long way, especially as a middle infielder. Speaking of which, he is also a good gloveman over at shortstop and has shown the ability to transfer that over to second base as well. He’s gotten some time in left field and third base in the Arizona Fall League as well. Either way, he is a good defensive player with good athleticism to boot, giving him four (hit, field, arm, run) average to slightly above-average tools to start off with.

C.J. Chatham
Kelly O’Connor;

That brings us to his two deficiencies, both on offense and both important enough to limit his upside enough that most see him as a likely utility player with a chance at being a second-division starter (aka starter on a bad team). The first part is power, which simply has never really been part of his game. He can go gap-to-gap to smack a few doubles around, but he has never hit the ball over the fence very much. Even last year, in an admittedly small sample of 91 plate appearances, with the juiced ball at Triple-A, he ended up with just a .128 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG). Perhaps there’s a swing alteration that can open up more power, but it’s hard to see that without taking away some of that hit tool, which is the most important part of his game offensively.

That brings us to the other deficiency: Patience. Or drawing walks. Or however you want to refer to it. This appears to be the more logical path towards a raised ceiling if one is to come for the infield prospect. Over his last two seasons — he was drafted in 2016 and thus didn’t have a full year there and missed basically all of 2017 due to injury — he has produced walk rates of just 5.1 percent and 4.7 percent, respectively. For reference, the major-league average last year was 8.5 percent.

While in the minors, he’s been able to overcome that with relatively low strikeout rates (usually in the 16-18 percent range) as well as high batting averages on balls in play (consistently over .350 since the start of 2018). That will become harder to do in the majors, of course, due to both major-league pitchers and major-league defenses being much better and much more sophisticated. So, rather than being the .300+ hitter we’ve seen in the majors, a more realistic best-case for Chatham in the majors is probably more in the .280-.299 range.

To be clear, that is still very good in today’s environment, and the hit tool is not what’s on trial here. It’s the patience, and the ability to draw walks. Unfortunately, we don’t really have the plate discipline numbers for Chatham at the minor-league level, so we have to go off eyeballs, both our own and from those whose job it is to do the scouting. I have seen Chatham a couple of times with my own eyeballs, and while I won’t pretend to have the scouting background to make my voice a prominent one in this space, I did notice an aggression to Chatham’s game. It wasn’t a bad one, to be fair, but rather that he likes jumping on early strikes if he thinks he can do some damage. That is not at all a bad thing, though the value drops a bit if that damage is mostly singles.

Looking at others’ scouting reports on Chatham, discipline and patience isn’t really mentioned a ton. However, on the Sox Prospects page they do mention an issue with recognizing spin, which would play into this. First, in the obvious sense of not being able to lay off breaking balls out of the zone leads to fewer walks. But also, if he’s not confident against those pitches he’s more likely to jump on a fastball early, which again isn’t necessarily bad but with his hitting style it lends itself to a reliance on BABIP. When you throw in the fact that major-league pitchers will be much more likely to mix up their sequences early in counts, it becomes even more important for Chatham to be more comfortable deeper into his at bats.

Ultimately, if Chatham really does want to be the second baseman of the future and a viable starter on a playoff contender, he probably needs to get that walk rate up to the 8-10 percent range. Again, that is assuming a power jump doesn’t really come. That should be enough to get him to a .350+ OBP in most years, which wouldn’t make him a star but would be enough for a Kolten Wong-esque profile. If not, the hit tool, defense, newfound versatility and athleticism is still enough for a solid major leaguer, just one who is more likely to come off the bench.