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One Big Question: Can Michael Chavis make the necessary adjustment against fastballs?

The pitch was his kryptonite in 2019.

Red Sox Spring Training Underway Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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 Michael Chavis.

Note: I know I’ve fallen behind on this series. We’ll catch up tomorrow with two.

The Question: Can Michael Chavis improve against the high heat?

In a season with as few bright spots as the Red Sox had last year, Michael Chavis emerged as one of them, particularly when he first got the call to the majors. The team was in desperate need of a spark at that point in the year, and Chavis was expected to be a short-term addition to the roster. Instead, he provided that spark and then some, smashing moonshot after moonshot and ensuring that he was not going to see Pawtucket again. (Well, except for an injury rehab stint.)

The homers were legitimately thrilling, of course, and I would say — admittedly without putting too much thought into it — that the initial burst onto the scene of Chavis was the most enjoyable portion of the entire season. Of course, things tapered off a bit for the rookie as the year went on, partially due to injury and partially due to the league simply making the necessary adjustments to slow him down. By the end of the year, Chavis was actually a slightly below-average hitter, finishing with a .254/.322/.444 line, which comes out to a 96 wRC+.

2020 Red Sox Winter Weekend Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

The issues were not necessarily a surprise, and mostly they came down to a whole lot of swing and miss. It has been clear for virtually all of Chavis’ professional career that strikeouts would be an issue for him, though that concern was at least a little alleviated as his career went on, which we’ll get to in a bit. One hole in his swing stood out specifically among the rest, and was a high-profile issue that never really got better. Chavis just couldn’t seem to get around on high velocity, particularly when it was up in the zone or above it.

It pretty much goes without saying that, to be a good major-league hitter you have to be able to hit fastballs. The ability to perform well against breaking balls and offspeed pitches certainly take a hitter to the next level, but it’s really hard to make an impact if major-league arms can just blow fastballs by you, particularly in this age with more reliever innings and higher velocity in general. Last season, Chavis whiffed on just about a third of the fastballs he saw and had an expected wOBA of .325. Both of those numbers are from Baseball Savant. For a player whose defense, while better than I and many others expected, won’t be the calling card, Chavis needs the bat to carry his profile. For that to happen, he can’t do... that against fastballs.

Like I said above, it was velocity up in the zone and above it that was particularly concerning. In the zone plot below, you’ll see that Chavis swung and missed a lot at pitches out of the zone everywhere. A couple points to that respect. One, it’s to be expected for a rookie to chase more than you’d like and to swing through breaking balls and offspeed pitches below the zone. It’s not ideal, but it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Two, more important to me than the whiff rate on pitches above the zone are the rates you’ll see on the upper-third of the zone.

via Baseball Savant

You simply can’t whiff on more than a third of pitches in the upper portion of the strike zone, and the nearly 60 percent rate in the upper-center is particularly egregious.

One can also look to pitch value metrics from FanGraphs, which admittedly aren’t my favorite numbers but they do provide some added context into these struggles. Chavis cost the team eight runs against fastballs, and 1.32 runs per every 100 fastballs. The actual numbers are less important to me than how that compares to the rest of the league. Consider that, on a rate basis, only 14 of the 241 hitters with at least 350 plate appearances cost their team more against fastballs, by this measure at least. In terms of overall value Chavis was 18th worst, though remember that this is a counting stat and Chavis played in only 95 games.

It’s also worth noting that pitchers noticed all of this and started throwing him more and more fastballs as the year went on.

via Baseball Savant

So, that’s all the bad news. What happened in 2019 no longer matters, though, and at the end of the day we are talking about a rookie who was called up earlier than many of us expected. What matters now is what happens moving forward, and there are some reasons for optimism.

We can look, for example, at some other rookies who struggled with fastballs. To do this I’ll go back to FanGraphs’ pitch value metric and look for rookies with at least 350 plate appearances from 2014-2018 to find hitters who struggled similarly with fastballs. The bad news is that the only three hitters to perform worse than Chavis against heat on a rate basis were Guillermo Heredia, Dansby Swanson and Matt Davidson. Not exactly a murderer’s row. On the other hand, if you look only slightly further down the list you see names like Hunter Renfroe, Kolten Wong and Jackie Bradley Jr. Clearly these aren’t all great hitters, but the point to make is that they all turned things around fairly quickly against fastballs specifically. That Chavis already seems to have a good handle on breaking and offspeed pitches should help matter.

There is also the fact that Chavis has been lauded for his makeup and work ethic in the minors as well. Obviously that’s something we can’t measure, but it is worth pointing out that he did show the ability to adjust throughout his minor-league career. When he first hit the pros his strikeout rate was sky-high, but he slowly improved that as his career went on, even while moving up the ladder. That’s not easy to do.

I think as I look ahead to Chavis’ 2020 campaign I’m most interested in what kind of playing time he gets and where he plays defensively. However, in terms of his value on the field, the ability to adjust against fastballs is going to be the key. Wherever he plays in the field, he needs to hit to stick around as an everyday player, whether it be in Boston or somewhere else. He’s not going to be able to provide enough value with the bat if opponents can sneak fastballs up in the zone by him whenever they want.