Timing is a key element of baseball. Whether its swinging at the correct moment, attempting a steal when the time is right or getting the perfect jump on a ball hit into the outfield, massive differences can be made by just a second.
In some ways, Michael Chavis’s 2019 season had bad timing, and by more than a few seconds. That’s not to say Chavis shouldn’t have been given opportunities last year or that he’s not ready to play at the major-league level yet. What I’m trying to say is the way we evaluate Chavis’ 2019 season, his first in the big leagues, looks a lot different today than it would have 20 years ago.
In a pre-Moneyball world, Chavis’ line of work from 2019 would have led to an unassailable coronation. In a time when batting average, home runs and RBI were the three statistics that mattered the most, Chavis would have had exemplary numbers in two of the three. He hit 18 home runs and drove in 58 runs last season across 95 games and 382 plate appearances. If we assume around 650 plate appearances over the course of a full season, Chavis was on pace for 30 home runs and just a hair below 100 RBI. Even in the age of more advanced metrics, that’s still very good and is a major reason why there is hype brewing for Chavis’s encore.
However, despite that strong pace, the cold reality is that Chavis still has work to do. That’s obviously understandable. He was in just his age-23 season last year and it was his first at the highest level. But despite the many flashes of promise and the exciting collection of home runs, when we dig deeper and measure Chavis’ play last year by more current methods of analysis, it paints a less positive picture. Overall, Chavis posted a slightly below average wRC+ (96) with a wOBA of .323.
This is by no means a reason to panic. Plenty of star players have struggled more than Chavis in their first year and gone on to have massively successful careers. It was over a much smaller sample size, but Dustin Pedroia only had a 41 wRC+ in 98 plate appearances when he first came up in 2006. Chavis is miles ahead of such a pace and Pedroia, as we know, went on to win an MVP award two years after his MLB debut. Chavis has already shown that he has great power in his bat and now he just has to make a few improvements to become a more well-rounded hitter and overall player.
The most pressing improvement Chavis needs to make his to his selectivity and patience. Chavis struck out 127 times last year. On the Red Sox, only Jackie Bradley Jr., Andrew Benintendi and J.D. Martinez struck out more and they all appeared in at least 135 games apiece. That led to an astronomical strikeout rate (33.2 percent) for Chavis that was the highest among Red Sox position players with at least 75 plate appearances.
This predilection for striking out could just be part of the growing era of the three true outcomes, and with his home run pace, Chavis certainly seems to be part of that trend, but the problem is he doesn’t balance those strikeouts with much in terms of walking. His walk rate of 8.1 percent was not the worst mark on the Red Sox last season, but it certainly shows some room for improvement.
Something that could help both his strikeout and walk rates is fewer swings at pitches outside of the zone. Chavis is a guy who likes to swing, and with his power, it’s tough to blame him. That said, being a bit more selective could go a long way. Chavis swung at 35.3 percent of pitches he saw that went outside of the strike zone last season. That wasn’t the worst mark on the team, but was certainly higher than the Red Sox would like. It was made all the worse because Chavis missed on those swings far often than some of his other counterparts with high outside-the-zone swing rates.
Take Rafael Devers for example. The star third baseman swung at 40.5 percent of the pitches he saw outside the zone and connected on 71.9 percent of those offerings. Meanwhile, Chavis only made contact on just 47.1 percent of the outside-the-zone pitches he saw. In a perfect world, Chavis wouldn’t swing at a single pitch that wasn’t over the plate, but that’s entirely unrealistic. If he could just cut down on the times he swings at such pitches while putting a few more of the ones he does swing at into play, he could become a much more dangerous hitter.
Aside from swinging at the right pitches more often, Chavis could also stand to barrel up a few more of those offerings when he does make contact. For someone who hit at such a solid home run pace last season, Chavis’ hard-hit rate wasn’t exactly where you’d expect it to be. With a mark of 33.2 percent, Chavis ranked 13th on the Red Sox last season. Moving that number up even a few more percentage points would put him into good company. For example, Devers was only a few steps above him at 37.6 percent. Chasing less often will obviously help here as well.
Shoring up his offensive game will be a major focus for Chavis in 2020, but he could also stand to be a bit more consistent on defense and on the base paths. It’s tough to really blame him for any defensive shortcomings, to be fair. Chavis was brought up as a third baseman but was asked to play second and first far more often in 2019. Devers obviously has the hot corner locked down, so perhaps with a bit more consistency with where he plays Chavis can create more positive value on defense.
On the base paths, he doesn’t need to do much, especially if he keeps hitting for power. After all, Martinez ranked last among Red Sox batters in FanGraphs’ base running value metric last year, and nobody is really complaining about that.
All of these potential improvements are easy to identify and even if they’ll be more difficult to fix than find, there’s no reason to believe Chavis can’t get the job done. That’s where the real wrinkle of timing comes into the equation. Most second-year players are able to build on the foundation of their first season across a standard 162-game campaign. That means plenty of time for statistics to level out and become trends and plenty of opportunities to correct mistakes or recover from slow starts.
I’d imagine Chavis will be given a lot more leeway than a normal second-year player since he’ll only have a maximum of 60 games to work with in 2020, but with such a reduced time frame, each plate appearance will carry a bit more significance than if we were in the midst of a season without a global pandemic. And then there are the psychological hurdles from how isolating this season will be for players in addition to the all out health risks and logistical issues. That’s a lot for any and all players to deal with, let alone someone still trying to solidify their future with an organization.