This 2020 season is almost over, but I’m still very much struggling with how we’re supposed to be judging individual performances on both the good and bad sides of the spectrum. The biggest issue is obviously that sample sizes are tiny, with just barely over a quarter of the season having been played. This is basically the equivalent of mid-May, and we don’t judge too harshly in most cases at that point of a normal year. Then there’s also the fact that circumstances this season are so different. I have no idea how to factor in a lack of crowd. That probably is based on the individual players, as I can imagine some personality types would be better without a crowd and some would be worse, but who knows who fits what personality type. That’s to say nothing about players’ personal lives. This is obviously a very tough time in our country for a variety of reasons, and people are certainly dealing with things about which we have no idea.
On the other hand, this is the only data we have since last September. There are a lot of reasons that numbers could be skewed this year but we don’t really have an alternative. I suppose one could just completely throw away all 2020 statistics, but that doesn’t seem any more helpful than trying to parse the numbers in front of us. I suppose the correct answer is trying to find a balance between the two viewpoints, and that balance is probably different for every player based largely on factors to which we are not privy. In other words, it’s basically an impossible task.
With all of that being said, the player whose 2020 performance may be most influential for his future may just be Michael Chavis, who could be seeing his time with the Red Sox slipping out of his hands. Going back to the difficulties of judging this season, I’d say the most difficult players to judge are those whose numbers go against your preconceived notions. It’s simply human nature to find reasons to excuse away the things you were wrong about. I was high on Chavis coming into the year relative to the general consensus, buying more into all of the positives I’ve heard about his makeup than the struggles he had in 2019 following his red-hot start. The performance has only gotten worse this year, though, and it’s probably time for me to reconcile with that, shortened season or no.
To put it simply, Chavis has been one of the very worst position players on a team that has been one of the very worst in baseball. To get back to the sample size thing we are only talking about 29 games and 105 plate appearances, but he’s hit just .225/.267/.347 for a 58 wRC+. To contextualize that, it means he has been 42 percent worse than a league-average hitter and among the 227 players with at least 100 plate appearances only 13 have been worse. Chavis is walking less than five percent of the time, striking out over 38 percent of the time, and putting up an Isolated Power of jut .122, 53 points below league-average.
The biggest issue that is forcing me to reconsider my stance on the young infielder is his performance against fastballs. We saw in 2019 that teams figured out Chavis’s biggest hole was against fastballs, particularly those up in the zone or above it. He just can’t get to them. The hope was that he’d make the necessary adjustment to fix that flaw over the offseason. Instead, he’s still been brutal against velocity. According to Baseball Savant, he has a wOBA (an overall hitting statistic on the same scale as OBP) of .274 against fastballs and an expected wOBA (based on contact rate and quality of contact) of .333 while swinging and missing a whopping 38 percent of the time. Those numbers are all the same or worse than last season. FanGraphs has a metric that rates players against each individual pitch, and by this pitch value metric Chavis ranks is worse than all but 29 of those 227 players with at least 100 plate appearances on a rate basis.
On top of that, the possible roles for Chavis are starting to dissipate. For one thing, he has been utterly unplayable against righties this year, posting a wRC+ of 39 against them. The good news on this front is that his wRC+ against righties in 2019 was 101, but a lot of that production also came before pitchers started peppering him with high fastballs.
More importantly, Bobby Dalbec is starting to position himself as something close to the everyday first baseman next year. Obviously the sample here is tiny and Chavis himself provides a cautionary tale of buying too early on a player with swing and miss in his game, but even beyond Dalbec the Red Sox have Triston Casas putting himself on a potential fast track with his performance in Pawtucket. Chavis, meanwhile, can provide versatility at second base and now the outfield, but he’s not good enough defensively to play either spot every day. Even beyond that, the Red Sox have a 40-man crunch coming this winter with a bevy of minor leaguers who will need protecting from the Rule 5 Draft, so players on the fringe of the roster like Chavis could be are even more vulnerable to finding themselves on the outside looking in.
Now, I don’t want to completely bury Chavis for all of the reasons I mentioned at the top of this post. We’re talking about a sixth of a full season’s worth of plate appearances, and anyone can have a hot or cold month. I still also very much believe in the work ethic and makeup here. That said, it’s impossible to ignore the results since his initial hot streak to start his career. The Red Sox have a lot of decisions to make this winter, and Chavis is going to be one of them. And with only a few weeks left in the season, perhaps no one has more to play for on this roster than him.