Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Michael Chavis.
The Question: Can Michael Chavis cover the whole plate?
In looking at for whom this season is most important as far as individual players go, Michael Chavis has to be way up on the list. The former top prospect in the organization got off to a scorching start to his career, but since then has struggled to the point where it looks most likely at this point that he will begin the 2021 season in the minors, barring injury. That may be for the best, though, as he needs to find a way to get things back on track. Whether it’s right away or later in the year, he will eventually get his chance back up in Boston against major-league pitching, and whenever that may be it could very well end up as his final chance in the Red Sox organization to make good on his potential.
Chavis has shown some nice defensive versatility that should help him latch on for a bit, but at the end of the day he isn’t great defensively at any spot. The bottom line is he needs to hit. And when I say hit, I don’t just mean in that general sense that he needs to put up productive numbers at the plate. I mean it literally. He needs to hit the baseball with the bat and put it in play, particularly on pitches in the zone. Everything else can build off of that.
For as exciting as his 2019 debut was — and you can’t just throw that away — Chavis has still settled in as a below-average hitter early in his career. With 540 plate appearances under his belt between the last two seasons, he has a wRC+ of 87, which is passable for some but less acceptable for a bat-first player like Chavis. Last season things looked even worse, as he finished they year with a 65 wRC+, meaning he was 35 percent worse than the league-average hitter. And in looking at the issues, you don’t even need to look at the numbers. It’s clear watching him that he just doesn’t make enough contact.
This was the big concern with the former first round pick since back in his minor-league days. Whether or not he made it always was going to come down to the development of his hit tool. And to Chavis’s credit, he did make legitimate strides as he made his way up the ladder towards the majors. Unfortunately, those gains didn’t stick when he was facing the best pitchers in the world. Just about a full third of his plate appearances over the last two seasons have ended with a strikeout.
Coming into last season, it was very clear what the issue was: The high fastball. Everybody who watched Chavis in 2019 saw that hole in his swing, and as pitchers started adjusting to it his performance started to tank. And so the thinking went that if he could fix that hole, he could turn the performance around.
Well, it’s still an issue as we sit here looking towards 2021, though it’s not so much the high fastball now as it is just covering the entire plate. Chavis did get better at getting wood on fastballs in the upper portion of the zone, but he still struck out over 30 percent of the time and, per Baseball Savant, was in the bottom four percent of baseball in overall whiff rate. And it’s every type of pitch. Again per Baseball Savant, he whiffed on over 30 percent of swings against fastballs, exactly 50 percent against breaking balls, and just under 50 percent of breaking balls. For what it’s worth, he actually slightly improved his whiff rate against fastballs compared to 2019 while getting slightly worse against the other two types of pitches.
This is part of the issue, though. Chavis did get a little bit better at the thing everyone knew he needed to improve on, but A) it wasn’t enough of an improvement and B) it was accompanied by regression in other areas. That was true of the type of pitches he was seeing, and it was also true in terms of protecting the zone. Now, Chavis did get a bit better in terms of contact rate on pitches in the zone, jumping from 72 percent to 74 percent from 2019 to 2020. But that is still well below league-average, which sits at 83 percent. And looking at the zone, it’s no longer that he’s getting beat just on pitches up. Compared to 2019, he improved his contact rate on those pitches, but started to get beat much more often on pitches low and away.
As you can see, there were still issues up in the zone, but the dark red low and away became a much bigger problem. And so now Chavis is in a position where he still has work to do to address that original hole up in the zone, but now there is a new hole low and away to deal with.
It should be mentioned that this stuff wouldn’t be as big of a deal if he was pairing the strikeouts with more hard contact and/or more patience. In today’s league, you can succeed with a strikeout rate hovering around 33 percent. It’s not ideal, but it can work. However, Chavis still isn’t showing consistent power — his career Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) of .183 is right around average — and last year his walk rate fell to five percent. To put it simply, something’s got to give, and it would seem the right place to start is just making contact in the zone.
Now, this has all been fairly negative, so we should bring up the fact that it is not time to throw dirt on this career or anything like that. For all of the troubles, a lot of them came in a 2020 season that was both a small sample size and extenuating circumstances we’ve never seen before. There is some grains of salt to be taken. On top of that, Chavis is only 25 — he’s actually slightly younger than Bobby Dalbec — and he has shown the ability to adjust before. Making those adjustments in the minors compared to the majors is a different beast, of course, but he’s at least shown the ability.
He’ll get the chance to show that ability again in 2021, albeit in a smaller role. In an ideal world, he’ll get some time to get his feet back under him at Triple-A before getting his chance back in the majors. But whether it’s April or June or whatever point in the season, it’s coming. And Chavis has to come through. The biggest first step he can take is to cover these holes he’s shown in the strike zone and make contact on the pitches he’s supposed to hit. From there, the rest can sort itself out.