Being a pitcher in the majors means constant adjustments. Teams learn to pick up when you tip off pitches, patterns get noticed, pitches lose their effectiveness, velocity goes down, etc. You get the point. Very few pitchers get by for any extended period of time by making just minor tweaks. One of the most notorious re-workers on the mound is David Price, who is constantly switching which side of the rubber he throws from, as well as his repertoire. His awards will speak for how well these adjustments have worked (his Twitter feed on the other hand…). Phil Hughes, another pitcher well-known for just dropping and adding different pitches at will, has also fared well in recent seasons (although a move to spacious Target Field plays a pretty nice role).
A lesser known starter who is having tremendous results by constant tinkering is someone who no one pegged as a starter his entire six-plus year career (at the time) until his manager said so. Jesse Chavez has spent his entire career being pretty mediocre at best as a middle reliever, which made the Athletics’ decision to go with him as a starter right out of Spring Training an interesting one. Injuries played a large part, as losing most of their rotation forced manager Bob Melvin’s hand into an unorthodox decision, but as all strange decisions of Oakland go, it worked beautifully. At least, at first.
Chavez started out on fire, staying below league average ERA, FIP and xFIP, while posting elite K% and BB% for the first half. He was pitching like he’d been in contention for the Cy Young award at least a few times, and opponents had no idea how to attack him. Teams trying to use Chavez’ past performance were left in the dark, as he showed why he was doing so well. He started throwing twice the amount of changeups while cutting down on curveballs and four-seamers. The result was a better balanced repertoire of five pitches that he could throw for strikes, whiffs and grounders. The lack of curve benefited him as it was his worst pitch by weighted counts, but still had good grounder rates for it.
But as most warm and fuzzy stories go (I’m assuming you feel good when you read about a journeyman reliever who turns into a dominant starter), he started to regress towards the end of the season. General Manager Billy Beane, of Moneyball fame, had acquired (almost in) arguably the top two deadline pitchers in blockbuster trades that sent their top prospect and Yoenis Cespedes out-of-town. Given added rotational depth, Chavez was sent back to the bullpen where he found his groove again that he had earlier in the year. He started dropping the changeup that was so good for him earlier, as hitters had begun to figure out his arm slot. In its place, he ramped up his cutter usage to continue to give a different eye level and ball movement, to keep hitters on their heels. Thanks to this, he brought his ERA and all ERA-simulators back down to their strong levels, and his peripherals backed up the change.
2015 saw Chavez start again, and he’s been fantastic through the first half just like last season. He tried to use his curveball more to start the year, but it just wasn’t working. He’s completely stopped using it, and instead we’ve seen more four-seamers and a new pitch, his slider. The slider has a two-fold effect, where it also has let him throw less cutters. Since the pitches look so similar out of the pitchers hand, using both almost equally makes it exponentially harder for the batter to recognize and effectively attack the pitch.
Thanks to his adjustments, his strikeout rates are above average and he’s having the best walk suppressing season of his career. Overall, he’s already racked up 2.3 FIP based fWAR this season, more than twice his cumulative total from his debut through the end of last season. It’s good enough to make him the 30th best pitcher in the sport right now, which is not bad for a journeyman.
And now the question comes up if Chavez can continue to make the right adjustments to keep up his results. He’s starting to have more consistently poor outings, which raises concern that he’s hitting a wall again like in 2014. With the A’s considerably out of playoff contention, and waiving the white flag by sending Ben Zobrist to Kansas City for prospects, there are no reinforcements coming in to save Chavez like Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester last season. Projection systems are bear-ish on Chavez for the rest of the year, but as long as he keeps showing off his high baseball IQ and ability to adapt to batters, Chavez should be fine down the stretch.
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