Blue Jays pitcher Jesse Chavez brings stability, but
there could be cause for concern with his arm endurance
It’s natural to look for the good in a baseball transaction. Whether one feels their team was the true winner of a deal, or the search for positivity is a masked effort to mend a heart broken by the departure of Liam Hendriks, it’s the logical course. Jesse Chavez brings sure reasons for optimism, from his valuable versatility to a 2015 WAR of 2.3 that would have ranked him behind only David Price among Blue Jays pitchers.
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The other side of the conversation, which is one regrettably worth having, is what could go wrong with Chavez. Assuming the likeliest scenario plays out in which Chavez earns a full-time starting role towards the back of the rotation, his arm fatigue and pitch velocity should be monitored very closely beginning near midseason. He experienced a notable dip late in 2015 with Oakland, and while I believe in his arm for the first four months of the season, I’m hesitant to place my dollar on his level of consistency beyond that.
Looking back to 2012, Chavez threw a combined 129.2 innings between both Toronto and Oakland at the MLB and AAA levels. The 2013 season would see him used as a reliever in 35 of his 40 outings over 87.1 innings before making the jump back to being a majority starter in 2014, where he would throw a then career-high 146.0 innings with an impressive 3.45 ERA.
In that 2014 season, Chavez would regress somewhat over the second half. His first half ERA of 3.14 would jump to 4.60 over the second half, albeit while transitioning back into a full-time bullpen role. What’s important is that his average velocity remained relatively stable throughout the home stretch of the season, but the same cannot be said for his 2015 campaign.
From opening day to September, Chavez experienced declines in his fastball, sinker and cutter velocities. According to data from Brooks Baseball, these pitches combined to account for 70.5% of his repertoire in 2015. Chavez’s fastball dropped over 2.0MPH from an April average of 94.02MPH to a September average of 91.70MPH. His sinker and cutter velocities regressed even further, with the sinker falling from 94.19MPH to 91.31MPH and the cutter falling from 92.58MPH to 89.38MPH.
This was not reflected in his 2014 data, and led to an even more drastic midseason decline in 2015. Chavez was again strong out of the gates, with a 3.40 ERA and opponent’s slash line of .254 / .300 / .366 in 19 games (15 starts) over the first half of 2015. In the 11 starts that made up the second half, Chavez posted an ugly 5.59 ERA and allowed opponents to hit .291 / .353 / .483. Some of this can be attributed to a spike in opponent BABIP, but this velocity regression left Chavez extremely hittable while struggling to work deep into games.
After averaging nearly 6.1 innings per start over his first 13 starts of the year, his final 13 starts dipped below an average of 5.1 innings per outing. A 2.32 BB/9 over those first 13 also shot up to 3.51 over the latter 13, and without his earlier velocity, I believe Chavez was forced to overthrow on many of his pitches. This is shown by the drop in his vertical pitch location on all pitches by the end of 2015.
Paired with his velocity drop, Chevez’s change in vertical location had him missing low which extended-at bats, but him in disadvantageous counts and shortened his outings. In four of his final 13 starts, he was unable to complete 5.0 innings.
There can be a handful of reasons for this, the foremost of which is a rib injury that Chavez suffered which turned out to be a fracture that landed him on the 60-day D.L. in mid-September. Another issue for Chavez could be his body type, as there isn’t much muscle or fat to be found on his incredibly slight 6’2″, 160 pound frame (a listing which still might be generous). How much does this lack of muscle mass and bulk add to the strain on tendons and muscles in his elbow and shoulder? It’s little more than a working theory, but worth banking for consideration later in the season.
The obvious parallel to make here is Marco Estrada, who similarly joined the Jays after bouncing between the rotation and bullpen for a handful of seasons. Estrada was able to put up 181.0 innings last season and pitch well in the playoffs without showing any signs of slowing, but his workload averages entering Toronto were slightly higher than Chavez’s.
After throwing 138.1 total innings in 2012 and 128.0 in 2013, Estrada threw 150.2 in the season prior to joining the Blue Jays. This means that his workload ramped up marginally slower over that period, but with Chavez coming off back-to-back seasons of 145.0+ innings himself, perhaps this is the season his arm strength becomes suitable for an increase of 30.0 innings or more?
The worry here lies, as always, in the unknown. Estrada has shown the ability to throw big innings with 194.0 including the playoffs last season, while R.A. Dickey should chew up something in the neighborhood of 200.0 once again. Chavez has come very close the past two seasons, but the issue here is not just with the quantity of the innings, it’s with the quality. Especially late in the season, when the Toronto Blue Jays expect to be chasing an encore in the American League East.