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Blue Jays in Focus: Learning from Jesse Chavez’s bullpen profile

kmatheson12
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Blue Jays starter Jesse Chavez has the inside lane on the fifth starting job. While his bullpen potential is limited, there’s still much to learn from his relief days

Jesse Chavez now finds himself as the projected fifth starter in the Blue Jays rotation. With Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ holding jobs above him and R.A. Dickey a complete non-option in the bullpen, the current roster construction would see Chavez in competition with Drew Hutchison and perhaps Aaron Sanchez for the final starting role. Blue Jays management should be quietly hoping for Chavez, as his projection into a bullpen role doesn’t offer much of a potential ceiling. His experience as a reliever, though, does offer some valuable lessons.

Further additions to the rotation will continue to impact this competition come spring training, where we’ll have a much clearer picture than we currently do. But with any positional battle, it’s important to ask which player would be given the nod in a dead heat. I see that being Chavez as it currently stands, as it gives Toronto the ability to roster the highest net talent across their 12 pitching spots.

Chavez’s career numbers paint an exaggerated picture largely inflated by struggles in earlier seasons, but do point towards Chavez being more effective in a starting role. In similar inning totals between the ‘pen and rotation, Chavez owns a 4.14 ERA and 1.345 WHIP as a starter, holding opponents to a line of .263 / .321 / .400. As a reliever, his career ERA stands at 5.02 with a WHIP of 1.439 and slash line of .270 / .336 / .450.

I prefer to limit most of the Chavez conversation to his three years in Oakland, however, as they represent a tidy progression from full-time reliever 2013 to split roles in 2014 and a majority starter in 2015.

In that 2014 season, his last real sample of repetitive relief work, Chavez put up a 3.45 ERA over 20.1 innings. Encouraging, of course, but looking at his 2013 season, where Chavez worked relief full-time, should offer us a much better sample of the pitcher he becomes when he’s asked to come out of the bullpen.

Chavez did make five starts at the AAA level that season, but all 35 of his major league appearances for the Oakland Athletics were in relief, where he accumulated 57.1 innings. While I’ve expressed concern regarding his arm endurance as a starter, his long-man ability could have some appeal to the Blue Jays as that role sits relatively unoccupied right now. Something like Marco Estrada at the beginning of 2015, which seems to be the closest comparable for Chavez’s current role.

Across those 35 outings, he pitched 1.1 innings or more on 19 occasions, falling short of the 1.0 inning mark just five times. In those outings, his relief ERA sat comfortably below his ugly career average at 3.92, with his 1.221 WHIP representing his career best mark for a season. That was good for a respectable 0.7 WAR by FanGraphs, but that isn’t something that Toronto cannot replicate at an even greater level with Drew Hutchison or a handful of waiver claims (bringing me back to the greatest net talent of the 12 rostered arms, which I see clearly necessitating Chavez in the rotation). Regardless, let’s take a look at what changed when Chavez was pitching consistently out of the bullpen compared to where he stands today.

The first stop to make is always velocity. Chavez did throw marginally harder as a reliever, with a 0.7-1.0 MPH difference on his fastballs, cutter and changeup between 2013 and 2015. The outlier from this was his curveball, which Chavez threw 18.3% of the time in 2013 to a 2.7 PITCHf/x value. It was actually thrown slightly slower in 2013 compared to 2015. After the pitch struggled the next year in 2014, his curveball usage regressed to just 5.5% this past season with a -0.1 rating.

This was balanced out by his changeup usage, which jumped from 8.7% in 2013 to 18.0% in 2015 and figures to be one of his untapped-potential tools in a starting role. Preferably, I’d like to see him continue honing his craft with this pitch, something that may not be as easily done out of the bullpen. After grading out highly in 2014, though, that changeup regressed in value this past season despite increased usage.

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Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it was Chavez’s cutter that played a much more prominent role in 2013. He threw the pitch 42.4% of the time as a reliever that year compared to just 34.7% this past year. Here’s one area where I believe Chavez’s bullpen profile can significantly aid him as a starter. Perhaps the many years on the right end of Roy Halladay and wrong end of Mariano Rivera have left me forever nostalgic for the cutter, but Chavez’s outcomes from the pitch could serve him very well in limiting power numbers in the AL East.

When leaning on the pitch more heavily in 2013, Chavez limited opponents to a .055 ISO with his cutter (sample of 397 pitches). As his usage of the pitch has dropped, that number has risen to a 0.140 ISO in 2014 and a 0.175 ISO in 2015. So while I maintain that this roster will function better with him in the rotation, at least to start the season, digging in to his bullpen profile may be uncovering some potential value that he can bring to his starting job.

In that 2013 season, Chavez set a career low at the MLB level with a 0.5 HR/9. He’s posted marks of 1.0 each of the past two seasons with a career total of 1.2, so again we have a reason to borrow from his 2013 success. It wasn’t just the home run ball and ISO, either, he showed notable improvements in his contact rates and much of this can be linked to the cutter.

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Chavez allowed line drives at a rate of 17.4%, below his career average of 21.4 %. His Pull% rested at 29.4%, below his career total of 36.8%, but his Hard-Hit% was most encouraging of all. Allowing just a 19.4 Hard% in 2013, Chavez sat well below his career total of 29.7%. With such an impressive defense now behind him, something he lacked entirely with Oakland, limiting these contact rates will be crucial for his success.

With a moderate re-dedication to this cutter and improvements with his fastball, Chavez’s changeup should be helped along naturally. He’s also in the perfect place to learn, with Marco Estradsa alongside him and Russell Martin behind the plate. Which brings me to an additional, albeit lesser reason, that I’d prefer to see Chavez opening the season in a starting role. To see an extended snapshot of him working with Martin.

Across 537.2 MLB innings, Chavez has worked with 20 different catchers. This isn’t terribly uncommon, especially for someone who has changed teams and roles, but what struck me was how few opportunities Chavez has had to build up any level of chemistry with who’s behind the plate. In fact, only Stephen Vogt and Derek Norris have caught more than 70.0 innings from Chavez.

Next: A look inside J.A. Happ's dramatic turnaround in 2015

He was especially strong with Vogt (3.64 ERA, .653 opponent OPS) and holds a 3.89 ERA over 224.0 innings split between the two. Take that for what it’s worth, but I’m confident that maximized reps with Martin will do nothing but help his performance.

So while Chavez’s experience as a reliever doesn’t fill me with optimism that he could be anything more than “another guy” in a bullpen role, we can extrapolate some pieces to help him take a step further as a starter. Barring another addition to the rotation ahead of him, he’ll be favorited to win that opportunity entering 2016.

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