Back on March 29th, Jack Weiland wrote “In the course of human events, there aren’t many things worse than late spring training injuries.” Aside from simply making an excellent observation – seeing your team’s ace go down in his last start before an Opening Day assignment must be a top-five gut punch moment – Weiland was actually busy finding a silver lining for the Oakland Athletics amidst their injury turmoil; with nominal staff anchor Jarrod Parker headed for a second round of Tommy John surgery, and fellow rotation member A.J. Griffin also on the DL, the A’s had been forced to elevate relative unknown Jesse Chavez – a reliever with a career a 5.48 ERA – into a starting role. Weiland though, saw some cause for optimism in the involuntary promotion, even opining “Chavez may have the stuff to stick, and to be an effective major league starter.”
So far, Weiland has looked like a genius. Through his first four starts of 2014, Chavez has pitched 26 innings in which he has allowed just 3 earned runs – good for a team-leading 1.38 ERA – and posted very impressive 9.7 SO/9 and 1.7 BB/9 marks. Additionally, after mostly teeing off on Chavez throughout his career, opponents so far this season are batting just .194 against the 30-year-old. From a would-be reliever then, to a dominant starter all of a sudden, it seems reasonable to ask ‘where on earth did this come from?!’
Selected by the Texas Rangers in the 42nd round of the 2002 amateur draft*, the Riverside Community College product was moved to the bullpen before he even progressed past Single A due to both durability concerns and command issues. Traded in 2006 to the Pirates in return for Kip Wells, he finally made his ML debut as a reliever in 2008, but would soon move from Pittsburgh to Tampa Bay, where he wouldn’t make an appearance before being shipped to Atlanta for Rafael Soriano, before bouncing to Kansas City, then Toronto, and finally, Oakland. Prior to the 2013 season, the California native had made 2 starts and 154 relief appearances, racking up -2.6 WAR (per Baseball Reference) along the way; he was the quintessential journeyman, perennially in danger of being waived.
In 2013 however, things began to pick up for the string bean righty (despite being 6’2, he’s listed at just 160 lbs). In his first full year with the pitcher-friendly O.co Coliseum as his home park, Chavez fanned nearly a batter an inning and gave up just three homers in 57⅓ innings out of the bullpen, and posted his first positive WAR contribution since 2009 (0.2). More encouragingly though, he showed subtle signs of an improved repertoire. As told to Jonah Keri by A’s pitching coach Curt Young, on June 13th against the Yankees, Chavez provided a glimpse of what we’ve so far been treated to this season: “the game goes to extra innings, and he really starts showing what he can do. He goes through multiple times in the order, and he’s got just great command of all four pitches.” Inserted to hopefully hold down the fort for a while, Chavez instead tossed 5⅔ shutout innings, allowing just one hit and two walks while striking out seven – sowing the initial seeds of thought in the minds of Oakland’s manager Bob Melvin and GM Billy Beane that led to his being given an opportunity to start when the injury bug bit this spring.
Given his chance, Chavez has so far run with it; in his season debut against the Mariners, he allowed one earned run over six innings en route to a 3-2 A’s win. He followed up that strong initial effort on April 9th against the Twins, fanning nine, walking none, and surrendering a single run in seven innings of work, before posting an identical line versus the Angels five days later. On Sunday facing the Astros, he finally picked up his first win of the season in what was probably his worst start to date (highlighting the ridiculousness of the win statistic) – still, even though he was struggling with his control, he only allowed one earned run over six innings, and managed to make some franchise history.
Jesse Chavez is the 1st #Athletics pitcher on the Opening Day roster to allow 1 ER or less and toss 6 IP or more in each of his 1st 4 starts
— Oakland Athletics (@Athletics) April 20, 2014
But back to Weiland, and what he saw to suggest Chavez’s usefulness. Well, Chavez actually has a surprisingly deep repertoire for a guy who was once pigeon-holed into a relief role; there is the odd kind of 90-95 mph fastball, handsomely backed with a 87-90 mph cutter (an offering that . Then there is a changeup at 84-87 mph, and finally, as written by Carson Cistulli “a curveball with considerable vertical break at 76-78 mph” – a pitch which even Mike Trout can only stare and admire. As acknowledged by Weiland too, “His command has also improved over the years,” something that (helped somewhat by the weak offenses he has so far face, the home ballpark, and Oakland’s defensive prowess), has certainly played a large part in Chavez’s unlikely success so far; he ranks in the top 10 among AL pitchers in percentage of strikes thrown, and thus also finds himself among the likes of Masahiro Tanaka, Felix Hernandez, and David Price as the early AL leaders in SO/BB**.
Also on that list is A’s teammate Scott Kazmir. In fact, as well as being first among Junior Circuit teams in team ERA (2.55), the A’s also rank 2nd in the AL in BB% (Boston lead the way at 6.8%). Pounding the strike zone, Oakland’s pitchers have ensured the club hasn’t missed a beat (they topped my AL Power Rankings on Sunday) in 2014 despite the losses of two of their idealized rotation to injury and 2013 staff anchor (in more ways than one) Bartolo Colon to free agency. With Sonny Gray, the aforementioned Kazmir, and of course, the resurgent Chavez, the A’s are poised to ride their starting pitching to a third consecutive AL West division title.
So much for licking their wounds. With Oakland, and in the case of Jesse Chavez, injuries are merely an opportunity for another to shine.
* He didn’t actually sign until May 17th, 2003 though.
** While Tanaka signed a $155 million contract with the Yankees over the winter though, Chavez will this year make $775k (#Moneyball!)