Jesse Chavez’ pitch repertoire: Will it change as a starter?

jesse chavez

Stuart Wallace is an associate managing editor and writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @TClippardsSpecs.

It’s been an unfortunate string of events as of late in the Oakland Athletics camp, with news that A.J. Griffin will be starting his 2014 on the disabled list with flexor tendinitis in his pitching elbow and righty Jarrod Parker shelved for all of the upcoming season due to a torn ulnar collateral ligament requiring, Tommy John surgery. With the pair being responsible for almost 41 percent of starter innings last season, it leaves the A’s clamoring for innings to complement returning starters Sonny Gray, Dan Straily, and Tommy Milone as well as newcomer Scott Kazmir, who has been cautiously monitored this spring after experiencing some triceps tightness.

Help is on the way for the Oakland rotation and in a unique twist, it’s coming from their own bullpen, in the form of right-hander Jesse Chavez.

Flying under the radar somewhat has been the performance of Chavez thus far in camp, as he stretches out in preparation for being slotted into one of the rotation spots open due to the injuries to Griffin and Parker. The righty spent all of his breakout 0.7 fWAR 2013 in the A’s bullpen, making 35 appearances across a number of innings and situations, 19 of which had him pitch more than one inning. Thus far in five spring training games (three of which were starts) over 17.1 innings, Chavez has pitched admirably, showing a good strikeout to walk ratio (3.50 K/BB) to go along with a 1.038 WHIP and .222 batting average against, further solidify his inside track on a rotation spot once camp breaks and the regular season begins.

While the need to last longer innings-wise is a large part of a successful transition from the bullpen to the rotation, so is how a pitcher adjusts or adds to his repertoire in order to keep hitters honest. Having two good pitches and being able to locate those can lead to a very successful career as a reliever; however, the rule of thumb for starters is to typically have a third pitch, even a fourth, to go to in order to be less predictable and therefore, harder to hit. For Chavez, does he have this third (and maybe fourth) pitch to get him deep into innings and lineups as a starter? What could we expect from him as a starter and is it anything different than from what we saw the journeyman utilize as a highly effective reliever?

First, let’s take a look at what made 2013 such a successful season for Chavez in terms of his pitch selection for righty (RHH) and lefty (LHH) hitters, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Jesse Chavez Pitch Selection A Jesse Chavez Pitch Selection B

By the looks of it, Chavez relied heavily upon  four pitch mix to righties and a five pitch mix to lefties, with three of those pitches being ‘hard’—a four-seam and cut fastball as well as a sinker. For righties, Chavez also mixed in a curveball, with lefties seeing the curve as well as a changeup. Summing up those hard pitches and we find that Chavez went hard 72% of the time for both lefties and righties., primarily attacking hitters with the cutter. In terms of effectiveness of the pitches (regardless of batter handedness), Chavez’ fastballs as well as his curve and change fared well, per pitch type linear weights per 100 pitches at FanGraphs:

Jesse Chavez 2

While we do have the caveat that not only does Chavez’ sinker get labeled a two-seamer (FT) here, we also must also be aware of the values on pitches that weren’t thrown very often—for Chavez, his slider value should probably disregarded, as he only threw the pitch three times all season. However, we get a general idea here and that is that his four-seam (FA), sinker/two-seam (FT), and cut-fastballs (FC) were effective pitches in 2013, with Chavez having more success with his curve (CU) than the changeup (CH) in terms of secondary offerings. A closer look at how hitters fared against a particular pitch, sans slider and split by handedness, follows:

jesse chavez 3

With pitch frequencies used as a guide, we find how Chavez’ changeup does seem to be his least effective pitch, where his curve does appear to be an effective weapon against both righties and lefties. Despite a high batting average on balls in play (BABIP) against lefties, the cutter still remains a great pitch for Chavez against lefties, with a low isolated power (ISO) proving that while hitters can and do make contact, it is rarely damaging.

So which mix of pitches could be the ideal set for Chavez, the starter? Could he get away with keeping the repertoire that provided so much success last season? Lucky for us, we have a smattering of additional information from Chavez that could add additional insight—the pair of starts he made in 2012 as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays. Let’s take a look at this small dataset—112 pitches to righties and 60 to lefties:

jesse chavez 4

Again considering these frequencies across a 172-pitch sample size, we find some similarities to Chavez, the starter, to Chavez, the reliever; lots of hard stuff, with lefties getting more changeups than righties. However, we also see Chavez essentially scrapping the slider as a reliever in 2013, while also committing to the cutter in place of the four-seamer. We also find a Chavez more willing in these two starts to mix pitches, in particular, to lefties. It’s tough to say given the tiny sample to say what pitches beyond his fastballs might play up in a starting role, but the re-introduction of the slider, possibly in lieu of the changeup to right-handed batters, could be an interesting wrinkle that Chavez could provide that could give hitters something to think about beyond what they saw from him as a reliever last season.

While Chavez over his career has not suffered greatly due to egregious left-right splits (.829 OPS against RHH, .770 versus LHH), the necessity to keep righty bats in the park and have a consistent method of neutralizing the increased number of lefties he will see in the rotation will be the ultimate test of how successful Chavez as a starter will be. Using his effective mix of three types of fastball, in particular, the cutter, will ultimately predominate his results. However, revisiting his forgotten slider in place of a changeup to righties might give Chavez the additional oomph to his repertoire to take on all comers through multiple times through the batting order, allowing him to translate his great season in the bullpen in 2013 into one as a productive starter.