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Athletics 2014 season review: Jesse Chavez swings into action

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Swing, pitcher pitcher.
Swing, pitcher pitcher.
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The next player on our list is back this year, and there's a good chance he'll get another shot to be a big contributor: No. 60, Jesse Chavez. His 2014 season was one of the biggest surprises in baseball.

Player profile

Name: Jesse Chavez, aka ... New Chavy?
Position: RHP, starting and relief (the "swingman")
Stats: 32 games (21 starts), 3.55 ERA, 146 innings, 136 Ks, 49 BB, 17 HR, 142 hits
WAR: 1.2 bWAR, 1.3 fWAR
How he got here: Purchased from Toronto Blue Jays in Aug. 2012
2014 Salary: $775,000
2015 Status: 2nd-year arbitration, under team control
2015 Salary: $2.15 million

Season summary

Jesse Chavez is yet another entry on the long list of reasons why I simply trust in Billy Beane. When he arrived in Oakland in 2012, he appeared to be irredeemably terrible, and many (most?) of us here at Athletics Nation (including myself) ripped him mercilessly. What we didn't know was that Chavez had become a completely different pitcher, with a new approach ("pitch" instead of "throw") and a new primary offering (cutter), and that his results were about to change. In 2013, he emerged as a long reliever and did a totally decent job, highlighted by his gutty 17-out, extra-inning victory over the Yankees. He had earned himself a role on the staff, and most of us expected him to make the team entering the spring.

We did not expect what happened next. Chavez spent his spring auditioning as a starting pitcher, and even crazier, he absolutely nailed it. He was so good, and such a fundamentally different player than before, that you actually had to consider bumping him up the depth chart based on the Cactus League -- and this is coming from the guy who writes the annual article about how you should mostly ignore spring training.

The problem ended up solving itself in the least appealing way possible, as nature tends to do. Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin were lost late in the spring, with no time to find external replacements, and suddenly there was room for everyone to pitch. Chavez, the scorn of AN 15 months prior, was in the Opening Day rotation. And we were all pretty happy about it. Baseball is weird, man.

Once the season started, Chavez flew out of the gate and pitched in April like he wanted to win a Cy Young. The A's won his first six starts, and in five of them he allowed one earned run or fewer. His sixth start, against the Rangers before they went full 2014 Rangers, tied for the fourth-highest Game Score (82) of any A's start all season: 7 shutout innings, 1 hit, 1 walk, 8 strikeouts. The A's won 12-1, and and his ERA went down to 1.89. Life was good.

Nobody really expected Chavez to sustain his April success, but the fact that he'd racked up 41 strikeouts against just eight walks suggested that he wasn't a total mirage either. He took a step back toward average in May, had a short resurgence in June, and then hit a real rough patch in July. And then, at the end of July, the A's acquired Jon Lester to lead their rotation and there was no more room for Jesse anymore; Chavez was sent back to the bullpen, and he didn't make another start for the rest of the year. Below are his overall numbers as a starter, followed by his monthly splits:

Chavez 2014, 21 starts: 3.44 ERA, 125⅔ innings, 119 Ks, 41 BB, 13 HR, 119 hits

April: 1.89 ERA, 41/8 K/BB
May: 3.90, 23/10
June: 3.30, 23/10
July: 5.20, 32/13

I think that Chavez was pulled from the rotation at the right time, especially given who came in to replace him, and it's not just because of the jump in his ERA. His strikeouts went up, but so did his walks, and as a result he was consistently less efficient -- he finished the sixth inning just once in five tries despite generally throwing over 100 pitches. His velocity was still fine, but he didn't seem as sharp as he'd been before. Perhaps he would have turned things back around and stayed strong for the rest of the season, or maybe his decline was real and that was just all he had to give as a starter in his first go-around. I'm inclined to believe the latter, but I certainly can't prove it and I'll bet Chavez himself would disagree with me -- at our blogger session at FanFest this February, he told us that his arm felt fine and that he believes he would have been physically able to start all year. Below are his stats as a reliever in August and September:

Chavez 2014, 11 games: 3.54 ERA, 20⅓ innings, 17 Ks, 8 BB, 4 HR

He mostly pitched in garbage time as a reliever. Only once did he enter with a lead, in the ninth inning of a five-run game, and he entered once in a tie game in the 12th (and took the loss on a walk-off homer by Tyler Flowers).

***

Add it all up and Chavez spent one month as an excellent starter, three months as a decent starter, and two months as a decent mop-up reliever. That mundane description belies how impressive his season was, though. For a guy who had to leap up the food chain just to become a mop-up man in the first place, spending four months as a starter and being anything more than terrible is a massive success. The fact that he flashed some brilliance along the way in what was essentially a novel experience for him (that is, starting regularly in MLB) is even better. This was just his first go-around, and he'll surely get another opportunity to start again before too long. And next time, he'll have the benefit of his 2014 experience, both in the psychological sense of a starter's mentality and the physical sense of a guy whose arm has been there.

No matter what becomes of Chavez in his future with the A's, he has already succeeded beyond any reasonable expectations. He was almost nothing, a never-was, and instead he's a legitimate Major Leaguer with serious upside. He showed that he is more than capable of cutting through a lineup for seven innings when he's on his game.

2014 season grade, relative to expectations: A ... He was supposed to be the long reliever. Instead, he was a quality starter for four months. He could have earned an A+ for lasting the whole year in the rotation, but that's just nitpicky. If you want to talk about exceeding expectations, this is a prime example.

2014 season grade, overall: B+ ... A No. 4 starter who can hang out in the bullpen when you have a logjam in the rotation? That's a valuable player.

Video highlights

I could show you lots of Chavez starts, but this was the best one. Here is what Chavez looks like at his most unhittable.

LOOK OUT JESSE!!

***

The A's reloaded for 2015, so Chavez will have to wait his turn to rejoin the rotation. In the meantime, he'll be hanging out in the bullpen, keeping sharp, ready to swing back into action. Sure is nice to have a sixth starter on the roster, just in case.