Looking back on the 2021 season, one of the team’s more unexpectedly positive contributions came from 37 year-old Jesse Chavez, the much-travelled pitcher who provided a boost to the bullpen in early summer and became a reliable, durable option for Brian Snitker throughout the postseason.
Chavez was a 2002 draftee of the Texas Rangers in the 42nd round out of Riverside Community College (CA) after not signing out of high school when drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 39th round in 2001. He made his MLB debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2008, two years after being traded to the team for pitcher Kip Wells. Chavez was then traded in November 2009 to the Tampa Bay Rays for infielder Akinori Iwamura. Less than one month later, Chavez was acquired by the Atlanta Braves for then-Braves closer Rafael Soriano, who was sent packing because he surprisingly accepted arbitration rather than becoming a free agent. Soriano went on to make his lone All-Star game as a member of the Rays, collecting 45 saves and a stellar 0.802 WHIP in 2010.
As for Chavez, the then 26-year-old lasted less than half a season with the Braves, appearing in 28 games largely in a mop-up role, posting uninspiring numbers (-0.2 fWAR) before the Braves packaged him with outfielder Gregor Blanco and relief prospect Tim Collins in a Trade Deadline deal for outfielder Rick Ankiel and reliever Kyle Farnsworth.
A series of transactions landed Chavez with the Oakland A’s in 2012, with whom he had is most successful handful of seasons after claiming a starter’s role. After the 2015 season, Oakland traded Chavez back to Toronto for future All-Star reliever Liam Hendriks. For the next five seasons, Chavez bounced around multiple organizations, including a return to the Rangers, two stops with the Los Angeles Angels, the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
His 14th season in the majors started inauspiciously, as the Dodgers waved the Southern California native late in Spring Training. The Braves signed Chavez to a minor league contract on April 17, 2021.
The early season signing of Chavez by the Braves looked to be little more than a minor league depth signing, with usual caveat that maybe the veteran pitcher could help the big-league club if injuries struck. When Chavez was called up from Gwinnett to make a start against the Cincinnati Reds in late June, some raised eyebrows that the assignment wasn’t given to the recently-claimed Tanner Roark, who was called up at the same time. In a week that saw Alex Anthopoulos make a bevy of transactions to bolster the back-end of the bullpen, it was Chavez who stuck on the Braves 26-man roster for the remainder of the season.
Still, Chavez had been a serviceable swingman-type up until a disastrous 2020, and was mowing down Triple-A hitters like he should have been, so expectations for him probably weren’t as low as they could have been for your average summer depth callup.
2021 Season Results
Along with serving as a spot-opener, Chavez put together one his best seasons for the Braves in 2021. Appearing in 30 games, 26 in relief, during the regular season, Chavez struck out 27.1 percent of batters he faced while holding opponents to a 0.522 OPS, helped by the fact he did not allow a home run in 33 2⁄3 innings.
He put up a sparkly 1.0 fWAR, and while his xFIP- (87) was much higher than the great FIP- (49) that got him that value, he basically pitched well no matter how you slice it, as his worst run estimator across the board (DRA-) was 91. He also pitched 6 1⁄3 innings in the playoffs, and while his FIP and xFIP were worse than in the regular season, he didn’t get a run charged to him in the process. (He did, however, walk more batters than he struck out in the playoffs, which is never a recipe for success.)
What went right? / What went wrong?
For Chavez, and the Braves, it is hard to find anything that went wrong during the 2021 season. A prototypical journeyman, Chavez proved to be a critical swingman out of the bullpen, taking over the role that Josh Tomlin was used in earlier in the season. To boot, Chavez’s fashionable choice of eyewear on the field and his influence as headwear trend-setter off the field, added flair to the post-season and its ensuring celebration.
Perhaps one of the most positive developments associated with Chavez’ 2021 stint is that he reinforced that there’s room (though maybe not that much room) for pitchers who don’t blow guys away but rely on command and befuddling opposing hitters. Chavez primarily worked off a very effective cutter that he spotted pretty much in one place to righties, and in a different singular place to lefties, but the real surprising aspect of his game was that his sinker somehow limited batters to a .205 xwOBA. His slider was the only one of his offerings that got hit hard, while the cutter-sinker-changeup combination gave him a bamboozling mix to throw at hitters in short stints. He didn’t elicit a lot of swings nor a lot of whiffs but still had an above-average strikeout rate, and finished the season as the nearly-endangered “reliever who relies on soft contact,” which is something that he actually managed to execute successfully.
Chavez’ solid regular season work continued into the post-season as he appeared in seven games, including two each in the NLDS and World Series and three games – including one start – in the NLCS against the Dodgers. In total, he provided 7 1⁄3 shut-out innings as the Braves marched on to their first World Series victory since 1995.
Road to the Title
Chavez finished the regular season having delivered positive WPA and cWPA unto the Braves, but his giving up of the go-ahead run in Game 3 of the NLCS tanked those stats for him in the postseason — that lone game accounted for -2.64% cWPA.
His biggest contribution by cWPA, though, came in the very next day in Game 4: he threw a perfect frame as Drew Smyly’s opener, and the Braves romped to a 9-2 win.
As for regular-season highlights, his highest WPA in a game this season came in the second game of a doubleheader against the Mets. Though the Braves lost 1-0 in the end, Chavez came on in relief of Bryse Wilson with runners on the corners and none out. He immediately struck out Jonathan Villar on four pitches, and then elicited a first-pitch double play ball from new Braves nemesis James McCann to keep the game knotted at zero.
A free agent, Chavez hasn’t announced that he won’t look to return 2022, so he will likely be looking to latch on to a team on a major league deal in a role like one he served in 2021. Baseball-Reference has his projections for 2022 in-line with his career numbers, i.e., slightly above-average run prevention in a relief role, although the veteran of 518 major league games and soon-to-be possessor of a shiny new World Series ring will most likely end up with a minor league deal with a Spring Training invitation. Given his performance, and apparent cultural fit with he Braves pitching staff, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Braves brought him back into the organization. The adage about a major league team never having enough pitching proved itself again last season, so whether with Atlanta or another team, it is likely Jesse Chavez will be seen on the mound again next season. Maybe he’ll even keep baffling hitters with his now-pretty-unusual approach.