Breakout Year for Eric Chavez?
Since Chavez hit .311 in the final month of the 1998 season, when he was still 20 (his birthday is Dec. 7) extravagant predictions have been made for him, some in this space. Historically, when a player can demonstrate at that early an age that he can hit major league pitching, the Hall of Fame is most likely in his future.
A’s general manager Billy Beane always thought Chavez would be the one star position player he would work to keep, as he has, even though it meant letting shortstop Miguel Tejada go. Tejada’s agent made it easier by going public with the terms that Tejada would demand as a free agent, but Beane would likely have made that decision, anyway. He had already started preparing for Tejada’s departure with the signing and development of Bobby Crosby.
Chavez has not become the player or fiery leader that Tejada was in Oakland – and has continued to be in Baltimore. Though he has been a very good player, Chavez has yet to be named to the All-Star team. Though he really wanted to play for the United States team in the World Baseball Classic, he was not selected.
His career has also gone much differently than would have been predicted when he was a minor leaguer who was regarded as good hit, no field. He has spent hours working on his fielding, under the tutelage of coach Ron Washington, and he is a perennial Gold Glover, ranking with Brooks Robinson as the best fielding third baseman I’ve seen.
Chavez has great reflexes, which show most dramatically when he spears those liners down the line that seem destined to go into the left field corner for extra bases. And he makes another critical play with ease, on the ground ball between short and third. That’s a play only the third baseman can make because, if he doesn’t get to the ball, the shortstop has no chance to throw out the runner. Watching Chavez make the play routinely and then going across the bay and watching the ball always get by Edgardo Alfonzo simply reinforced my belief that it was a serious mistake for the Giants to sign Alfonzo.
Chavez’s effort cannot be faulted. He has played injured (mostly, his shoulder) because he knows it hurts the team if he has to come out of the lineup. He is a manager’s dream, never complaining. On a personal/professional note, he is also a media favorite, always cooperative.
The one discordant note is that he hasn’t become a dominant hitter. It might be because, though he knew he needed to work hard to become a good fielder, hitting has always come naturally to him. So, he hasn’t felt the need to work so hard on his hitting. He has improved his plate discipline, and his on-base percentage has risen. But he has yet to learn an important lesson for power hitters: Sometimes, you have to let a strike go early in the count and wait for the pitch you can drive. Chavez has always been able to hit any pitch he saw anywhere in the strike zone, so he’ll swing at a strike, even if it’s a pitch he can only, at best, hit for a single.
Of course, he’s still only 28. Historically, a hitter’s best years are 27-32, so he’s still got plenty of time to collect those Hall of Fame stats.
CHAVEZ’S MAIN problem has been his emotional makeup. The great hitters have a confidence that borders on arrogance. When they go to the plate, they know they’re going to get that hit to drive in the winning run. That’s just not in Chavez’s personality.
He’s talked about that himself. This spring, he talked about needing “a swagger” in his approach. Of course, he talked the same way a couple of springs ago, without changing his style.
Tejada had that swagger, definitely. So did Jason Giambi. Both were MVPs for the A’s. But Chavez has been miscast as the A’s main man. Tejada and Giambi relished coming up with the game on the line. Chavez’s body language tells you he doesn’t.
Rather than hoping to change Chavez’s personality, Beane recast the A’s lineup in the offseason, adding Frank Thomas and Milton Bradley.
Both Thomas and Bradley are gambles. Thomas has had foot problems the last two years. Bradley has also had injury problems and, more seriously, he’s had emotional outbursts and has taken anger management courses.
I think both gambles were worth taking. The A’s are being very cautious with Thomas, who feels he rushed to get back in the lineup last season and re-injured himself. He will not play at all in the field; even in his prime, it would be charitable to describe him as an adequate first baseman. Bradley is coming into an A’s clubhouse which may be the most tranquil in the majors. There is no Jeff Kent in this clubhouse.
Thomas, especially, will take the pressure off Chavez because he is a tremendous hitter. Earlier in his career, he was putting up the kind of numbers that Ted Williams did early in his career. Even last year, when he had only 108 at-bats, he hit 12 home runs. That’s a full season for Scott Hatteberg, whom Thomas will replace as the DH.
Bradley isn’t that kind of hitter but he will add another good bat to the A’s lineup. In their great stretch last season, before Crosby got hurt, the A’s had hitters up and down the lineup who could win a game. Adding Thomas and Bradley makes that even more of a possibility.
IT WAS always unrealistic to expect Chavez to be the main man, because he wasn’t suited emotionally to the role. He’s more of a complementary player.
Now, in the strengthened A’s batting order, he can play the role for which he’s temperamentally suited. And, just maybe, he’ll have that breakout year we’ve been expecting.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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