Eric Chavez Still An Enigma
Players who are able to make it to the big leagues before their 21st birthday, as Chavez did in September, 1998, are usually headed for the Baseball Hall of Fame. We’re talking players like Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Orlando Cepeda, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Ted Williams. Ken Griffey Jr. would be in the grouping, too, if it weren’t for his frequent injuries.
As hitters, these players developed power early. Aaron, who hit just 13 homers (the same as Chavez) as a rookie, had his first plus-40 year (44) when he was 24. Bench hit 45 when he was 24. Cepeda hit 46 as a 24-year-old. Mantle was 23 when he hit 52, Mays 24 when he hit 51. Griffey hit 45 before his 24th birthday.
Chavez has developed into a great defensive third baseman, but his hitting has lagged far behind those listed above. As early as his second season, then A’s manager Art Howe said he had more power than anybody else on the team (which included Jason Giambi) because he could be fooled by a pitch and still hit it out to the opposite fields.
That potential led me to predict early that Chavez would have multiple 50-homer seasons in his career, but at 27 (28 in December), his highest total is the 34 he hit in 2002. He would have exceeded that last year if he hadn’t been injured – he had just 475 at-bats and hit 29 homers – but even healthy, he wouldn’t have approached the 50-homer level which should be his goal.
Even more damning was a question a baseball-savvy friend asked me last season: “Can you ever remember Eric Chavez hitting a home run when it counted?"”
Of course he has, but not nearly as often as he should have. Too often, we’ve seen Chavez striking out or popping up in crucial situations.
MORE THAN EVER, the A’s need Chavez to step up big-time this year.
No longer can the A’s assume that their starting pitchers will go deep in the game and keep the score down, so a minimal offensive effort can win. Even Rich Harden is really only in his first full season as a starter, though he seems most capable of pitching deep into the game. Dan Haren and Joe Blanton have the stuff to be winners, but it’s unreasonable to expect that they’ll be consistent in their first year in the starting rotation.
And I don’t want to even think about Barry Zito, the “leader” of the staff, after his first two outings.
Questions abound about the position players, too, with Jermaine Dye gone. Dye had frequent injury problems, but he supplied power when he was in the lineup, and there’s no immediate replacement in sight. Rookie Nick Swisher will provide that power eventually, and he has the swagger Chavez needs, but he’s still near the bottom of his learning curve. Shortstop Bobby Crosby showed power last season as a rookie and should be a better hitter this year, but he’s on the DL now. The leading acquisition of the off-season, catcher Jason Kendall, is a contact hitter, not a power hitter.
The changes in the lineup have forced the A’s to play “little ball,” which manager Ken Macha likened to heresy. There’s nothing wrong with using an improved running game and employing the hit-and-run when hitters who make consistent contact are at the plate, but teams don’t win consistently in the American League without the three-run homer.
That’s where Chavez should come in. If he finally had that 50-homer year, it would make a huge difference to the A’s.
CHAVEZ, THOUGH, doesn’t seem inclined to make that move. When he struggled at the plate in the first week of the season, he talked about always getting off to a slow start, as if that were inevitable and there was nothing he could do about it.
That strange kind of passive attitude has been his trademark, and it’s probably the biggest reason he hasn’t reached his full hitting potential. The Hall of Fame players mentioned above weren’t passive. They were determined to be the best, and they drove themselves to the next level.
It’s not a question of effort. Chavez had the reputation of being a poor defensive third baseman when he came to the A’s, but with the help of coach Ron Washington, he worked and worked to develop his defense.
Defense is technique. Hitting is technique, but it’s also about attitude, and Chavez has fallen short on both counts. The best hitters have the confidence to wait for their pitch, even if it means taking a strike or even two. Chavez still has a tendency to swing at the first strike he sees, even if all he can do is hit it on the ground, instead of waiting for that pitch he can really drive. I suspect he still doesn’t have the confidence to hit when he’s behind in the count.
MAKE NO MISTAKE, Chavez has had a very good career, so far. He’s the best defensive third baseman in the majors, with four Gold Gloves, and has already hit 163 home runs. If he stays healthy and on the seasonal 30-plus home run pace he’s established, he’ll probably exceed 500 home runs for his career, which should be enough to get him in the Hall of Fame.
But even if that happens, many of us will be left to wonder what he could have accomplished if he’had had that Aaron-Mays-Mantle mindset.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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