Last year, when we took a look at Jesse Chavez’s role with Atlanta in 2021 and his outlook for 2022, it is doubtful that anyone could have predicted the circuitous route Chavez would take to get back to Atlanta this past season.
Way back when, in 2001, Jesse Chavez was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 39th round but didn’t sign. The following season, he signed with the Texas Rangers after being selected in the 42nd round.
If anyone wanted to re-boot Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants as a reality show about MLB players, I hope the casting director gives Chavez a call, because for the past two decades he has bounced back and forth between organizations as if his fashionable sense of haberdasheries were being shared amongst organizations like they were the pantaloons from the afore mentioned book/movie series.
For those of you not familiar with the early career work of Amber Tamblyn, Alexis Bledel, America Ferrera, and Blake Lively, that means Chavez has travelled around a lot - although he keeps finding his way back to several organizations, including the Braves in 2010, 2021, and in two different stints in 2022.
If you’d like a full run-down of Chavez’s history, check out last year’s profile linked above, because 2022 alone will take a minute to run through.
Chavez remained on the free agent market until mid-March, when he returned to one of his former teams, the Cubs. He made the team out of Spring Training, appearing in three games, when the Braves opted to cut bait with left-hander Sean Newcomb by trading him for Chavez on April 21.
The reunion between Chavez and Atlanta went along swimmingly, with the relief pitcher carving out an important role in the Braves’ bullpen during the early stages of summer.
Then on August 2nd - just before the Braves press conference to announce Austin Riley’s contract extension (and one he was about to attend the conference to show support for his teammate) - Chavez was informed he was traded to the Los Angeles Angels, with Tucker Davidson, for Angels’ closer Raisel Iglesias.
The trade, and the timing, were pretty shocking given how well Chavez had pitched, although the Iglesias trade fortified the Atlanta relief corps, at great financial cost, for this season and the future.
Chavez wasn’t done with Atlanta. After struggling with the Angels, he was designated for assignment on August 29th, and the Braves claimed him off of waivers on August 30th. That allowed Chavez re-join Atlanta for the final month of the season and be eligible for the postseason.
What were the expectations?
It was mildly surprising that Atlanta didn’t bring Chavez back when he lingered on the market into Spring Training given that he was well-liked by his teammates and filled an important role for the Braves in 2021.
He pitched only 5 2⁄3 innings with the Cubs when the Braves evidently saw the error in their ways and brought him back. The expectations were modest — perhaps an average-y middle reliever. As a long man in the bullpen, if Chavez had struggled, he might have been given the Darren O’Day or Josh Tomlin treatment. Luckily for all involved, that didn’t happen.
The second time the team brought him back, the hope - and I think hope is a more apt way of phrasing it than expectation - was that Chavez could return to the form he had with Atlanta to again give the team another mainly low-leverage arm to lengthen a bullpen as the Braves tried to win their fifth NL East Division title in a row.
2022 Season Results
It really was the best of times, and the worst of times, for the 38-year-old Chavez in 2022. He opened the season getting rocked in his first appearance with the Cubs but ran off five scoreless appearances with Atlanta after his return to the team in late April.
In late May, it looked like Chavez might not stay with the Braves by the time June rolled around after giving up runs in four of six appearances in a 20-day stretch during the meat of the month.
But then, for six weeks starting near Memorial Day, Chavez had one of the best stretches of his career, going 12 appearances in a row without giving up a run over 14 1⁄3 innings before finally giving up two runs on July 4th against the Cardinals. After that blip, he went another seven appearances - giving up only one earned run - before the Braves traded him to the Angels.
With Los Angeles, he appeared in 11 games, and only gave up runs in three of them. However, he was rocked in each of those appearances giving up three, five, and four (although only one was earned) runs in those games.
When the Angles waived Chavez, it wasn’t a shock to anyone that Atlanta claimed him. Back with the team for the third time in 12 months, Chavez would give up only a single run in three of his next 14 appearances until an ugly four-runs-while-getting-just-one-out on the season’s final day in Miami after the Braves had clinched the NL East.
For the season, Chavez was worth 0.7 fWAR across 60 games and 69.1 innings pitched between the Cubs, Braves, Angels, and Braves again, with a 3.76 ERA, 3.39 FIP, and 3.32 xFIP. For the season, he almost replicated his 2021 K% of 27.1% with a 25.3% mark in 2022.
What Went Right? What Went Wrong?
Chavez’s time in Atlanta went right, and everything else went wrong, which led to everything going right.
He was at his best with Atlanta, posting 0.9 fWAR and a 2.72/2.89/3.06 line. Meanwhile, he had negative fWAR with both the Cubs and Angels. On a WPA basis, he was slightly positive as a Brave — 0.04 — and somehow managed -1.21 WPA with the Cubs and Angels. As a result, for the season, he finished in the bottom 60 among all MLB pitchers in WPA... even though the bulk of his season amounted to (barely) positive WPA with the Braves.
One thing that changed from 2021 was that he couldn’t replicate his elite contact management from that season. Even as a Brave, his xwOBACON was .395, pretty close to his Statcast-era xwOBACON of .389, and well above the MLB average; in 2021, he somehow posted an elite-ish .335 xwOBACON. This seems to have stemmed from hitters punishing his sinker, and though he de-emphasized it relative to his 2021 in lieu of his cutter, the damage was done.
His highest WPA of the season came during a two-inning relief appearance against the Nationals on July 10th. Entering in the top of the 9th in a tie game, Chavez hurled a 1-2-3 inning, followed by getting out of a runner-at-third-with-one-out jam created after a sacrifice of the Manfred ghost runner. Chavez induced a groundout and then struck out Josh Bell to keep the game tied. The Braves went on to win the game 4-3 in the 12th, with Chavez’s performance earning him 0.46 WPA. Here’s that groundout, on an 0-2 changeup outside the zone:
His worst performance came on the season’s final day, when gave up four earned runs in 1⁄3 of an inning (including back-to-back triples), picking up the loss, in the Braves 12-9 loss to the Marlins. The performance was worth -0.51 WPA, but given that the game was meaningless, did it really matter? We can probably find more relevant, and painful, Chavez outings. His worst non-meaningless game WPA as a Brave came as a result of giving up a walkoff homer to Keston Hiura — it came in a sequence where Kenley Jansen blew a one-run save in the ninth, both teams scored in the 10th, and the Braves once again went ahead in the 11th, only for Chavez to come in and end the game on five pitches in a loss:
(There’s that sinker getting punished.)
Chavez gave up a run in each of his two NLDS appearances - with run he gave up in relief of Max Fried being the deciding run in the Braves 7-6 loss to the Phillies, although at the time he gave it up it made the game 7-1, with the Braves ninth-inning rally falling short.
Will Jesse Chavez return, somewhere, in 2023?
Yes, and it will be with Atlanta, as he signed a non-guaranteed deal to return to the organization and will try to make the big-league club in Spring Training.
The signs are there that he could, yet again, be effective in a relief role. He has a 25.9% strikeout rate, a 7.3% walk rate, and a combined 79/73/85 line over the past two seasons, which includes all of his struggles with the Cubs and Angels. Steamer has him as slightly above replacement level in 2023, which will be his age-39 season.
He continued to evolve his pitch mix last season, using his cutter more than any time in the last decade (55.9-percent). And although the velocity on his sinker has stayed around 91 MPH in each of the last four seasons, he reduced its usage down to 29.6 percent in 2022 while also eliminating his slider and all but ending the use of his curveball. To offset that, he wound up using his changeup more than he had in any season since 2017.
As mentioned before, the cutter remained good, while the sinker really faded in effectiveness. Perhaps next season, we could see more of his curveball as he continues to de-emphasize the sinker.
As four-time member of the Atlanta organization — which, by the way, might make him the only member of that club -- seeing the 39-year-old return to the Braves is only less surprising than if he had signed elsewhere, only to be re-acquired by Atlanta at some point during the 2023 season.