He turned 40 years old in August. He just completed his 16th season in the majors. He’s coming off of one of the seasons of his career. He’s a man that almost needs no introduction.
He’s Jesse Chavez.
For a full background on Chavez’s career, you can click here or click here as his background, up until this season, hasn’t changed. But the man who goes with the Atlanta Braves like peanut butter goes with jelly has become one of the more iconic bullpen figures in the team’s recent history — pitching so well for the Braves that his journeyman status seems like a mere footnote.
Atlanta signed Chavez to a minor league contract on November 12, 2022, with an invitation to Spring Training. He was selected to the big league team prior to Opening Day. Chavez spent all of 2021 with the Braves, and had a whirlwind 2022 where he was traded to the Braves early in the year, then traded away and released, and then re-signed with the Braves in the middle of the season. This time around, though, there was no such drama, as Chavez stuck with the same organization the whole year.
What were the expectations?
Chavez returned to Atlanta to provide depth to the team’s bullpen. After pitching well for the team in 2021 and doing so again in two separate tours of duty in 2022, he looked to play a valuable role as a versatile arm, capable of working anywhere from a mop-up role to a medium-to-high leverage set-up role. Given his age — and the nature of relievers in general -- there was risk, but it was low, since the team wasn’t relying on him to plug up any major holes in the bullpen pecking order.
Chavez came into the season having compiled 1.7 fWAR as a reliever across the past two seasons, though his 2020, as a Ranger, was disastrous. He was expected to be somewhere between a decent and good reliever based on his recent history, despite his age — his change of pace style from today’s procession of hard-throwing reliever seemed to work pretty well, at least when he was in a Braves uniform (he was considerably worse with every non-Braves team he pitched for since 2019).
It ended up being another successful season for Chavez, as the right-hander continued his outstanding work while wearing an Atlanta uniform. For the season, he appeared in 36 games, pitching 34 2⁄3 innings, with a 1.56 ERA, 3.55 xERA, 3.05 FIP, and 3.40 xFIP. That ERA was 65 percent lower than league average; the xFIP was 22 percent lower than league average. He was superb at limiting home runs — hence the low FIP — allowing only two on the season, as well as limiting his hard-hit rate to just a third of balls in play against him. All in all, he compiled 0.7 fWAR on the year, tying his total from 2022 despite pitching fewer than half as many innings.
In terms of results, each of his four pitches — a cutter, sinker, changeup and curveball — provided positive value (though some of that is due to his defense). He threw his cutter the majority of the time, but also heavily mixed in a sinker and changeup, with an occasional curveball. The sinker and changeup had good “fall off the table” action, and the cutter’s unorthodox movement (neither fade like a fastball nor a slice/cut/roll like a slider) all confused batters. Command-wise, Chavez didn’t always put it where he wanted to, as you can see below, but he stayed on the edges and never really bled over the heart of the zone.
All of this helped him give up only three barrels all season with an average exit velocity yielded of only 87.1 MPH.
What went right?
As if the above wasn’t enough of a spiel on what went right for the then-39-year-old, through June 14, Chavez couldn’t have been better. At that point, he had appeared in 31 games allowing only one home run, and had a 1.55 ERA and a 2.46 FIP. There was conjecture — both among fans and media — as to the possibility that Chavez could be in-line for his first All-Star Game selection, though that didn’t end up happening.
Chavez posted an 11/3 shutdown/meltdown ratio over the course of the season. Arguably his best outing? Coming into the game in relief of Jared Shuster with two on, none out, and a two-run lead in the sixth. Chavez struck out the first two Nationals batters he faced and got a groundout to escape the jam, and then threw a 1-2-3 seventh that included another strikeout, as the Braves went on to win. Also, here’s him getting Manny Machado to hit into a double play (on a high pitch, somehow, after watching two called strikes near the zone’s edge) to end the eighth with the tying runs on base — these two games show that Chavez was used as longer middle relief or higher-leverage set-up duty and generally succeeded at both. His FIP and xFIP showed almost no leverage split for the season.
On the whole, it was an outstanding season for Chavez, but there was a bit of a bitter taste to the season because...
What went wrong?
...disaster struck on June 14, as he was hit by a comebacker. Entering the game in the bottom of the sixth inning to face future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera, Chavez’s season was sidetracked when a line drive off Cabrera’s bat collided with Chavez’s leg. Chavez left the game and was placed on the IL with what was originally thought to be a contusion. Although initial concern was mild, it took him over a month from the date of the injury to throw a bullpen session, and over two months to pitch without any discomfort, by which point he had already been moved to the 60-day Injured List.
The timing was atrocious for Chavez, as chronicled above, as a couple more weeks of effectiveness out of the Braves bullpen could have made for a storybook honor for the California native with the possibility of an All-Star selection.
On September 20, he returned to finish the last two weeks of the season with Atlanta. He appeared in five games as the Braves wound down their regular season, but was not particularly effective, with a 3/3 K/BB ratio and one of his two homers allowed on the year. Perhaps due to that diminished tiny-sample performance, the Braves opted not to carry him on the playoff roster.
Chavez rarely struggled in 2023, but no one is perfect. If you had to pick one disappointing moment he was involved in (despite it not really being his fault), he “helped” the Marlins complete their five-run comeback on April 27 after entering the ninth trailing 4-0, with Garrett Cooper’s big blow coming off a Chavez pitch:
Despite not averaging 90 MPH on any pitch in 2023, Chavez’s tempo (especially with no runners on base) and ability to control his pitch location has him as one of the most effective relievers Atlanta has employed in the past three seasons. In that span, only A.J. Minter has more fWAR, and Chavez has the best xFIP aside from Pierce Johnson’s handful of innings.
Even at his age, it’s hard to imagine that Chavez won’t try to return for another season in 2024. Given his effectiveness on the field and perceived status as a quality teammate both on and off the field — his fellow relievers putting carried around Chavez’s jersey after his injury to include it during bullpen celebrations — it’s fair to assume he could return to Atlanta on a Minor League contract, or maybe even a modest guaranteed deal.
However, it’s just as possible that another team could offer Chavez a big-league contract as the Cubs did prior to the 2022 season, in which case, there will be no shortage of jokes about how long it will take for Atlanta to trade for Chavez in 2024.
Projections will probably be modest given his age, last year’s injury, and the fact that he’s a reliever. Steamer currently has him at 0.3 WAR in 2024 over 50 innings. That seems a little conservative, though, as he’s put up 2.4 fWAR over his last three years; maybe expecting him to reproduce something like the 0.7 fWAR he’s managed the last two years isn’t particularly foolhardy.
But, even if 2023 was the end for the bespectacled Chavez, he will have pitched in more than 600 games and more than 1,070 innings for eight different teams during his MLB career. Although his career pitching triple-slash is just 104/101/96, he’s been much more impressive as a Brave, largely over the last few years — 75/78/88, which bakes in a pretty poor half-season all the way back in 2010.
We’re hoping he comes back, though. There’s just something about a pretty dominant team trotting out an old finesse guy to get key outs in relief that is much more gratifying, and amusing, than the alternative.