Heading into the 2011 season, it looked like Eric Chavez was beyond done as a major league player. After missing most of 2008 and 2009 due to 2 back surgeries and 3 shoulder surgeries, he was only able to muster a dismal 64 wRC+ in 2010 from the DH spot before neck and shoulder issues ended his season in May. Although he was only 33, he hadn’t been anything close to relevant since his injury-shortened 0.9 WAR season in 2007. Chavez even admitted that he wasn’t sure if his body would allow him to play again. Thanks to his complete lack of production, ZiPS projected a putrid .205/.260/.313 line for Chavez in 2011. Considering his shoulder and back made his ability to play the field questionable at best, Chavez didn’t seem to have much left to give on the baseball diamond.
Despite all of his shortcomings, the Yankees inked Chavez to a minor league deal and decided to give him a look in spring training. After an impressive (and healthy) spring, he made the opening day roster as a bench player. Although he missed time with a broken bone in his foot, Chavez was one of the Yankees’ feel good stories of 2011. While he was still just a shell of his former self, he returned from oblivion to become a solid bench option. He had some big hits in key spots and raked with men on base (.424 wOBA). Overall, he posted an acceptable .294 wOBA (79 wRC+). While he’s no longer the Gold Glover he once was, he appeared to hold his own at the hot corner. This led to the Yankees bringing him back on guaranteed major league contract laden with playing time incentives. Given his recent track record, it was hard to imagine the 34 year old Chavez improving on or even duplicating his 2011 performance. The projection systems agreed with this premise as projected wOBA’s ranged from .274 to .303. Bill James’ .303 was the only projection system to predict a wOBA over .288.
However, Chavez has experienced an extraordinary breakout this season and has been on a tear as of late filling in for the injured Alex Rodriguez. In 220 PAs, he’s belted 13 home runs and possesses a stellar .373 wOBA. His wRC+ sits at 133 which matches his career high set way back in 2004. It’s worth noting that A-Rod has only 2 more homers this season in 180 more PA’s. Amazingly, Chavez is looking like his old self again. His resurgence can’t even be linked to lucky bounces as his .294 BABIP only differs slightly from his career .286 mark. While Chavez has seemingly improved all facets of his offensive game, the main difference in Chavez’s performance this season has been the power. He’s posted an ISO of .247 which is similar to what he showed in his prime. He’s probably gotten a bit lucky in that respect as his HR/FB% is an elevated 20.3%. However, his line drive rate (22.9%) is the highest its been since 2003 which implies he’s hitting the ball with authority again.
Realistically, Chavez isn’t going to continue hitting the way he has. Nonetheless, he’s proven he’s still a very capable major leaguer and should continue to give the Yankees production at 3B until A-rod returns. However, given his lengthy injury history, the Yankees have to continue to handle Chavy with caution. This means he’ll have to remain in a strict platoon with Casey McGehee and will certainly have to take a seat if something’s bothering him. Despite the fact that he’s one of the team’s best hitters right now, it’s imperative that he’s healthy for the playoffs. Barring any more injuries, he could be relegated to bench duties when A-Rod returns, but he also may force himself into the lineup. He could DH, while Ibanez plays left and Ichiro sits on the bench.
Given his history, Chavez could easily break down at any time. Even if Chavez were to go on the DL tomorrow and miss the remainder of the season, he’s still provided the Yankees with way more than anyone could have imagined. Signing Chavez was a smart move by Brian Cashman. The Yankees’ scouts clearly saw that Chavez’s tools were still there. For the minimal cost, it was worth it to see if he’d be able to remain healthy long enough to showcase him. Hopefully, by resting him adequately, the Yankees will be able to reap the benefits of their signing for the remainder of the season as well as in October.
Photo by By Keith Allison [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons