If you had told me that the Yankees were going to play Eric Chavez for 82 games and counting this season, I’d have told you that it was a great idea … in 2002. If you had then told me that Chavez would hit .300/.357/.536 I’d have thought you were talking about 2002. Of course, that gaudy line is not Chavez’s line from 2002. In 2002 Chavez hit .275/.348/.513. The first set of numbers I’ve thrown up there is what Chavez has hit this season for the Yankees. In case you’re wondering, the man he replaced at third, Alex Rodriguez, was hitting just .276/.358/.449 when he went down with a broken hand after 94 games. Over roughly the same period of time Chavez has been the better hitter. What’s going on?
The first thing to point out is that Chavez may simply be playing to his god given abilities. Before his name became synonymous with the disabled list Chavez was a perennial 4 or 5 fWAR player for the Athletics. His arsenal featured solid hitting (~.370 wOBA) and slick fielding. The wheels came off in 2007 when he was sidelined by injuries. Until 2012 that was the last time he played in more than 80 games.
After a quick glance, Chavez’s numbers this year suggest a mix luck and a gifted player getting his mojo back after some time. Two numbers stand out to suggest a bit of luck for Eric. First, his BABIP is .308 this season, versus .287 for his career. In his prime in Oakland he never managed a BABIP above .300. He first did it in 2010. While that isn’t a huge jump from his career norm, that extra .020 points will translate into some nice hits.
The second big change that jumps out is his line drive rate. Chavez has a line drive rate of 23.8% this year, versus a career rate of 19.7%. He’s never put up anything close to 23.8% since 2003, when his line drive rate was 25.1%. The rest of his batted ball profile has changed in line with the boosted line drive rate. He’s hitting fewer ground balls and his home run to fly ball rate is a comical 19.4%. It was 4.3% last season and has been 14% for his career.
The rest of Chavez’s profile is unchanged, more or less. His walk and strike out rates, for example, are in line with his historical norms. The BABIP and the line drive rate, however, are enough to explain his performance. He’s hitting more bullets and needless to say more of them are dropping in for extra base hits.
It is difficult to say if this is sustainable. The basic answer is probably not, but Chavez isn’t hitting so much better than his core numbers to suggest the performance isn’t real. Two other factors may be at play. First, Chavez is a veteran who has had two seasons now to work with the Yankees and refine his approach. What guy wouldn’t be flexible if it meant another season in the sun? Second, the Yankees get to employ Chavez in the best situations for him. Primarily that means against right handed pitchers. For his career Eric is a .307 wOBA hitter against lefties and a .364 hitter against righties. While he’s still outperforming his career splits against righties this year, isolating the analysis to be those numbers alone raises his baseline.
My conclusion, apart from how awesome it is to have Chavez come in and hit like this, is that it is a combination of the two. When a guy has a .288 career BABIP against righties and suddenly jumps his BABIP up to .308 there’s an amount of luck involved, but Chavez is also being used in the situations that are perfect for his strengths. He may not be quite this good, but he was always a talented ball player. The Yankees are the ultimate benefactors.