Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Commemorating Chavez

Over the summer, at the height of Derek Jeter's much-ballyhooed retirement tour, Eric Chavez quietly retired, bringing an end to his 17-year major league career. While age and injuries reduced Chavez to a part-time player during the second half of his career, it's important to remember just how good he was during the first half. Had he just been able to stay healthy, his resume would probably be Hall of Fame worthy. As it is, it resembles something of a poor man's Scott Rolen; strong defense at third base complemented by good power and on-base ability, but a boatload of injuries later in the career. Rolen also happens to be Chavez's most similar batter through age 30, not surprisingly.

Drafted out of high school by the Oakland A's with the 10th pick of the 1996 draft, Chavez made his major league debut two years later. The year after that, he was Oakland's everyday third baseman. After a solid showing as a rookie, Chavez broke out in 2000 with 26 dingers and an .850 OPS, beginning a run of seven straight 20-homer seasons. He would max out at 34 in 2002, the year he won his only Silver Slugger and netted his highest MVP finish (14th) as part of the famed "Moneyball" A's squad. He produced nearly identical numbers the following year, led the league in walks with 95 in 2004, and enjoyed his fourth 100 RBI season in 2005. 2006 marked a bit of a decline for Chavez, as his average tumbled to .241, but he still posted a .351 OBP, smacked 22 home runs, and won his sixth straight Gold Glove.

Because he was basically replacement level for the last eight years of his career, I don't think people remember or appreciate just how good Chavez was at his peak. He was the American League's answer to Scott Rolen. From 2000 through 2005, when he averaged 30 homers and 98 RBI per year while winning five Gold Gloves, he was practically even in terms of value with Manny Ramirez and ahead of guys like Derek Jeter, Carlos Beltran, Miguel Tejada, Carlos Delgado, and Sammy Sosa. He never had that one monster MVP-caliber season or even made an All-Star team, but consistently stayed in the five-win range for half a decade. Had he been able to do that through the rest of the decade into his early 30s, would be discussing his Hall chances right now.

Because through 2006, his age-28 season, Chavez had already piled up 1,143 hits, 245 doubles, 212 home runs, 716 RBI, and 2,060 total bases. His 32.5 fWAR were within one of Chipper Jones at the same age and within two of Wade Boggs and Brooks Robinson. His 212 long balls ranked eighth of all third sackers through age 28, ahead of Dick Allen, Jim Thome, and Mike Schmidt, among others. His 716 RBI were seventh. And with six Gold Gloves already under his belt, Chavez appeared well on his way to Cooperstown.

Then, injuries. First it was debilitating back pain, followed later on by crippling knee ailments. After averaging 144 games per year from 1999 through 2006, Chavez never again played more than 115 games in a season. He played 90 games in 2007, 23 the year after that, and just eight in 2009. In 2010, his 13th and final year with Oakland, he suited up for only 33 games. His performance declined steadily during that time as various injuries took their toll. Worse, he became an enormous bust for the A's, collecting $45 million in player salaries over those final four years in Oakland, during which time he contributed -0.3 fWAR, damning him for all eternity as one of Billy Beane's worst investments.

Those four lost prime years effectively murdered whatever chance Chavez had the Hall, but incredibly they did not end his career. The Yankees, seeking backup for an aging Alex Rodriguez, scooped him up at a bargain bin price. Chavez was a non-factor in his first season with the Bronx (2011) but enjoyed a resurgent 2012 with 16 homers and an .845 OPS in 113 games. Chavez moved on to Arizona following New York's LCS elimination and continued to hit well there in spite of his old age, putting up an .810 OPS at age 35 and .795 at 36.

It was somewhat surprising, then, that Chavez retired midway through last season on July 30th. But the Diamondbacks were going nowhere and a knee injury had forced him to the disabled list. At 36, he was all done fighting his way back from injuries, so he forfeited the $1 million remaining on his contract and went home.

It's a shame we'll never know what Chavez would have accomplished had he stayed healthy. He was on track to be one of the 15, maybe even 10-best third basemen ever, at least on par with Rolen, Ken Boyer, and Ron Santo. Based on his early career trajectory, Chavez probably would have reached benchmarks such as 300 home runs and 2,000 hits, and may have added a few more Gold Gloves as well. As it is, his six Gold Gloves are tied with Buddy Bell and Robin Ventura for fourth-most all-time among third basemen, behind only Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt, and Rolen. His career .970 fielding percentage is the fifth-highest at the position.

Chavez is not a Hall of Famer, but for awhile he played like one. It's just too bad things didn't turn out differently, because by all accounts he was one of the game's classier, most respected players. Nobody deserves to have their career ravaged by injuries, but Chavez especially.

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