Rebuilding the bench, which had been a disaster for Baltimore in 2011, was one of new Oriole General Manager Dan Duquette's offseason tenets. The decidedly unsexy decisions to bring on the likes of Nick Johnson, Jai Miller, Taylor Teagarden, and Endy Chavez were never going to be game-changers, but there was some mild enthusiasm to be found in the moves. Chavez in particular was seen as a wonderful improvement. This was an established veteran, a good and versatile defender with some speed who wouldn't completely embarrass himself at the plate. Compared to 2011's under-cooked adventures of Felix Pie (worst player in MLB in 2011, via wins above replacement) Chavez alone could bring the Orioles an extra two wins.
It is May 8th and Chavez actually looks worse than Pie somehow. Last year Pie hit a meager .220/.264/.280 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in 175 plate appearances. Chavez sits at .127/.172/.145 in 60 PA. Chavez has also been thrown out stealing twice without yet swiping a bag. If his offensive production does not pick up, the Orioles will have managed the improbable: downgrade from the worst player in baseball.
Okay, so the thing is that it's early. It's like really, really, really early. When you ask a national writer why he's not giving the Orioles more respect (baseball prospectus still gives the O's less than a 5% chance of making the playoffs) the answer is: it's freaking early. The odds that Endy Chavez is suddenly done as a major leaguer are not nothing, but they certainly aren't over 80%. But where exactly are those odds?
Endy Chavez is a career .270/.310/.368 hitter, which isn't tremendous but is a huge improvement on his current 2012 batting line. So what's the difference in his performance this year? There are four things he's doing differently, for one reason or another, this year compared to his entire career:
He's walking marginally less. Despite the sabrmetrically-cliche of "leadoff hitters are the guys who walk a lot", the hitter with the second most lead-off appearances for the Orioles (behind Nolan Reimold) has one walk. He also has one intentional walk, courtesy Yankee manager Joe Girardi, which is hilarious. This 1.7% walk rate is an easy career low, which is alarming because it comes after his previous career worst walking season in 2011. From an absolute point of view, though, this just isn't a big deal. Using his career walk rate over the 60 PA he's seen in 2012, Chavez would have walked only two extra times.
He's putting the ball into play less. When I think of low walk hitters, I think of Cesar Izturis and his high contact approach to hitting. Chavez doesn't quite fit that mold in 2012, because he's striking out more often than ever before in his career. He is also swinging and missing at more pitches than ever before. Again though, because of the small sample of having just 60 PA, he's outperforming his career K rate by only three strikeouts. If he had performed so far at his career levels for Ks and BBs, his hitting line would still only be .132/.207/.151. That's still well below Pie levels.
His power is out. Nobody's going to confuse Endy Chavez with Adam Jones, but it's a little alarming that Chavez only has one extra base hit on the season. Juan Pierre is hitting for more power this season. Again, though, and stop me if you see a trend developing, because of the small number of games played so far, we're only talking about 4 extra bases and a slash line of .127/.172/.225. If Chavez had a sub .400 OPS at this point in the season instead of a barely over .300 OPS, I'm still writing this article.
The hits aren't dropping in. We finally get to the crux of the matter. Yes, Chavez's batting average on balls in play, or BABIP, doesn't match his career levels. In fact, a normal BABIP doubles his hit total and gives him a .255/.293/.291 batting line. Yes, that's still the batting line of a number nine hitter, but that's who Endy Chavez is, no matter how many times the Orioles try and force him into the lead-off spot. He was, let's remember, acquired for his defensive talents.
This does not imply that Endy Chavez has been unlucky. Do not take that away from this post. He may have been unlucky, hitting against strong defenses, or he may simply be hitting the ball poorly. A batter with a lot of weak infield dribblers will have a low, low BABIP, and he certainly cannot be construed as unlucky. Without public/reliable batted ball data, all we can say is this: Endy Chavez has only be up to bat 60 times, and has performed in a very un-Endy Chavez manner. It's a slump. It's been known to happen to the very best of us.