Marty Lurie Talks San Francisco Giants Baseball

Eric Chavez Still An Enigma by Glenn Dickey

THE OAKLAND A’s are a much different team this year, with an almost entirely new starting rotation, but there is one constant: We’re all still wondering when Eric Chavez will finally fulfill his potential.

Players who are able to make it to the big leagues before their 21st birthday, as Chavez did in September, 1998, are usually headed for the Baseball Hall of Fame. We’re talking players like Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Orlando Cepeda, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Ted Williams. Ken Griffey Jr. would be in the grouping, too, if it weren’t for his frequent injuries.As hitters, these players developed power early. Aaron, who hit just 13 homers (the same as Chavez) as a rookie, had his first plus-40 year (44) when he was 24. Bench hit 45 when he was 24. Cepeda hit 46 as a 24-year-old. Mantle was 23 when he hit 52, Mays 24 when he hit 51. Griffey hit 45 before his 24th birthday.

Chavez has developed into a great defensive third baseman, but his hitting has lagged far behind those listed above. As early as his second season, then A’s manager Art Howe said he had more power than anybody else on the team (which included Jason Giambi) because he could be fooled by a pitch and still hit it out to the opposite fields.

That potential led me to predict early that Chavez would have multiple 50-homer seasons in his career, but at 27 (28 in December), his highest total is the 34 he hit in 2002. He would have exceeded that last year if he hadn’t been injured – he had just 475 at-bats and hit 29 homers – but even healthy, he wouldn’t have approached the 50-homer level which should be his goal.

Even more damning was a question a baseball-savvy friend asked me last season: “Can you ever remember Eric Chavez hitting a home run when it counted?””

Of course he has, but not nearly as often as he should have. Too often, we’ve seen Chavez striking out or popping up in crucial situations.

MORE THAN EVER, the A’s need Chavez to step up big-time this year.

No longer can the A’s assume that their starting pitchers will go deep in the game and keep the score down, so a minimal offensive effort can win. Even Rich Harden is really only in his first full season as a starter, though he seems most capable of pitching deep into the game. Dan Haren and Joe Blanton have the stuff to be winners, but it’s unreasonable to expect that they’ll be consistent in their first year in the starting rotation.

And I don’t want to even think about Barry Zito, the “leader” of the staff, after his first two outings.

Questions abound about the position players, too, with Jermaine Dye gone. Dye had frequent injury problems, but he supplied power when he was in the lineup, and there’s no immediate replacement in sight. Rookie Nick Swisher will provide that power eventually, and he has the swagger Chavez needs, but he’s still near the bottom of his learning curve. Shortstop Bobby Crosby showed power last season as a rookie and should be a better hitter this year, but he’s on the DL now. The leading acquisition of the off-season, catcher Jason Kendall, is a contact hitter, not a power hitter.

The changes in the lineup have forced the A’s to play “little ball,” which manager Ken Macha likened to heresy. There’s nothing wrong with using an improved running game and employing the hit-and-run when hitters who make consistent contact are at the plate, but teams don’t win consistently in the American League without the three-run homer.

That’s where Chavez should come in. If he finally had that 50-homer year, it would make a huge difference to the A’s.

CHAVEZ, THOUGH, doesn’t seem inclined to make that move. When he struggled at the plate in the first week of the season, he talked about always getting off to a slow start, as if that were inevitable and there was nothing he could do about it.

That strange kind of passive attitude has been his trademark, and it’s probably the biggest reason he hasn’t reached his full hitting potential. The Hall of Fame players mentioned above weren’t passive. They were determined to be the best, and they drove themselves to the next level.

It’s not a question of effort. Chavez had the reputation of being a poor defensive third baseman when he came to the A’s, but with the help of coach Ron Washington, he worked and worked to develop his defense.

Defense is technique. Hitting is technique, but it’s also about attitude, and Chavez has fallen short on both counts. The best hitters have the confidence to wait for their pitch, even if it means taking a strike or even two. Chavez still has a tendency to swing at the first strike he sees, even if all he can do is hit it on the ground, instead of waiting for that pitch he can really drive. I suspect he still doesn’t have the confidence to hit when he’s behind in the count.

MAKE NO MISTAKE, Chavez has had a very good career, so far. He’s the best defensive third baseman in the majors, with four Gold Gloves, and has already hit 163 home runs. If he stays healthy and on the seasonal 30-plus home run pace he’s established, he’ll probably exceed 500 home runs for his career, which should be enough to get him in the Hall of Fame.

But even if that happens, many of us will be left to wonder what he could have accomplished if he’had had that Aaron-Mays-Mantle mindset.


1 sarabaseball { 04.14.05 at 12:00 pm }

Great synopsis, glenn. I’ve always wondered about the saying “nice guys finish last” chavvy has the reputation of being so friendly, nice, egoless. How can someone like that work up the competive energy to best himself every year. I love Chavvy but get so disappointed when he fails at a critical point.
Keep up the good writing while marty is gone.

2 Anonymous { 04.14.05 at 2:08 pm }

Lets look at the big picture. The “low budget” A’s couldn’t afford to acquire someone to protect Chavez this year. How many good pitches is he expected to get? This being said, I agree with a lot of what you said. I don’t know, though, if there is a problem with him hitting behind the count. I actually think he hits behind the count too much! He is constantly down 1-2 or 2-2. Part of this is because he swings early, like you say. But I have no problem with him (or any hitter) swinging early as long as it’s a good pitch to hit. He doesn’t make hard contact enough with very hittable pitches. He will when he is going good, but hitting fat pitches should be something one is consistent on. How much of this is the hitting coach’s fault? I see Chavez changing is stance too much at the plate. That’s not a good thing for a hitter to do. Throws off mechanics.
-Mike E.

3 Anonymous { 04.15.05 at 12:44 pm }


Eric Chavez will certainly be the A’s superstar—both in terms of marketability and cost—for the foreseeable future. It’s only reasonable for fans to expect Chavez to perform at a superstar level.

Eric has shown an ability to consistently hit 30 homeruns, bat .275 and drive in 100 RBI’s. However, as a player due to make $11 million per year over the next six seasons, an improvement to the “next level” is justifiable. We began to see the improvement last year when Chavez led the league in walks while missing several weeks due to a broken hand. Chavez managed to hit 29 homers in only 120 games, while getting on-base at a .397 clip, a clear improvement over previous seasons.

I believe Chavez will continue to be pitched around until Bobby Crosby or Nick Swisher develop into formidable hitters or the A’s acquire a true cleanup hitter. I expect Chavez will boast an OBP around .400, with a home run total pushing towards 40 in 2005. Combined with his gold glove caliber defense, I believe his salary will be justly earned.

It is unfair to compare Chavez with Mantle, Mays or the like simply because he made it to the big leagues at 21 years old.

It is unfair to place substance in a player’s ability to hit “important” home runs. I frankly cannot remember a clutch homer hit by Mark McGwire while playing for Oakland, but Greg Meyers’ walk-off shot against Troy Percival rings in my mind. Certainly this doesn’t mean Meyers had a better attitude or was more aggressive than McGwire.

It is unfair to ask Chavez to reach the 50 homerun mark. In fact, I would be surprised if any play reaches 50 home runs this season. Why should 50 homers be the barometer of success for Chavez?

The home run craze in baseball has been tamed to a significant extent by good pitching. The thirty home run plateau is a great accomplishment, particularly for a third baseman. If you take a look at every team in baseball, very few non-first base infielders can lay claim to gold glove defense, 30 home run power and a .370-.400 OBP.

Only a few players such as Scott Rolen and Alex Rodriguez can truly be called peers of Eric Chavez. If Rolen and A-Rod are the players we compare Chavez with in today’s game, he is already the superstar player the A’s need him to be in 2005.

4 Anonymous { 04.16.05 at 1:17 am }

Not a big fan of the article for a few reasons. First of all, your main point to support the notion that Chavez is an enigma, is that he fails in comparison to a list of 5 of the best players in the history of the world. Sort of a rediculous comparison. It is nobodies fault but yours that YOU compared him to that class of personnel when he was 21 years old.

Secondly, there are plenty of writers today that support their opinions. Comments like, gee… seems like he never hits clutch homers, are worthless opinions, as you don’t even attempt to support it with fact. Probably because you are too lazy to actually do the research concerning when he hits his homers. The data is out there.
There is an old saying that the big game is the one that you don’t win, because that is what people remember. The A’s wouldn’t have won so many games as they had without Chavez coming through.
I also find your comment about Zito to be laughable. He lost 2 games, and you doubt his ability to lead? You seem to fall victim to a very small sample size on that one. His second game was garbage. His first game he gave up some runs, but really looked good at times.
Finally, your comment at the end about Chavez not having the confidence to take pitches early in the count is borderline criminal, and demonstrates your utter lack of respect for fact. Chavez was on the DL for 6 weeks last year, and he still led the AL in walks. Glenn, if you want people to pay for your articles on, you’re going to have to do your homework and you’re going to have to use evidence and facts to support your arguments. Keep trying, you’re certainly an important piece of the local sports landscape.

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