According to Jon Heyman of CBS, the Mariners have signed 35 year old corner outfielder Endy Chavez to a minor league contract. Chavez had signed a minor league deal with the Royals over the off-season, but really struggled statistically (which is not predictive but descriptive), and was released earlier this week. Mariner fans might remember Chavez from 2009, as he was part of the very complicated Indians/Mets/Mariner trade that got the Mariners Franklin Gutierrez, Mike Carp, Jason Vargas, Maikel Cleto (who they used to get Brendan Ryan), and others. Chavez would play 54 games with the Mariners in 2009 at about a replacement level. He then suffered a devastating injury when he ran into Yuni Betancourt. This would end his Mariner career, and he wouldn’t play in the big leagues in 2010.
In 2011, Endy made a somewhat successful comeback with the Texas Rangers, playing in 83 games at roughly a league average level (according to Baseball Reference) with conflicting defensive numbers (DRS had him at league average, UZR at above league average, and FRAA at below league average). He played most of the year in centerfield, but turned less balls into outs than league average (and it wasn’t particularly close). The Orioles then signed him to a 1.5 million dollar deal for 2012 and he played really poor, worth up to a win below replacement. He played mainly the corners, and again, his defensive got mixed reviews (the same systems that liked him in 2011 liked him in 2012 etc.).
As a 35 year old outfielder, it is probably not a stretch to say he is no longer a good defender, which hurts Chavez’ value since he has never been any kind of power hitter. In fact, he has a career ISO under .100 and had a .076 ISO in 2012. For comparison Brendan Ryan has a career .083 ISO and had a .084 ISO in 2012. Chavez has always hit sort of a like a slick fielding shortstop, well below league average OBP, BB %, and OPS/wRC. All the systems agree that he used to be a good fielder, and this is how he stayed in the big leagues for so long. However, it should be noted that he has never been a real full time player, playing over 140 games once and over 130 games four times (the only four times he has played at least 100 games).
What about his 2011? As he played like a league average player for about half a season. This is what a team will find attractive in Chavez as far as track record goes. He was with Texas, but he was actually better on the road that season, so it doesn’t appear to be a Ballpark in Arlington fluke. BABIP does seem to be some kind of explainer here though, as he had a .321 BABIP with the Rangers in 2011, and a .227 BABIP with the Orioles in 2012. His career average is .293 about normal. So is there a reason for the big difference, or was it simply randomness? Batted ball data may help us in this regard. He has always been an extreme groundball hitter, but his career low was in 2011 with the Rangers, and it is actually the only season he has been under 50% in his career. He hit more fly-balls than he ever had before, but he also had the best infield hit percentage of his career. So there was a mixture of luck/randomness and some true talent changes going on in 2011 for Chavez. In 2012, his GB % went back to normal (in fact, right on career averages), as did his infield hits. He still had above average speed, as I clocked him at 4.12 to first, but it didn’t play in game situations like it did in 2011 (at least according to speed score).
In 2011, the average ball he hit (non-bunts) went 243.447 feet according to Baseball Heat Maps. In 2012, it was 238.85. While we have seen that batted ball distances do see an increase in the Ballpark in Arlington, he didn’t have positive home/road splits, so this doesn’t seem to be the explanation. It seems more likely that he was just not hitting the ball as well. When you break down his batted balls by distance and percentage, it breaks down almost linear, Chavez hit more balls deeper (relatively of course, as he hit just 1 ball over 370 feet with the Rangers, and none with the Orioles) in 2011, and more balls softer in 2012. What about the direction of balls? Chavez was much less successful on flyballs with the Orioles, which makes sense considering what we saw with the batted ball distance change. Of course, even with his meager batted ball distance, he didn’t have a lot of infield flyballs, so I can’t think that we can say that his .447 OPS on flyballs as an Oriole has a lot to do with just bad luck. He had a smaller OPS on line drives and groundballs as well. We can’t really quantify how hard he was hitting the groundballs, but it is probably safe to say that the difference is mostly randomness. With both the Orioles and the Rangers, most of the balls he hit went up the middle. However, he pulled more balls with the Rangers, and actually went to the opposite field more as an Oriole. I think the spray charts demonstrate the difference:
The 2011 chart is much more balanced, while it is clear the 2012 chart makes him look like a right-handed hitter. While hitters can obviously get too pull happy, they are usually more likely to succeed, especially from a power standpoint, when they are pulling the ball instead of going the other way (there are some exceptions, but in general terms). So was he pitched different? He did change divisions (though stayed in the American League), which means he is going to be facing different pitchers more, which could change how he hit.
Based on the most basic pitch types, Chavez actually saw more fastballs in 2012 and less cutters and sliders. He did see more curveballs, but less changeups. The average velocity of both the curveballs and the fastballs both saw upticks as well. This may help explain why he saw a slight dip in contact percentage (the most correlative statistic from year to year for hitters). He was just facing better pitches and pitchers. He didn’t swing at more pitches out of the zone, but when he did, he was less likely to make contact, though he was a little more likely to make contact on pitches in the zone. He saw pitches in the strikezone 5 % less of the time in 2012. Even though he wasn’t hitting for any kind of power, pitchers felt no need to throw pitches in the strike zone to him. It also seems, if looking at Brooks Baseball’s hitter maps is any indication, pitchers were also throwing inside to him more in 2012. He also, something he didn’t have a big problem with in 2011, couldn’t lay off of high pitches:
Of course, it will be much more helpful to look at the kind of pitches that he was missing and having success with in both 2011 and 2012. Looking at just whiffs, he was way more likely to swing and miss at pitches over the plate in 2011 than 2012. He was a little more likely to swing and miss at pitches down in the zone however. In 2012, it appeared that he could only hit high pitches for flyballs, while he could hit pitches lower in the zone for fly-balls in 2011. The problems (which also appears when you look at TAV) seem to stem from when he made contact on pitches in the strike zone. He was able to be more successful on pitches in the zone in 2011 than in 2012. Why? It could be bat speed. He did get around on and pull more balls in 2011. In 2012 he couldn’t do it. This could be why pitchers were throwing more inside on him in 2012. We are working with some pretty small sample sizes, so it is pretty hard to break down his success on fastballs, but it isn’t a crazy conclusion based on the data we have seen.
He is a guy who doesn’t bat hardly at all against lefties anyway, which is fine, because he is still available for about 75 % of the time. He isn’t a full time player anyway, so he may be more of a guy that is useful against non-hard throwing right-handers (sort of the anti Ibanez, who is really good against right-handed fastballs, but struggles against breaking pitches). Steamer is projecting him as a below replacement player for 2013 (they believe he is a below average defender at this point), with average speed, but really poor batting numbers. His signing doesn’t change my projected 25 man roster, and he seems destined for Tacoma. If the bat speed comes back there, then maybe he can help the Mariners if one of their corner options (probably at least two of them) go down. If not, then he is just an organizational guy who can move around the outfield for the AAA team.