Red Sox Rookie Michael Chavis Is Surprise Hero Saving Them from Disaster

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 8, 2019

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 28: Michael Chavis #23 of the Boston Red Sox looks on after his solo home run in the bottom of the seventh inning of the game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park on April 28, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

The Boston Red Sox were pretty much screwed before Michael Chavis came along.

Considering they came into 2019 off a historically outstanding season, that shouldn't have been the case. Additionally, Chavis was considered a good-but-not-great prospect when he got the call in April.

Yet there he is, hitting the heck out of the ball. And there are the Red Sox, finally playing more like a defending World Series champion should be playing.

Chavis announced his presence in his debut on April 20. Facing hard-throwing Tampa Bay Rays closer Jose Alvarado, the 23-year-old smacked a pinch-hit 109.1 mph double to set up the decisive run in a 6-5 Red Sox victory.

After 17 games with the Red Sox, Chavis is now batting .293 with a 1.060 OPS and six home runs. He's done so mostly while playing second base, with some cameos at third base and first base.

For the Red Sox, the difference between life without Chavis and life with him is night and day:

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The biggest party the Red Sox have thrown since Chavis came aboard happened on May 4. He hit two home runs in a 15-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox, including one in a string of 10 straight hits that fueled a nine-run third inning.

"Hitting's contagious, so I think it's more like, you see everybody getting hits, and everybody's like, 'Let me hop on, let me get a little bit of that,'" Chavis said afterward, according to Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald. "It was fun. Honestly, it was a good time."

The downside for the Red Sox is that their Chavis-fueled run hasn't made a huge difference for their standing in the American League East. They've moved from last place to third place, yet their deficit to the first-place Rays has only improved from seven games to six.

But compared to what was happening before, any progress is good progress. And as long as the Red Sox's lineup keeps clicking, they ought to be able to keep it going.

Even sans Chavis, there was always hope that Boston's offense would eventually click. The Red Sox led Major League Baseball in OPS and runs in 2018, and nearly all of their key contributors are back in 2019.

In particular, reigning AL MVP Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, Mitch Moreland and Rafael Devers all returned. They've had their struggles at the outset of 2019, but now only Devers has an OPS below .800. 

Against a backdrop like this, the Red Sox should be able to survive Chavis' inevitable cooldown. And it's safe to use the word "inevitable" because it's a bit much to expect him to keep challenging Shoeless Joe Jackson's rookie-record 1.058 OPS.

But if the question is whether Chavis can keep carrying his weight, the only rational answer at this point is a resounding yes.

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 29: Michael Chavis #23 of the Boston Red Sox at bat during the fifth inning against the Oakland Athletics at Fenway Park on April 29, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Chavis didn't walk the straightest path to the major leagues. He was a well-regarded talent when the Red Sox chose him 26th overall out of Sprayberry High School in Marietta, Georgia, in 2014, but he struggled in his first two professional seasons. Before his fourth in 2018, he was suspended 80 games for performance-enhancing drugs.

But while that suspension might have crushed Chavis' momentum, it ultimately did nothing of the sort.

After breaking out with a .910 OPS and 31 home runs at High-A and Double-A in 2017, Chavis returned from his suspension in 2018 to put up a .919 OPS with nine homers in 46 games between Low-A, Double-A and Triple-A. He kept rolling into the spring with a 1.152 OPS and four homers in the exhibition season.

It was apparent even then that he might be better than he got credit for. To wit, he began the year at No. 85 for Baseball America and No. 79 for MLB.com, according to Baseball Reference.

Chavis certainly made an impression on Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who said the following in February, per Silverman:

"I heard a lot of stuff, I saw some videos, but that's just videos. [Chavis] has a very good idea what he's doing. He prepares, he's paying attention to the game, you can see he works on his moves. In batting practice, he understands what he wants to do.

"He can hit, he can hit."

Chavis didn't make the Red Sox out of spring training, but he stayed on the big club's roster by posting a .954 OPS and swatting four homers in 12 games at Triple-A. He obviously hasn't missed a beat since getting the call, and his underlying numbers support what's on the surface.

It's no accident that Chavis has walked in 16.4 percent of his plate appearances. He has about an average overall swing rate, but a well-below-average swing rate against pitches outside the strike zone.

Although he does swing and miss more often than the average hitter, what contact he makes tends to be explosive. Half of his batted balls (19 of 38) have registered as fly balls or line drives, and they've averaged 99.2 mph in exit velocity.

The MLB average in that department? Only 93.1 mph. The next-best mark on the Red Sox? Only 98.3 mph, courtesy of Moreland.

This explains how Chavis could own each of Boston's four longest homers (459, 441, 441 and 438 feet) so far in 2019. It also points to his .416 xwOBA—a Statcast metric that measures expected production based on contact quality—which ties Texas Rangers slugger Joey Gallo for 15th among qualified hitters since April 20.

If there's a looming concern for the Red Sox, it's what to do with Chavis once more bodies become available for their infield. Eduardo Nunez has already come off the injured list. At some point, Brock Holt and Dustin Pedroia will also be back.

But to this end, the Red Sox aren't about to do anything rash. 

"We see what Michael is doing offensively, so we'll find ways for him to get at-bats," Cora said, according to Chad Finn of the Boston Globe. "DH, playing second, playing third, playing first, we'll find ways for him to get into the lineup. He's doing an outstanding job."

If Cora stays true to his word, Chavis will keep getting opportunities to hit the heck out of the ball. The more he does it, the more the Red Sox should keep winning.

                    

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Some advanced stats are current through Monday, April 6.

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