When the A’s dispersed last fall after their season-ending loss in the American League wild-card game, pitcher Jesse Chavez went home with a directive for the offseason: Eat.
Chavez, the slight right-hander, said he finished last season carrying 157 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame. He also logged the highest innings total (146) of his career, and experienced a second-half drop-off that may have been the result of his body wearing down later in the year.
So Chavez made a conscious effort this winter to put on weight. He ate steaks, big salads, foods his natural metabolism wouldn’t burn off quickly. He did his best not to skip meals. He ate when he wasn’t hungry.
“The easiest thing for me to tell him was, ‘Hey, when you feel like you can’t eat, just like pushing yourself in the weight room to get that extra couple of reps, same thing when you eat,’” said Mike Henriques, the A’s strength and conditioning coach. “‘Push yourself just to get a couple more calories in you.’”
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It may sound easy, almost indulgent. But it could be a challenge for Chavez, who said he rarely feels like eating on days he pitches or after workouts; either the adrenaline quashes his appetite or “it’ll come right back up.” Plus, he said, “I get bored eating sometimes.”
“If you sit there and chew a steak for 20 minutes,” Chavez said, “regardless of how big a steak it is, you’re just going to get tired of eating it.”
But heeding the advice of Henriques and his own initiative, Chavez kept chewing. And he reported to camp in the 175-pound range, prepared for a 2015 season in which again he figures to play a key role on the A’s pitching staff, whether starting or in long relief.
Chavez began last season in the A’s injury-depleted starting rotation and was a revelation early, recording a 1.89 ERA in his first six starts and ending the first half 7-6 with a 3.14 ERA. But he had already started to struggle by the All-Star break and made just two more starts before being moved to the bullpen, finishing the second half with a 4.60 ERA.
Opponents actually had a higher batting average on balls in play against Chavez in the first half (.313) than in the second (.262), indicating he posted his good first-half numbers despite some bad luck. But they hit him harder after the break – a .749 OPS compared to .676 before – and his ratio of strikeouts to walks dropped from 2.97 to 2.23.
Neither Chavez nor Henriques said that weight was the sole factor behind those trends. But both agreed that, along with Chavez’s increased workload, it may have played a part.
“The life was still there on (pitches), but the location was wrong,” Chavez said. “I don’t know if that was lower half, middle half, upper half that got tired. I can’t pinpoint it.
“It’s something I want to know. Because that (ticked) me off, knowing you go that long and then all of a sudden – boom, what’s going on? It’s something I didn’t want to get to, where I was asking myself, ‘What’s going on?’”
The challenge this season for Chavez, then, is to maintain the weight over the course of a six-month campaign amid the constant travel and rigors of a big-league schedule. Chavez said he intends to do that even “if (Henriques) has to sit me down and force food down my throat.”
“My metabolism and the way my body type is, I can eat whatever I want and I’ll lose it that day if I want to,” Chavez said. “That’s the hardest part for me, because I’m so active, I’m never sitting down. I was told early in my career that if you’re sitting down, you’re not doing anything to benefit yourself.”
The next few weeks will determine whether Chavez will begin this season as a starter or a reliever. The A’s have a handful of candidates competing for several open rotation spots, and while Chavez has an advantage in terms of experience, his record as a reliever in the majors makes him a viable bullpen option as well if the A’s want to keep another starter.
Chavez said his goal is to win a rotation job out of camp, one reason he felt nerves before his first Cactus League start last Wednesday against the Giants. He threw two scoreless innings and said he was pleased with the fact he kept pitches down and got ground balls despite the jitters.
Chavez said he’s impressed with the energy he has observed from the A’s young rotation candidates, such as Jesse Hahn, Kendall Graveman and Chris Bassitt. But, hey, Chavez said – he’s hungry, too.
“I like competition,” he said. “I embrace it, I like it. And I think it’s challenging for all of us here, and it’ll bring out the best in us.”