Sometime in the next month, likely within his next three or four starts, A’s right-hander Jesse Chavez should surpass the highest number of innings he has thrown in a professional season.
With that in mind, the A’s took advantage of the All-Star break to give Chavez a longer break than most, pushing him back in the rotation to begin the second half. When Chavez pitches Wednesday against the Astros, he’ll have gone 10 days between starts.
The shuffle comes as Chavez prepares to navigate the second half of his first full season as a major-league starter – and its accompanying bump in workload. Chavez’s career high in innings is 129 2/3, set in 2012 between Triple-A and the majors. He’s at 1142/3 already this season, on pace for about 180-190 if he pitches regularly the rest of the year.
“It’s something we’re always cognizant of,” manager Bob Melvin said. “And if we feel like there’s an opportunity to give a guy a break based on the schedule … we’re always looking at the schedule to (do that).”
Melvin said the move was precautionary, and Chavez said Saturday that physically he’s “feeling fine.” In fact, he said, “I feel like I’m getting a second breath, in a way.”
It’s difficult to look at Chavez’s first half and not emphasize the positives, after he joined the rotation as an emergency measure when the A’s lost Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin to Tommy John surgery. Chavez went 7-6 with a 3.14 ERA in 19 starts, and his record may be better if not for several no-decisions in which he received little run support. He logged the third-most innings on the staff behind only Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir.
As the half wore on, though, Chavez cooled some. His opponents’ batting average rose from .199 in April to .286 in May, and it’s .314 through his first three starts in July. He posted a 5.13-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first six starts, but that dipped to 2.3-to-1 in May and June.
Chavez was also remarkably efficient early on, pitching at least seven innings in four of his first eight starts without throwing more than 100 pitches. Since then, he’s completed seven innings once and eclipsed the 100-pitch mark in seven outings.
Typically candid about his performance, Chavez offered a few possible explanations for those changes. In two of his roughest outings, in Miami on June 27 and Detroit on July 2, he was hurt by not having command of his curveball – an important pitch for Chavez because it keeps hitters from keying on his sinker-cutter combination.
The reason for that inconsistency with the curve, Chavez said, actually might have been the “second wind” he caught around the end of May. Chavez said his arm speed picked up as a result, and he briefly lost the feel of his release point for the curveball. In effect, he said, he was feeling a little too good.
Chavez returned to his early form July 7 against the Giants, throwing six shutout innings and striking out nine, before ending the half by allowing 10 hits in five innings in a loss to Seattle. Still, Chavez said, “I feel like I’m starting to find a groove on how to bounce in between starts and tone it down, or pick it up when I’m not feeling as right.”
It’s evidence that Chavez is still learning some things about his starting role on the fly. Another is adjusting to opposing hitters after multiple encounters – and then adapting when they adjust to him. The latter is likely a main reason that Chavez’s pitch counts, which were so efficient in April, became less so later in the first half.
“I think the pitches I was getting outs on early in the year are (often) foul balls now,” he said. “It’s something that’s going to happen. But as long as I keep the ball off the wall, or out of the stands, I think we’ll be in good shape as a team.”
Asked to assess his first half, Chavez said: “I could do better.” He said his main focus for the second half is on following innings in which the A’s score by keeping opponents off the board. “From June on, I’d say, that was probably the most irritating thing was giving runs back when we got a lead,” he said.
As for handling an innings load that is new to him – and could grow if the A’s make the postseason – Chavez said he isn’t worried. He does anticipate making small adjustments to his running and throwing schedules, depending on how he feels between each start.
“But if you just stay on a day-to-day basis and you’ve got a plan, simplify it and learn how to do more and how to do less at certain times,” he said, “I think that’s the biggest key to keeping you fresh.”