The 2020 Hall of Fame ballot has come and gone. Previously we looked at the players with Arizona connections who were on the list for the first time this year. None of them made it in. Indeed, none of them will be back next year. But when the results came out, I realized I had inexplicably omitted Eric Chavez. Considering he received more votes than any other first-time Diamondback this year (a whopping two!), that omission is unacceptable. So let’s just pretend you are reading this before the results announcement...
Eric Chavez in Arizona
It’s probably forgivable to not have considered Chavez as being one of us. He only had 335 plate-appearances for the Diamondbacks over a 17-year career, compared to more than 5,400 for the Athletics. But he was part of the Diamondbacks roster in 2013 and 2014, finishing his career here when he retired on July 30th of the latter season.
He initially signed for the team in December 2012, coming off a two-year stint with the New York Yankees. It was a fairly cheap deal: $3 million for one year. It may have helped Kevin Towers make a pitch, that Eric was already a Phoenix resident, having bought a Paradise Valley home for $3.6 million in 2010 [Just a little 10,500 sq.ft place, with six bedrooms, 10 bathrooms, a six-car garage, batting cage and - of all things - a horse arena with grandstand and riding rink]. He sold it in 2016 for $4.75 million, after becoming a special assistant in the Angels organization. Though that was considerably less than the original asking price for Chavez Towers of $5.9 million.
The plan for the Diamondbacks was that the left-handed Chavez would be a platoon partner for Chris Johnson at third-base. Between there and occasional starts at first, the hope from the tam was that he’d get 300-400 plate appearances. That seemed a little optimistic, considering that over the previous five years, he had averaged only 147. Though in his final year as a Yankee, Chavez had reached 313 PA, thanks largely to the injury issues limiting A-Rod to 81 starts at third. But it didn’t work out too badly for Arizona. Despite missing a month with an oblique strain suffered during an at-bat against the Rangers, Chavez appeared in 80 games, batting .254 with nine home-runs and a 120 OPS+.
There’s no doubt what was the highlight of his time here. Coming off the bench on Sep 6 against the Giants with two outs in the ninth, Chavez singled off Yusmeiro Petit on a 3-2 count, the ball dropping just in front of a diving Hunter Pence. Which doesn’t sound too amazing, except it came after Petit had retired the previous 26 batters. Chavez had saved the Diamondbacks from being perfecto’d by their former pitcher, at the last possible moment. Said the hitter, “I wasn’t up there trying to break his heart, I just wanted to break it up. It was a pride thing.” That, alone, was probably worth a good chunk of Chavez’s $3 million for the season.
All told, Chavez was low-key good, starting 46 times at third, as well as a couple at second. He was particularly impressive as a pinch-hitter, going 5-for-16 with a home-run and no strikeouts, for a .913 OPS. Despite limited playing time, he had five games where he drove in three runs or more that year, and it was no surprise when the team opted to re-sign him at the end of the season to a further one-year deal, this time for $3.5 million. But it didn’t work out. He felt his knee “pop” the day before leaving for the season opener in Australia, and it needed to be drained to relieve the swelling several times om the first two months as he tried to play through it. When the end came, it was not with a bang, but a whimper.
Though no-one knew it at the time, his final major-league appearance was against the Braves on June 8. He drew a walk in the seventh inning, as a pinch-hitter for Chase Anderson. He then went on the DL, and admitted the team “should have probably done this three or four weeks ago... So (we’ll) try to calm it down and probably take about five days of just nothing, and then I’ll just try to crank it up again, and hopefully by 15 days it’s ready to go and I’m good to go.” It showed improvement, but medical advice indicated that if he went back to playing, it would only continue to cause problems, and Eric decided to retire, rather than push on.
Chavez noted, he had done a good job of staying on the field over his career, especially considering three back surgeries and a pair of shoulder procedures. As he put it: “If you look at all the injuries I had, it’s a miracle that I played for 17 years.” He went on, “I’ve honestly been thinking about it for the last three years. Every offseason, after the season had ended, I went back home and kind of had evaluated where I was at mentally and physically... This year, with the knee, I think physically, what the doctors had told me, for me to keep grinding on my knee was not going to be the best option for me to do.”
Chavez even took a light-hearted jab at D-backs manager Kirk Gibson in his retirement speech. “I had to start looking towards the future. I see guys with bad knees walking around, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be that guy.’ You look at Gibby running around, and you’re like, ‘Oh, man. He’s pretty beat up.’” It’s not often a player retires in the middle of a season - not least because, by doing so, they forfeit the remainder of their salary. But Chavez said, “he wouldn’t have felt right taking money for sitting his last days on the disabled list,” an approach which can only be admired.
Hall of Fame chances
Well, clearly not good. :) But six consecutive Gold Gloves, and four consecutive years appearing on MVP ballots is clearly nothing to be sneezed at. After making his debut as a 20-year-old, he became a part of the famous Moneyball team in Oakland, though flew considerably more under the radar than some of his colleagues - and stayed with the A’s longer, too. But during the first half of the decade, he was right up there with the best at the position. Through age 27, Chavez put up more bWAR than Chipper Jones, who is in the Hall of Fame. From 2000-05, Chavez was worth 28.2 bWAR, and over that time, trails only Jones and Scott Rolen (who arguably should be in the Hall of Fame) among third-basemen.
There’s an argument to be made that he’s among the best never to make an All-Star game. In the expansion era since 1961, the only non-All Star position players with more career bWAR than Chavez are Tony Phillips, Tim Salmon and Chavez’s last manager, Gibby. But after winning the last of his Gold Gloves in 2006, poor health took its toll, and robbed Chavez of what perhaps were going to be his prime years. Over his final four years with the Athletics, he averaged only 38 games and 157 plate-appearances, due to those back and shoulder issues managed above. By the time he left the Coliseum, he had played an Oakland record thirteen consecutive seasons there.
His time in New York was mostly as a bench player, but did allow him two further trips to the post-season. However, despite seven playoff campaigns, Chavez was never able to play in the World Series. Perhaps his nearest brush came in 2001, when the A’s lost to the Yankees in five, despite taking the first two games of the Division Series. He said of that set, “I thought we were the better team, but Derek had the flip. We were just young kids new to the scene.” What might have happened, had they won that ALDS, and gone on to play the Diamondbacks that year? Who can tell...