“Hey, pitching coach,” he would say one moment.
“Hey, hitting coach,” he would say the next.
This perfectly captures the life of a 39-year-old who has played for nine different teams while being traded 10 times during a professional baseball career that began when the Rangers drafted him in 2002.
“You’re in so many different places, it’s tough to get the names, right?” Chavez said during an interview in the dugout tunnel at San Francisco’s Oracle Park.
As a role-less reliever, Chavez has a difficult job. He must perform consistently in an inconsistent situation. Over the years, he has done everything. He has pitched as a starter and as a reliever, in the middle innings and the late ones. But recently, one constant has emerged in his fluid situation.
He pitches much better in a Braves uniform than in any other. Coincidence?
“I would say comfortability has 100% to do with it,” Chavez said. “It has nothing to do with being complacent and saying, ‘Oh, I’m here, it’s always going to work.’ No, it’s not. We’re always nose at the grindstone, we’re always talking about it. But I just think that (comfortability) helps out with what we want to get accomplished, with where I’m at in my career.
“I always say you either got baseball lifers or baseball people – baseball people want to help you (be) the best, baseball lifers just think it’s a country club. That’s how I look at it now, and we got baseball people here (with the Braves).”
In 2021, Chavez posted a 2.14 ERA over 33 ⅔ innings for a team that eventually won the World Series. This season, his ERA with the Braves is floating around 2.00. He has had success with Atlanta but had a rough time with the Cubs and Angels this year. It is a big difference in performance. You can’t miss it.
It all starts with familiarity. Chavez knows the people in the Braves’ organization, and they understand him – his routine, how he prepares, his approach to the game and more.
Sal Fasano, the Braves’ catching coach, caught Chavez’s flatground bullpens when the two crossed paths in Toronto as Fasano began his coaching career. Chavez’s teams faced Rick Kranitz’s clubs for years – before Kranitz became the Braves’ pitching coach – and Chavez is comfortable with Kranitz. Chavez said Kranitz is able to distill information he can understand and apply without bombarding him with clutter with which he does not need to concern himself.
This, Chavez said, is one of the Braves’ strengths. They tailor everything to the individual. He has pitched for teams that did not like how he prepared, for example. “Well, that’s me,” Chavez said. “It’s no knock on anybody else. It’s not a knock on your organizational philosophies. It’s just the way I get ready because I don’t have a role. So I’ve had to bump heads with some organizations about that.”
The Braves are focused on this, he added: What do you need to do to be ready at first pitch? “The biggest thing about this that puts them above all is the fact that the individuality is taken into consideration on a daily basis of what our arm’s going to give us that day,” Chavez said. Pitchers know the ball might move better on certain days, and their arm might feel better some days than others. The Braves consider all of this, which has helped Chavez remain comfortable.
Not having a role? As you can imagine, it is difficult. Chavez does not know when he will pitch or how long he will be on the mound. He has played for so many teams, and in different situations, that he has lacked consistency every year.
“It’s not fun, especially when you have family, and that has to be involved with it, too,” Chavez said. “They’re shook up on things, and I just try and tell them, ‘I’m the one dealing with it. Let me worry about it. You guys just worry about waking up and making sure everything’s taken care of, and let me handle that stuff.’
“It’s tough. It’s hard mentally. It depends on where you’re at, what happens. It could be a kick in the gut, and it’s tough to bounce back, no matter where you’ve been, no matter what you’ve been, because you spend so many hours trying to build familiarity with each individual coach, with each individual catcher, with each individual pitcher, with each individual position player.”
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Chavez has a wife and three daughters. The oldest is 18 and just started college, and has always helped her younger siblings. His kids have grown up in baseball as their father has experienced almost everything in the game. The sport, Chavez said, has taught his kids life lessons – about how to group up, how to be mature and more. He credits his wife and kids for helping him balance being a father and playing baseball.
At the ballpark, he deals with his situation, with not having a role, by practicing situational breathing. He learned this after he broke his ribs toward the end of the 2015 season. He’s used it as a way to control his breathing and, by association, his emotions in any situation. It has helped him slow down everything.
For example, if the bullpen phone rings but it isn’t for Chavez, he has to keep calm until it rings again for him later in the game. “Don’t get too up, too down,” he said. “Because it’s tough to get that adrenaline going, the same way you do, twice.”
Minutes after the trade deadline passed in early August, Chavez sat at the back of the press conference room with his teammates. They gathered to watch Austin Riley’s news conference following his contract extension. Suddenly, Kranitz appeared in the doorway and summoned Chavez. The Braves had traded Chavez to the Angels for Raisel Iglesias.
“It stinks,” Chavez said of the moment. “It’s something you don’t want to do. You started the year with another team and then you come back to the team you ended the year last year with, and then you just get pulled out and it’s a kick in the gut.
“But it’s how you deal with it. How do you want to deal with it? It’s tough to go put on a smile sometimes. Sometimes, your performance will show, and apparently it did. And that’s why we’re having this question right now.”
That question: Is there any reason Chavez has performed so much better with the Braves than with any other team in the last couple seasons?
For Chavez, it’s all about familiarity.