The oldest reliever in baseball took the mound in the bottom of the fourth. He was tasked with putting out a fire—a man on base, his team losing, the order turning over to the top of the lineup. He took care of it as quickly as he possibly could.
9 pitches.— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) September 20, 2023
We love you, Jesse. Welcome back. pic.twitter.com/nVYiWoRBJw
This marked the return of Jesse Chavez for the best-in-baseball Braves. It was his first appearance since fracturing his shin after being hit by a comebacker in June. It was also his first since turning 40. In some ways, he looks his age: His fastball barely touches 90 mph. He offers no wipeout slider, no jaw-dropping curveball, nothing that suggests his place in a modern bullpen at all, really. Chavez has felt like something of a relic for years now. But when he’s at his best? He cleans up messes as effectively as anyone. Wednesday afternoon offered a perfect reminder.
Chavez required just one pitch to get out of the jam he inherited in the fourth inning. (He threw a sinker to Phillies leadoff hitter Kyle Schwarber only to watch him turn it into an easy grounder.) He then breezed through the fifth on a combined eight pitches, slicing through the heart of the order with smooth, clinical efficiency. That set him up nicely to return for the sixth, where he labored slightly more but still escaped. Chavez finished with 2.1 innings of scoreless work on 25 pitches—four groundouts, two pop outs, one force out, zero strikeouts. That does not exactly make him the picture of typical relief pitching right now. Yet it’s hard to argue with the results.
The Braves lost to the Phillies in extras. But as they look to make a deep playoff run this October, it’s easy to see the value of a healthy Chavez, a reliever who offers cover for a variety of situations despite his age and his stuff (or lack thereof). And it seems to be something the veteran can do only in Atlanta.
Chavez earned the distinction of being the most traded player in baseball history last year: 10 trades in 16 seasons. (Yes, that’s more than noted journeymen like Octavio Dotel and Edwin Jackson, who may have played for more teams but were not traded as many times.) Yet even as he bounced around the baseball map, Chavez seemed to keep ending up back in Atlanta, where he first played as a 26-year-old in 2010. (He was acquired from the Rays in a deal for Rafael Soriano and was shipped out of town seven months later as part of a package to get Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth from Kansas City.) Ultimately, the Braves have traded for Chavez twice, acquired him off waivers once and signed him in free agency twice, most recently this winter.
“It’s the place where my heart settled,” Chavez told SI last year.
It’s also the place where his game has looked its best. Consider his results with the other teams he’s pitched for since 2018. Chavez had an ERA of 5.21 in two seasons with the Rangers, 6.35 with the Cubs and 7.59 with the Angels. (Sure, those are small sample sizes from Chicago and Anaheim, but given the numbers they produced, you can see why the samples stayed small.) In Atlanta? He entered Wednesday with a 2.26 ERA over parts of the last three seasons with the team. The split felt most obvious last summer: Chavez had been having a characteristically sharp campaign with the Braves before they made a deadline deal to send him to the Angels, who saw him promptly turn into a pumpkin, ultimately putting him on waivers a few weeks later. That gave him a chance to go back to Atlanta, and once he’d returned, he looked just like his old self. He was continuing along in similar fashion this year before he got hurt in June. But judging from his first outing back, Chavez hasn’t missed a beat.
There are a handful of starters older than Chavez: Rich Hill (43), Adam Wainwright (42) and Justin Verlander (40). But there are no fellow relievers. In fact, MLB hasn’t seen consistent work by a reliever in his forties in several years, not since a 42-year-old Fernando Rodney helped the Nationals win a World Series in 2019. If it’s still feasible for a crafty old guy to help fill out a rotation, it’s all but impossible to find space for him in the modern bullpen.
And yet here is Chavez. Take the hundreds of guys who have thrown at least 2,000 pitches in MLB since 2021. Sort them by the percentage of those pitches that have been balls. Just three come in below Chavez’s mark with the Braves: 28.1%. He may not make it look especially glamorous. But he works fast, he throws strikes and he gets results. What more can you ask for?