For a while, Eric Chavez was one of the best all-around players in the game, a sweet-swinging third baseman with power and patience and six straight Gold Gloves who played a far bigger role in the Moneyball-era Oakland A’s success than Chad Bradford or Scott Hatteberg ever did. Then, injuries struck. A lingering shoulder problem worsened, sapping his power. The more damaging injury was a bad back that turned him into a shell of his former self, triggering multiple DL trips and much weaker production when he was able to stay in the lineup. After 13 seasons in Oakland, he signed with the Yankees, serving part-time duty in New York, mostly at DH.
Last winter, he signed a one-year deal to play for the Diamondbacks and has been crushing it since. The now-35-year-old Chavez is hitting .337/.398/.567 so far this season. Nearly as surprising as his big numbers is Chavez’s newfound durability. With starting second baseman Aaron Hill on the DL, the D-backs have shifted versatile infielder Martin Prado to second, opening up third base for Chavez. There, Chavez has found himself in the lineup more often than not, playing roughly two out of every three games, almost entirely against right-handed pitchers, and doing a respectable job in the field despite losing much of the mobility and killer reflexes that once defined his career. Chavez has teamed up with homegrown stars like Paul Goldschmidt to propel Arizona to the top of the NL West standings.
On a recent afternoon at Coors Field, I sat down with Chavez to ask about the art of staying healthy, the things you learn in your 30s that you wish you knew in your 20s, and his role on this upstart Diamondbacks team.
I’ve talked to [A’s assistant GM David Forst] about when you were going through some of those injuries in Oakland. And he would just say what a shame it was, that the team wasn’t just missing a good player, but that they just felt terrible about you were going through. What’s that like, being a young man supposedly in his prime, and you’re having to deal with all that pain, and also not being able to play?
Very frustrating. The contract that I signed also added a lot of pressure. It was the low point of my career, obviously. And I took a lot of pride in being on the field. Even if I wasn’t putting up the best numbers one season, just being able to go out there for 155 games. For me to be reduced to the status that I was was really hard for me, not even so much because of the numbers. Billy [Beane] once told me [that] when he comes to the field and doesn’t see my name in the lineup, he just doesn’t feel as good. “But when I see your name in the lineup, I’m just naturally in a good mood.” He didn’t say, “I come to the field and see you go 3-for-4 with a homer.” He just said, “When I come to the field and see your name in the lineup, I feel better.” And that was something that always resonated with me. I just loved playing every day.
I know I’m at a point in my career where I just can’t do that physically. I’m trying to play as many games as I can. I have to be careful with what that limit is. I go back to last year, where I had 300 [plate appearances] that was the most I’d had in a few years.
And you were DHing.
I was. So I have to be careful with it. Yesterday Gibby gave me the day off. He said, “We’re facing five righties in a row, and I don’t want you to play in all of those games.” So we split that up. He’s been pretty good with that as far as giving me time to recover. I’m just hoping I can go past 300 at-bats. I don’t know exactly how many, but that’s my goal.
You’re in the field now when you play. At one time you were the best defensive third baseman in the league. Forgetting about injuries for a minute, what do you do differently now that you don’t have Gold Glove range anymore — what adjustments do you make both physically and mentally?
I’m so much better now.
The mind. There were times when I was younger where I may have had all the ability but I might not have even wanted the ball hit to me. I might have been unsure about catching it, throwing it to first. There were times when I just literally did not want the ball hit to me. Youth, whatever you want to call it, inexperience. But now I feel so much better. As a defensive player, [I’m] much more relaxed and comfortable at third. Offensively, I feel like a better hitter. Now I wish I could take my mind and pair that with how I felt physically when I was younger. But I feel that I’m better now, in many ways, as a player.
As a hitter, do you think you’re better anticipating what a pitcher’s going to do, what he’s going to throw in a certain count?
That too. But more, I think, it has to do with understanding myself better as a hitter. People talk about this, but I feel like it’s really true in my case: The games have slowed down for me. There’s no stress ever for me, in any situation. That doesn’t mean I’m going to get a hit or make the play every time. But I feel like I can. But I’m more comfortable, and I never think, What if I don’t make the play? None of those negative thoughts ever go through my mind during the game anymore. I really enjoy playing the game more now than I did when I was at the top of the hill.
When you first came up to the big leagues, the thought on training was, “Yeah, let’s get jacked and hit 70 home runs!” You’ve said that you regretted following that path, that it might’ve contributed to some of your injuries, and that if you had to do it over again, you might’ve chosen yoga or Pilates or something like that. What might’ve changed for you had you gone that route, and how are things different now?
The philosophy has definitely changed over the last few years. Back then, guys were big and bulky. Obviously there was a reason guys were big and bulky, and we all found out why [laughs]. But I think the burden on the joints from lifting heavy — not even just lifting heavy, but going about it the wrong way, too much chest and biceps, not really worrying about the smaller muscles you need to be healthy and be strong — really wasn’t the best idea. It’s completely changed. Physically I feel great. A lot [has] to do with stretching, working with the trainers, not a whole lot of lifting going on. Doing core stuff, but not your typical sit-ups and crunches. They have a different philosophy about breathing. Working out your abs but not compressing them, elongating them instead.
It seems to have worked pretty good. My whole thing started to change last year when Raul Ibanez turned me on to a couple of people he knew in New York. I saw this therapist in the city two or three times a week, and that’s physically when I started to see a lot of change. I changed my diet, too, and the doctor said it would take about eight months before I’d start to see some drastic changes.
Did you have just a terrible diet before, like all burgers and fries?
No, he just tested my food allergies. He gave me a list of things I can and can’t eat, what I’m highly allergic to. I’ve cut out the things I’m highly allergic to. I don’t see it much as a diet. I just don’t eat things I’m allergic to. In this case it’s not eating something that’s not good for you, something that can make you sick. And it works. My sleeping patterns have been better, it’s helped with inflammation in my joints, and physically I’ve been able to recover quicker and play more.
I talked to Mark Mulder recently, and somebody mentioned Moneyball. And you could tell he was a little annoyed by it, that he, Zito, Hudson, you, Tejada, all of you are barely mentioned, either in the book or the movie. Has that ever bothered you, too, that success was put on other guys’ shoulders?
No, it doesn’t bother me. I know a lot of those guys were like, “Hey, what about me?” We had a lot of good players. They drafted well, they brought in a good mix of veterans. And our clubhouse was very good. There were never any issues in the clubhouse. Certain people I think want credit for how things were put together, about a certain philosophy. But for me it’s not about individuals — you need it all. They drafted well, we all kind of came up together, they mixed us with veterans, and it made for a good recipe. We didn’t spend a lot of money doing it, but we had the right mix of guys there. How they did it, what’s the philosophy, I don’t know, it doesn’t bother me. We had a good time playing. Those were fun years for me.
Back to present day, are there certain things you won’t risk now? Will you think twice about trying to take an extra base, maybe dive less at third, based on what your limitations are?
Yeah, there are definitely some limitations. There were two balls this year hit to my left, I don’t think I would have gotten them, but before I would have dove for them, and now I won’t. I was never going to steal tons of bases, so I’m certainly not going to make it part of my repertoire. Running is just one of those things where I won’t walk to risk injury. But I’ve already gone for third on a triple, and another time where I tried and was thrown out on a bang-bang play. So I’m still going to try some things, just maybe not as often as I used to.
When Hill comes back, that would likely push Prado back to third, and that would probably put you on the bench more than before. Have you thought about that at all, going back to maybe being a bench guy?
I’m not worried about that at all. Even when that trade was made [for Prado], people asked me, “What do you think about it?” and it never bothered me. I don’t care. Whatever they think is the best team to win, they’re going to do it. So whether I’m a regular part of that, or if they think I just need to come off the bench, I’m willing to do that. I’ve accepted the role that I have. The fact that I’m able to go out there and be healthy and hit in the middle of the lineup, that’s great. But if a change has to happen, I’ll adapt to that.
When does that happen in a player’s career? Or more specifically, when did that happen for you? There’s a certain amount of healthy arrogance you need to have to be a great professional athlete. I would imagine at a certain level you have to think, I’m the best, I’m the best. How and when do you adjust how you think, to where you accept that you’re not quite what you were, and that you’re ready to take on a lesser role? Did you just have an epiphany about it?
The first year I went to New York, Andruw Jones was there. I looked at Andruw’s résumé, I looked at mine, and I thought, OK, this guy’s willing to go be a backup in New York. So it became very easy for me to accept that role. It was like, “I don’t mind, guys. I don’t care.” I thought, there’s Alex Rodriguez, there’s Derek Jeter, there’s Robinson Cano, where am I gonna play?! [Laughs.] And then the second year, I ended up getting more at-bats, because I swung really well. And this year it looks like it’s going to be more than that. If that ends up staying the case for a while or not, I’m not worrying about it. The fact that we’re winning, that we were competitive the past couple years in New York, we’re competitive here, now — that’s at the top of my list.