With the constant beeping and ringing from the combination pinball and video-game machine that stands next to his locker in the Athletics clubhouse, third baseman Eric Chavez might as well have been getting dressed in an arcade. It didn't help that his merry prankster teammates were gradually ratcheting up the volume as he tried to chat with a visitor last week. But when someone finally took pity and lowered the sound, Chavez turned it right back up. "I kind of like it," he said. "I think better with it [loud]."
Chavez, a lefthanded hitter, has been doing some of his best thinking in the batter's box lately, especially against lefty pitching. Through Sunday he was hitting .327 against southpaws, a dramatic turnaround from his career .221 average entering the season. Chavez's success against lefties has been one of several positive developments in recent weeks for Oakland, which held a two-game lead over the Angels in the American League West at week's end. If not for a broken right hand that sidelined him for 33 games in June and July, Chavez, who was hitting .273 with 28 homers and 68 RBIs, might be a candidate for AL MVP.
Despite his difficulties against lefthanders, Chavez averaged 32 homers and 108 RBIs over the last three seasons, and he didn't let it affect his play at third base, where he's won three Gold Gloves. But Chavez was aware that many in baseball thought the only hole in his game was a big one. "I wasn't worried about it, because I had pretty good power numbers against lefties even though I didn't have much of an average," he says. "But I know what was being said."
What is being said now is that the 26-year-old Chavez, who signed a six-year, $66 million contract extension during spring training, has matured as a hitter. "He's figured some things out as far as his approach to lefties," says hitting coach Dave Hudgens, a southpaw who often throws batting practice to Chavez. "He's willing to take some pitches, even some strikes, because he's not afraid to get behind in the count. And he's waiting that extra split second on the pitch, which is allowing him to take the ball the opposite way. Those are things that an over-eager hitter wouldn't do."
Although Hudgens has counseled Chavez on his mechanics, such as keeping his front shoulder in, the key to the third baseman's transformation is mental. "Jason Giambi told me before he left [for the Yankees as a free agent in December 2001] that his secret to hitting lefties was to look off-speed almost all the time," Chavez says. "That's how lefties want to get lefthanded hitters out. But it takes a while to make that part of your mental approach, because you have to trust yourself that if you get the heater, you'll still be able to catch up to it. Once you get a handle on the mental aspect, the physical becomes almost the easy part."
The benefits of Chavez's new approach were apparent early in the season in a game against the Royals. The A's were trailing 4--2 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, one runner on and Chavez at the plate. After taking a pair of sliders for strikes from Kansas City lefthander Jeremy Affeldt, Chavez was looking for another off-speed pitch. He got a fastball instead, but his bat was still quick enough to drive the ball to left centerfield for a home run that tied the game, which the A's won in the 11th inning.
Now that Chavez has adjusted, the next move is up to the lefthanders he has been pounding. "Everybody's got their computer readouts telling them that he's taking pitches and going the other way, so he might start seeing some people try to bust him inside with the hard stuff," Hudgens says. Chavez, still a fastball hitter at heart, arches an eyebrow at that prospect. "I wouldn't be surprised," he says. "And I wouldn't be unhappy."