The story of Red Sox infielder Michael Chavis began just 24 miles northwest of Atlanta, at Cadenhead Field in Marietta, Ga., home to his Yellow Jackets of Sprayberry High School.
Beyond the left-field wall sits four-lane Sandy Plains Road. Two lanes go in one direction, the other two the opposite. Just a strip of grass separates them. At one end of the road hangs a stoplight. One that Chavis knew all too well. When he was taking batting practice, Chavis would see just how many cars he could hit before the light changed.
“Countless,” Chavis said.
Translation: bull’s-eye more times than not.
Cobb County paid for any damage to the vehicles, so Chavis never felt too bad about it. It’s just what kids — scratch that — what Chavis did. There aren’t many high school players who can tag a ball across lanes of traffic and place it exactly where they want it.
“The one thing that jumped out right away was his bat speed and strength in his swing,” said Mike Rikard, the Red Sox vice president of amateur scouting. “We were able to scout several batting practices with him and one of the big turn-ons for me is a guy that can hit the ball just as far the other way as they can pulling the ball.”
That was a precursor to what the Red Sox have seen from Chavis since he was called up in April. They expected him to be here at some point, but not this early. They had visions of him being a starter at some point, too, but again, not this early. Things had to happen to make way for his talent to be seen.
During a series against the Tampa Bay Rays in April, Dustin Pedroia, Eduardo Nunez, and Brock Holt all were injured, so the Sox shifted Chavis to second base, and he hit. When Holt came back, Mitch Moreland and Steve Pearce hit the injured list, so they moved Chavis to first base, and he continued to hit.
What was supposed to be just a cup of coffee in the big leagues has turned into a full-course meal. Chavis had two more hits in an 8-7 loss to the Chicago White Sox Wednesday and is now slashing .263/.339/.449 with 12 homers.
“When I was in trouble for something in school, [my parents] would take away hitting,” Chavis said. “That’s not a joke, bro. I had a screen in my backyard and I wasn’t allowed to go hit.
“I didn’t play video games. It wasn’t my thing. In the offseason, when I’m just hanging out with my brother, I’ll just be like, ‘Dude you just want to go hit?’ It’s just something that I need.”
Former big league pitcher and current Red Sox Georgia area scout Brian Moehler had followed Chavis since his junior year in high school, and had a huge influence on the Red Sox taking Chavis as their first-round pick in 2014. He can attest to Chavis’s love for hitting.
“He would sit out there and hit balls out there all day if you wanted him to,” Moehler said. “I remember walking over to him, maybe the second or third BP session, and I said, ‘Hey, man, if you’re good with 20 swings and that’s all you want to take because you have a game, that’s fine.’ And he’d say, ‘No I’ll hit as many as you want.’ ”
It’s the same way now. Chavis is hard to find on game days because he’s always in the cage or on his way to it. It’s part of what’s unlocked his opportunity as an everyday big leaguer. More importantly, it’s what helped him survive what shouldn’t have happened this soon.
Keeping it real
It’s hard for Chavis to pinpoint when he first decided baseball was what he wanted to do, because it’s always been a part of him. There was never really any thinking behind it. He played for arguably the best travel program to ever exist in East Cobb, which has produced a lot of big-league talent. He went to 25 Perfect Game tournaments and showcases playing against the top high school talent in the country.
From the outside, he appears to be a byproduct of the showcase era that’s become a cash cow for the business of youth sports. It’s outpriced many kids who are worthy of participation but can’t afford it. It can sometimes reek of privilege. While many of the players are talented, the attitudes in this travel-ball culture can be toxic.
But Chavis will check you on that assumption if you place it on him. He wasn’t cut from that cloth. He was raised by his mother, Dorothy Nugent, who he said sacrificed everything just so he could afford to be at these events. She shielded him from that culture, from that type of kid she wasn’t trying to raise.
“Looking back at the whole travel-ball scene, you know how crazy the parents are,” Chavis said. “You would get overhyped and you see the kids get too confident and it’s like, ‘Bro, you’re still 12 years old.’
“You see kids walking around like they run the world just because they play for this team or they’re getting recruited by this college, like, ‘Dude, you’re a teenager,’ you haven’t really done much.’ My mom did a good job of keeping me humble and away from that.”
The culture of travel ball has only gotten worse with social media, Chavis said, with players quick to post their workouts or games online just for clicks or likes.
“I think everybody is looking for that hype, man,” Chavis continued. “I think social media has created that false reality for a lot of people.”
On the actual playing side, Chavis wants to make this final point clear: There’s a showcase player and then there’s a real player. A showcase player can impress scouts with, say, his raw power, speed and athleticism. But if you get him in a game, he freezes up. The game becomes too quick for him or he isn’t fundamentally sound.
A real player, however, can do it when there is opposition. Chavis made it known he is the latter.
“That’s kind of the norm down here in the South,” Moehler said. “It’s kind of a showcase mentality. His junior year going into his senior year, what stood out was Chavis’s passion to play the game. Michael always showed up to play.”
One more question
There’s a grind mentality to Chavis despite being a first-round pick. He takes pride in his journey, one he described as “a ride.”
Certainly, it’s had its twists and turns. He struggled at times during his minor league career at the plate. He failed a PED test in 2018, coming up positive for Dehydrochlormethyltestosterone, and served an 80-game suspension.
Some Red Sox players, including Rick Porcello and Chris Sale, have made clear their disdain for the use of performance-enhancing supplements. Chavis elected not to comment on the suspension, but did say the Red Sox players have accepted him despite his mistake.
Now there’s one more question to answer: Once the Red Sox are back at full strength, is he still here?
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t worry me at times,” Chavis said. “There was a time period where I was worried about that every single day. It’s still something that will slip into my mind every now and then.”
Data is out there on Chavis. To paraphrase Red Sox manager Alex Cora, it used to take a year to get information, now it takes a week. That information says Chavis can’t hit the high fastball. He has a lot of swings and misses at that pitch.
Entering Wednesday, he had a 50 percent whiff rate on pitches up in the zone and over the middle of the plate, according to Brooks Baseball. Compare that with a whiff rate of just 11 percent for pitches low and over the middle of the plate.
Nevertheless, you can’t deny his production and, on some level, his ability to adjust.
“He’s a really good player right now,” Cora said. “He can play first and second. That’s the most important thing. And he’ll give you a quality at-bat.”
At his locker Tuesday afternoon, Chavis reminisced on a specific moment during his pre-draft workout with the Red Sox back in 2014. Moehler pitched to each of the players in attendance. But he wasn’t just throwing batting practice, Chavis explained. Moehler has a former big-league arm and was sequencing his pitches, actually trying to get the players out.
But with his bat to guide him, Chavis stepped in the box and did what has led him through his youth days and into the Red Sox everyday lineup: He hit.
In the end, Moehler couldn’t get the better of him.
“I remember hitting a home run,” Chavis said.