An anecdote: Two of my best friends (Hi Kyle & Wade!) are fans of the Oakland Athletics. And while they’ve handled Oakland’s slow start with great aplomb (they haven’t), one individual not named Bob Melvin has drawn their ire, in particular: Matt Chapman. Looking at the general output from 2020 and thus far in 2021, it isn’t hard to see why. A quick peak at the stat sheet and their commentary as a secondary source have combined and led me to wonder: Does Matt Chapman Actually Stink?
As formal and academic as that query sounds, I’m not so sure that he does.
Following consecutive 2018 & 2019 seasons that featured MVP votes, an All-Star appearance, and a pair of Gold Gloves, it was widely assumed that Matt Chapman was barreling toward superstardom. He looked like the type of player that could blossom into a massive presence for the Oakland Athletics, while destined to showcase as a key building block before his arbitration raises got too serious and the team traded him to avoid paying actual long-term dollars.
Snark about the business operations of the A’s notwithstanding, that picture looks at least a little bit murkier than it once did here in April of 2021. While it’s nearly impossible to look at what transpired during the 2020 season with a ton of legitimacy, there are some notable trends there, as well as in the absolutely minuscule sample thus far in 2021, that could indicate to us if the ‘18/’19 Matt Chapman is still in there somewhere underneath the surface, or if these new trends could soften up the once firm ground on which Chapman stood as Oakland’s third baseman.
Before we dive into the concerns, a disclaimer: Matt Chapman is an elite defensive third baseman. That much is not in question here. Also, this is not as much a scathing critique of some trends that Chapman has demonstrated so much as it is a cautionary tale. Sort of like Aldous Huxley. But with less acid. There are some early warning signs that loom, even with the sample size being as small as it is.
Matt Chapman’s overall statistical peak came in 2018. He slashed .278/.356/.508/.864 and posted a wRC+ of 139 on his way to a seventh-place finish in the AL MVP vote. He followed with a strong season in 2019. While his wRC+ fell a bit, down to 126, his power numbers were up (.257 ISO against a .230 figure in the previous season), he struck out slightly less, and walked slightly more. While you shouldn’t love the fact that his BABIP fell from a .338 figure in 2018 to .270 in 2019, it does speak to some of the trends that I’m alluding to. Ultimately, though, those were two elite-level seasons from Chapman, on top of the world class defense.
So that’s where we were with Matt Chapman heading into 2020: world class defender, elite level bat, future former Oakland A, etc. The 2020 season, however, marked a turn.
Chapman played in 37 of the 60 games in 2020 prior to needing hip surgery and missing the remainder of it. The slash there came in at .232/.276/.535/.812. His ISO was an obscene .303. However, the strikeout rate rose astronomically to the tune of 35.5 percent, while he walked at a clip of just 5.3 percent, the latter of which was essentially half his normal rate. He pulled the ball nearly half the time as well (49.4 percent—seven percent higher than in 2019). When it was all said and done, though, Chapman still managed to come out of it with a 117 wRC+, indicating him to be an above average offensive performer.
So the power was there, as indicated by a career-high in slugging and blowing his previous isolated power numbers out of the water. The power is nice, but when it comes at the expense of much of the rest of your skill set, it becomes an issue. And it’s an issue we may be continuing to see with Chapman.
Again, we’re talking about a smaller sample. It’s possible that when you consider all of the external factors that may have contributed to any individual performance in 2020, maybe Chapman just let his approach get away from him. But what if he didn’t? What if this is the new Matt Chapman?
Let’s just say hypothetically, that this is what Matt Chapman is now. An elite glove with power for days, but profiling more as a boom-or-bust type of player. This, from 2020, is what might lead someone to believe such a theory:
We’re not really interested in the 2021 numbers there, so those are just for fun. But there’s a couple of disturbing trends in 2020. Sure, he swung the bat more frequently overall, and he didn’t really chase too much. It’s not enough to really make much of a difference until you realize that he made significantly less contact in doing so. That zone contact percentage falling nine percent and whiffs rising almost 13 percent, however, are definitely cause for alarm. What’s worse is that FanGraphs has Chapman’s Called + Swinging Strike percentage (CSW%) at 34.0 percent. That’s six full points higher than the previous year.
What exactly happened there? Chapman typically ranks fairly low in Swing% and Chase% among his third base counterparts, so even modest increases aren’t too worth getting worked up about. But a contact rate that fell from 78.1 to 66.1 over the course of a year without any outwardly notable trends in the approach is terrifying.
There’s something paradoxical happening here because even with some absolutely brutal numbers compounded by an inability to make contact, Matt Chapman still hit the ball really freaking hard. Baseball Savant has him in the 98th percentile for both Barrel% (18.0 percent) and average Exit Velocity (93.6). Did Matt Chapman become Joey Gallo overnight?
While it’s likely an oversimplification, there’s likely some validity to that question. A pair of guys who struggle to make contact, absolutely mash the baseball when they do, and play great defense? If this is Chapman’s new profile, it’s not like it’s an uncommon one. But I’m not convinced. The power isn’t new, nor is it shocking. But there has to be something else to explain such a notable dip in contact in conjunction with that power. You don’t just go from the 50-something percentile in Whiff% and 75th in BB% and fall to the sixth and the 13th, respectively, without something completely weird happening. Right?
One potential explanation is that Chapman swung at a higher rate of offspeed pitches in 2020 than he had in either of the two previous seasons. While he didn’t see a tremendous increase in those pitches thrown against him, his penchant for swinging at that type of pitch jumped almost 10 percent. Against the hard stuff, he remained relatively constant, while he actually decreased slightly against breaking pitches. His whiff rate against the offspeed? 22.83. That’s a nine percent jump against that pitch type and significantly higher than his whiff rate against the other general pitch types. According to Baseball Savant, his xBA against the offspeed was just .202. He hit just .174 against that pitch type. For context, his xBA in this regard was .252 in 2018 and .249 in 2019.
So it’s not as if he has a history of thriving against offspeed pitches. It typically serves as the pitch against which his expected output is at its lowest. Increasing his swing rate against that pitch type specifically, and as significantly as he did it, could certainly be a source of at least some of what we’re seeing at this point. Especially when you account for the soft contact rate (slightly over 20 percent) and the heavy increase in flyballs (jumped to over 50 percent). It genuinely builds the perception of that all-or-nothing type of bat. Adjusting the approach could help to diminish both of those figures, a concept which I imagine would behoove Chapman to consider in order to level out from a production standpoint.
It’s possible that it was just a massive struggle against this type of pitch that accounted for a lot of the dip we see in his production across the board. It’s also possible that a multitude of other factors in the hellscape of 2020 might have contributed to his downturn in output. You know what else is possible? That maybe, perhaps, Matt Chapman slightly led us to believe that he’s something different than he actually is: an elite defender with massive power whose on-base skills aren’t quite what they appeared to be.
If he can adjust his approach at the plate even a little and get that swing rate against the offspeed stuff down, it’s entirely reasonable that he could return to 2019 form (though probably not 2018). Which would be great for an Oakland team surely in need of it. Or maybe he just needs a restart after the lower overall production (despite big power) and hip surgery and the nightmare of last year as a whole. In any case, I don’t think it’s quite time for my friends identified above to get too down on their guy at third. They might just have to adjust their perception a little bit.
Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.