MLB

How Matt Chapman’s Two-Way Play Makes Him an All-Star

Matt Chapman burst onto the scene in 2018 as an All-Star level player, proving strong abilities as both a hitter and a fielder, resulting in two consecutive years finishing at least seventh in AL MVP voting. As his batting began to stabilize, Chapman remained the anchor of one of the MLB’s best defensive teams and consistently providing value to Oakland that would rank him among the very best third basemen in the game. But as of late, Chapman’s performances have seemed more streaky and less effective. His overall statistical profiles on both sides of the ball have been declining since the 2019 season, so is this truly an indicator of a declining talent, or is Matt Chapman still on track to become an All-League baseball player?

Hitting

Chapman’s value as a hitter has been a bit puzzling over the last four seasons. During his first full season in 2018, his batting profile spiked at very desirable heights. His 2017 hard-hit rate (EV > 94 MPH) of 43.6% jumped to 53.8%, and he consistently fared well in hitting line drives while limiting ground balls and fly balls. Weighted Runs Created (wRC), which estimates a player’s value as a batter using box score statistics in conjunction with run expectancy values for various events, pegged Chapman in its standardized counterpart at 139 up from 110 the previous season. A season later in 2019, that value dropped to 126. A season later, in a mere 37 games, Chapman was still above league-average at 117. However, in 60 games played in 2021, he’s fallen to 88.

Baseball can be a streaky sport, with even season-long runs of statistics not being totally indicative of a player’s “true” value, so has Chapman’s offensive skill dropped off in recent years, or is there an element of luck at play?

The immediate eyesore in Chapman’s statistical profile is his batting average, which has dropped at least 17 percentage points in each season since 2018, and this statistic seems to have some type of relationship with his batting average on balls in play. Chapman’s .278 season saw 33.8% of batted balls result in hits, which immediately fell to .270 the following season without any major change in his zone swing portfolio.

We actually see his tendency to chase low balls decline in the following season, suggesting he almost certainly received the benefit of chance with his batting average in 2018. That means, while we see a significant decline in the raw numbers, his skill level is very likely more stable than these numbers indicate. However, there is one prominent aspect of Chapman’s pitch selection that can explain his shortcomings in the batter’s box as of late: massive changes in run value in certain swinging areas.

There has basically been no change in how Chapman attacks various qualities of pitches, with the pattern of an ever-so-slight increase in overall swing rate evolving over the past four seasons. However, as stated earlier, some of these areas of Chapman’s swings appear to be bleeding value. The approximated run value in certain listed zones have been fluctuating:

A degree of instability across zones is clear, but the exact degrees vary across zones. Chapman’s estimated run value from pitches in the shadow zone, which envelops the heart of the strike zone while extending slightly beyond it, has been relatively stable over the past four seasons. However, Chapman appears to have lost a considerable amount of impact as a hitter in each of the other zones. The largest yearly drop-off in a zone was between the 2019 and 2020 seasons, during which his value in the chase zone severely declined, but it is worth noting a lot of flattened trends in the last two seasons are in some form byproducts of shorter or incomplete seasons.

An important skill of Chapman’s to recognize is how he provides most of his value as a hitter; and interestingly, it’s not necessarily by his ability to hit the ball, but to take pitches. Expectantly, in zones outside the heart of the strike zone, Chapman usually loses runs for his team when he doesn’t take the pitch. (It’s worth noting Chapman added an estimated 20 runs through swings in the heart of the strike zone, followed by three seasons of 9, 4, and -8 runs, which serve as indicators of the potential “luck” factor in Chapman’s batting output.) However, Chapman’s selectivity with pitches outside the strike zone actually adds a considerable amount of value to his team’s offense.

The aforementioned -8 run value from the pitches Chapman faced in the heart of the strike zone is a compelling figure alongside the previous three seasons, and likely signals some type of change in either Chapman’s hitting tendencies or opposing defense’s reactions to such hits. While his proportion of batted balls hasn’t changed much, other aspects of his batting portfolio have. Matt Chapman has always been a great hard hitter, hitter 53% or more of his batted balls leaving at an exit velocity of 95 MPH or higher from 2018 to 2020. But in 2021, that percentage has fallen below the 2017 to 2021 league average of 39%, settling at 36.2%.

As his other hitting tendencies are functionally similar, there seems to be a sneaky good chance a large proportion of Chapman’s hits in the heart of the strike zone are inadvertently resulting in pop-ups. Since these pitches aren’t positioned at angles that provide an inherently greater or less chance of the resulting hit being a pop-up, the increased fly ball percentage has a promising likelihood of being a product of poorer luck. Thus, I’m a bit higher on Matt Chapman’s slugging ability than the number suggests, and perhaps if all the weird recent circumstances hadn’t come into play, his batting profile would have regressed to values that are more indicative of his true value as a hitter.

Fielding

During the past four years, Chapman has been awarded two Gold Gloves as an AL third baseman and two Platinum Gloves, seemingly on the track to become one of baseball’s all-time great fielders at the position. His renowned defensive game is centered around Chapman’s all-world fielding range.

Chapman is known to strictly play the roles of a left-side infielder, spending heavy innings at third base while seldom moving to shortstop. The above chart shows Chapman’s starting positions from the 2018 to 2021 seasons (through June 6, 2021), displaying a healthy diet of movement and adjustments that would be expected from an everyday third baseman; but the more interesting aspect of his fielding is where he finishes.

Chapman’s estimated 41 outs above average were surprisingly dispersed across the geometry of the field. He stays within the distinct vicinity of the third-base territory but extends his reach out past the foul lines and a considerable way into the outfield along with his bunt protection and coverage versus shorter batted balls. As explored in his film study, Chapman pairs elite abilities as a fielder with absurd levels of versatility in how he protects such large areas of the field for the Athletics.

His ability to protect the area of the field extending out to the foul line is the focal point of his fielding, and it makes ground ball hits extremely difficult to convert on for opposing teams. Chapman’s fielding on film exhibits some of the most impressive glove precision in the game today, eliminating the need to provide a lot of value through a quicker recovery time.

Unlike other third basemen, Chapman shows a consistent effort between the catch-to-throw transition to effectively block the ground ball and square his body for the out to first. His aforementioned recovery time is shown to be split into two parts: one, the shorter one, involves his play during hits that extend his range. The time between his interception of the ball and when he’s back on his feet is among the quickest in the league, alleviating the stress for the period that follows. Chapman is shown to take slightly more time to position himself for the throw than other infielders, but it mitigates some of the wildness that comes with an arm as strong as his.

However, Chapman displays a strong tendency to augment his fielding motion to adapt to a given play. Here, he blocks the ground ball a significant portion to his right and splits the time between recovery and throw roughly equally. This defensive versatility allows Chapman to function at an elite level in many types of run situations. Paired with his incredible arm speed and maintenance, and Chapman demonstrates a clear All-League skill in his fielding.

Chapman adds to his bag of tricks as a ground-ball fielder with the spin move. The fluidity of his hips paired with his glove placement makes him one of the best defensive playmakers in baseball. Here, he turns a relatively difficult ball in play into a safe out through his full rotation upon fielding the ball, clearly shortening the time necessary to make the throw and furthering the idea that Chapman protects a larger area of the field than arguably any other player at his position.

A strength of Chapman’s that separates him from other third basemen is how well he protects foul territory. He makes similar plays on line drives or looping hangers that would clearly appear to be in unattainable descent, yet the value Chapman adds from converting on these plays saves a considerable number of runs over the course of a season. This play demonstrates his ability to travel into the seating area, but as long as the batted ball is within the horizontal range of his third base positioning, he’s a consistent candidate to make the catch.

There are only two prominent weaknesses in Chapman’s game, both of which are rarely at play. Because he has the tendency to shield the ball with mainly his glove rather than blocking it with his entire body, the angle at which his glove is positioned proves crucial. This means a downturned glove will allow more hard grounders to sneak by, and his torso won’t be in positioning to halt its movement.

Chapman has one of the strongest arms among position players in the MLB. During his time with the U.S. national college team, he threw pitches that were tracked at a velocity up to 98 miles per hour and was perennially recognized as having one of the strongest arms in the Minor Leagues before his rookie year. With that, however, comes the greater risk of an overthrow. Chapman appears to actively combat this, meaning more of his throwing errors actually require first basemen to scoop his throw rather than leap for it. Although a testament to Chapman’s defensive mind and awareness, there isn’t an immediate remedy for his short-arm throws.

Impact Evaluation

Even everyday watchers of the Athletics during Chapman’s first few seasons were taken aback at how quickly he was able to ascend to elite territory among the MLB’s best players. All-in-one estimates of aggregate value, mostly Wins Above Replacement models, thought very fondly of Chapman during the 2018 to 2019 stretch, which was still likely the peak of his actual abilities as both a batter and a fielder.

Chapman peaked at elite heights, which suggested he had even surpassed the typical All-Star electee and was entering All-League territory, which would put him among the top-16 or so players in the MLB. Because there still a certain number of question marks with his offense (is his pop-up spike a function of skill loss or bad luck?) and how much slack his fielding can pick up, I’m not quite ready to name him to my All-MLB teams. But there’s simply too much evidence that suggests he’s a bonafide All-Star, and when he’s healthy, perhaps even more.

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