2020 Season Ends Early for Matt Chapman

The Oakland A’s are cruising in the standings, but their World Series hopes took a hit over the weekend with the news that their star third baseman, Matt Chapman, would require season-ending hip surgery. After missing games for nearly a week with an initial diagnosis of hip tendinitis, a second opinion led to the decision to shut him down for the rest of 2020 due to a torn labrum.

There’s nothing here that would constitute good news, but the loss of Chapman has a minimal impact on Oakland’s chances of reaching the postseason. The team’s not a mathematical guarantee, but with just 14 games left to play, they’d have to give up seven games in the standings to the Astros and eight to the Mariners. Plus, Oakland has already clinched the tiebreaker over the Astros — they’re 7-3 against Houston and they play no more games — which gives them a tiny bit more breathing room in the event of a historic meltdown.

Chapman’s play in 2020 was distinctly below his MVP-contending 2018 and 2019 standards, but his 1.3 WAR has still been enough juice to lead the team. It’s a testament to his power and defense that a .276 on-base percentage likely would have still resulted in an All-Star appearance, if such a game had been played this year. The year-to-year dropoff in his contact numbers is a bit concerning, but given the state of the 2020 season, I’m far less worried than I would be in a more normal year.

As for 2021, ZiPS deals with injuries in a general fashion — the data for a more detailed treatment really doesn’t exist. With a malady like Chapman’s, the system sees some downside risk in his numbers that involve speed to some degree. That means knocking off a few extra-base hits, stolen bases, defensive runs — though speed is less crucial at third — and forecasting a slightly lower BABIP compared to the projection otherwise. In Chapman’s case, ZiPS projects the injury and uncertainty to cost about a half of a win a year:

ZiPS Projection – Matt Chapman
2021 .243 .329 .489 538 88 131 31 4 31 87 62 158 3 119 12 4.7
2022 .242 .328 .488 520 84 126 33 4 29 84 60 151 2 119 11 4.4
2023 .244 .329 .492 504 81 123 31 5 28 82 58 142 2 120 10 4.3

Those projections are clearly down from his peak, but coming off a serious hip injury, I think the team would be happy with this result, especially given their memory of Eric Chavez’s injury problems a few years into a six-year, $66 million contract extension.

Oakland is a fairly deep franchise, but replacing Chapman’s production would be an insurmountable task for even the best-prepared organization. Chad Pinder would likely have gotten the majority of a timeshare at third, but he also went down with an injury, a hamstring strain that may leave him out for the remainder of the regular season. Tony Kemp and Tommy La Stella are both best suited to the right side of the infield given their relatively weak arms. To add another option to the roster, the A’s are expected to sign Jake Lamb, formerly of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Lamb’s a well-known name, but he hasn’t been the player he once was since a shoulder injury and resulting surgery in 2018. In 2016-2017, Lamb hit .248/.345/.498 with 59 homers and 4.9 WAR, enough to make his only All-Star appearance in 2017. Since then, he’s put up a .199/.307/.330 line, with just 12 homers in 152 games and -0.2 WAR. His value dropped to the point where Arizona couldn’t even give him away during their mini-fire sale; they released him on Saturday. Technically speaking, someone could still claim Lamb on waivers (he’s set to clear waivers this morning), but that team would be on the hook for roughly half a million dollars in salary, a steep price to prevent the A’s from signing a player Arizona couldn’t trade.

In light of the questions around Lamb’s abilities at this point in his career, I suspect it’s a less well-known name, Rule 5 pick Vimael Machín, who will likely be the immediate beneficiary of time at third. A walk machine in the minors, Machín has shown flashes of plate discipline in his brief time in the majors, and though stretched as a shortstop, is perfectly respectable at the hot corner. Playing him a third for the regular season is essentially a freebie given the team’s standing in the playoff race. If the A’s don’t like what they see, they can always reconfigure how they cover the position come October.

But let’s talk about the playoffs. Losing Chapman may not be the biggest deal when we’re only talking about the regular season, but the postseason is another creature entirely. Naturally, it’s time to fire up the ZiPS projection system for some late night projectionation.

After Sunday night’s games, ZiPS projected the A’s as having a 9% chance of winning the World Series and the roster strength of a .538 team (about 87 wins per 162 games). With a healthy Chapman, those numbers are 11% and .573 (around 93 wins per 162 games). Two percentage points might not sound like a significant shift, but in a 16-team playoff system, it’s a meaningful one, essentially eliminating 20% of Oakland’s trophies in an infinite multiverse. This is a larger drop than you’d typically expect due to the high probability that Oakland’s reward for winning the division will be getting to play the Yankees or the Astros, both teams that have underperformed their projections. Yes, on one level, you’d prefer to face a team with stronger projections in a three-game series at home early in the playoffs than a more evenly divided seven-game series later on, but it’s even better to have another team eliminate them so that you don’t face them at all. Playing a three-game series at home against Houston, the A’s projections drop from a coin flip with Chapman to a 44%-56% deficit without him; against the Yankees — if James Paxton is healthy — it goes from a 47%-53% deficit to a 60/40 underdog.

The Oakland A’s are a team used to defying the obstacles placed in front of them, from sewage disasters to ownership parsimony to injuries to key talent such as A.J. Puk and Sean Manaea. This latest setback suggests that the fates aren’t ready to be merciful to the Athletics just yet.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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3 years ago

Why would Paxton’s return make a big difference? He hasn’t been good and the Yankees have Cole, Tanaka and Montgomery for a three game series.