Matt Chapman and the Potential Demise of the Up-the-Middle Hit

A’s third baseman Matt Chapman has had a pretty brutal start to his season. In 96 plate appearances through games played on April 27, he’s slashing just .152/.281/.329 and has struck out more than 34% of the time. His wRC+, meanwhile, is 45 points below his career-average into this year.

Chapman also finds himself atop a leaderboard that would, upon first glance, seemingly lead to success at the plate. Year-over-year, no hitter has increased his Center% — or percentage of batted balls hit up the middle — more than he has, with a rate that has gone up by more than 1.75 times.

Largest Increases in Center%
Player 2020 Center% 2021 Center% Increase
Matt Chapman 29.2% 52.1% 22.9%
Randal Grichuk 24.9% 45.8% 20.9%
Tommy La Stella 32.1% 51.9% 19.8%
Gio Urshela 30.0% 47.4% 17.4%
J.P. Crawford 32.3% 47.5% 15.2%
Aaron Hicks 29.0% 44.0% 15.0%
AJ Pollock 28.1% 42.9% 14.8%
Adam Eaton 35.9% 50.0% 14.1%
Austin Slater 35.9% 50.0% 14.1%
Starling Marte 31.4% 44.4% 13.0%
Among hitters with at least 100 PA in 2020 and at least 50 PA in 2021.

Strikeouts aside, you would think that Chapman should at least be getting some decent batted ball results. More than 52% of his batted balls so far this year have gone up the middle, leading all hitters. Amazingly, though, he has hit the most groundballs up the middle this season without a hit, at 12. That’s right: On twelve different occasions this season when Chapman has hit a ball back towards the middle, it’s gone for an out.

Most Center GBs without a Hit

All too often, this is what is happening when Chapman does put the ball in play:

That ball left his bat with an exit velocity of 102.0 mph and had an expected batting average of .560. But because of Chris Taylor’s positioning, it was a relatively easy 4-3. And though it’s tough to tell from the GIF, Taylor actually had to move slightly to his left to make this play. You can see him break towards first base in this screenshot here:

This — or something similar — has happened to Chapman on a few different occasions in 2021, but his lack of up-the-middle base hits is not the primary reason why he’s struggling; his overall expected batting average on these events is just .209. Those additional 2.5 hits that Chapman should have expected wouldn’t raise his line back to productivity. There are other issues there. But what’s happening to Chapman so far this season is emblematic of a league-wide trend: The up-the-middle base hit is slowly disappearing thanks to much more pinpointed defensive positioning.

Chapman didn’t hit this many balls up the middle last year, so it’s fascinating to see how opposing defenses have already adjusted to this new tendency. Though he is shifted slightly less than league-average for a right-handed hitter, look at how teams have positioned defenders when they have done so:

When Chapman is getting shifted, a fielder, on average, stands right behind the second base bag.

None of this should be surprising to baseball fans: Shifts have become an increasing part of the game and could be contributing to the league-wide decrease in batting average, as covered by Brendan Gawlowski earlier this week. As he noted, shifts “convert contact into outs more efficiently than un-shifted defenses.”

Since shifted defenses are more efficient than unshifted ones, it is not surprising that they could be leading to the demise of the up-the-middle base hit. To account for monthly effects, here’s the batting average on groundballs hit up the middle since 2012. Including April 2021, there have been 52 “baseball months,” which include a combination March-April, a combination September-October, and whatever happened during the 2020 season. For simplicity’s sake, Month 1 represents March/April 2012, while Month 52 represents March/April 2021:

That drop at the end? That’s April 2021. Batters are hitting just .236 on groundballs up the middle so far this year, their worst performance in any month over the last 10 years, and not by a slim margin: The second-lowest, July 2020, was 11 points higher, at .247. That is quite the single-month drop-off, even despite the rather noisy trend overall. If you want more proof of a trend over time, though, consider the batting average on up-the-middle groundballs with no runners on base, when teams are far more likely to shift:

There’s quite the steep fall at the end. Indeed, in August 2018, hitters still posted an average above .300 in these types of situations, but haven’t hit better than .283 in any of the 11 months since. This is not the longest sub-.300 streak within this short dataset; in fact, the first 14 months of these data didn’t have any above-.300 marks. But even within that stretch there are multiple .290s, and before that, the longest stretch hitters experienced with results this poor was just five months, from April to August 2015. All of this is to say that these types of groundball hits are slowly disappearing. But while the rate at which they are falling may only be increasing, it’s too soon to draw firm conclusions on that until we have more data.

If you want this on an even larger-scale look, here’s what the trend looks like season-by-season:

Again, the fall persists, though this time, there’s some weirdness happening between 2005, at .295, and 2006, at .254. But 2021 is 19 points below that. This does come with the caveat that the 2021 data only includes April, when batting averages on groundballs up the middle tend to be lower. (I suspect that this may be the case due to fewer extra-base hits in April, which would mean fewer runners on base and more opportunities to play more strategic defense.) But I counter this point with 2020, which only included summer baseball and was just three points off of the 20-year low (.254).

Ultimately, we’ll need more time to tell if groundballs up-the-middle are truly disappearing, but everything seems to be pointing in that direction. Chapman certainly hopes he’ll be getting more hits soon, but if his tendencies and this trend continue throughout the rest of this year, he could have a tough time generating consistent success on batted balls.

Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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1 year ago

This is definitely one of those cases where instead of evaluating the atmospheric pressure and consulting your weather models, you just look out the window to see that it’s raining outside. Yes, of course up the middle ground ball hits are declining. How could they not in the shift era?

kick me in the GO NATSmember
1 year ago
Reply to  Seamaholic

We just found a believer in a flat earth!