On June 15, the A’s lost to the Angels 8-4. For Oakland, it was their fourth consecutive loss, and it dropped them to a record of 34-36. At that point, the A’s were 11 games back of the Mariners, and while the underlying numbers suggested the standings should’ve been an awful lot closer than that, they weren’t, and there was little the A’s could do. You’ll remember it seemed like the AL playoff picture was already decided. The Mariners had a firm grip on the second wild card.
That race is now officially tied up. The A’s and the Mariners are both 18 games over .500. In the Mariners’ defense, it’s not like they’ve collapsed — since June 16, they’ve gone a mediocre 18-20. The A’s have gone a baseball-best 30-10. The Mariners have spun their wheels, while the A’s have caught fire. It looks like a coin flip the rest of the way. The playoff picture is settled no more.
How is it that the A’s have surprised as much as they have? How is it that baseball’s lowest opening-day payroll is currently tied for a playoff spot? Much credit has to go to the bullpen, led by Blake Treinen, Lou Trivino, and, now, Jeurys Familia. The bullpen has been incredible when it’s had to be. But as is always the case, this has been a team effort. Matt Chapman is a member of that team I’d like to bring to your attention.
Again, the credit goes all the way down. This hasn’t just been about Chapman and the bullpen. But Chapman is deserving of the spotlight right now, because he’s the best player the A’s have on their roster. Turns out he’s one of the best players anyone could have on their roster. Chapman has flown somewhat under the radar, because of where he plays, and because of what makes him so valuable, but if you want to understand the full Matt Chapman experience, allow me to take you back just a couple days.
On Tuesday, the A’s beat the Blue Jays. Here’s what Chapman did to Yangervis Solarte in the top of the fourth:
Chapman came out of nowhere to field the bunt. He got some help from Matt Olson — Olson is also good — but right there you can get a sense of Chapman’s athleticism. Here’s what Chapman did to Solarte in the top of the eighth:
Let’s just freeze that for a moment:
Getting to the ball was great; making the throw was extraordinary. That’s a play few third basemen could make. We’ll talk more about Chapman’s defense later on, but he also swings the bat. Here’s a ringing double, that Chapman hit 111 miles per hour:
And now here’s something more subtle. It’s Chapman on second. He’d reached on a walk. You see that there’s only one out.
That’s, I don’t know, about a body length. The ball looked like a hit, but it wasn’t a sure thing. Nevertheless, Chapman read it perfectly, allowing him to advance two bases instead of one. Good baserunning is hard to identify with your eyes, especially good baserunning of the non-stolen-base variety, but there, too, Chapman appears to excel. The more you look at him, the more you realize he’s good across the board.
Chapman specializes in defense. It’s not his only strength, but it is his strongest one. This year’s A’s do not have a terrific pitching staff, but they have allowed baseball’s lowest team BABIP. They’re fourth-lowest on the road, away from all that Oakland foul territory. According to Baseball Savant, the A’s have the second-biggest difference between wOBA allowed and expected wOBA allowed, hinting at positive defensive intervention. Chapman is just one of a number of defenders, but he’s the most obvious standout.
Let’s take this beyond just the present season. Chapman debuted around the middle of last year. Since the start of last year, 24 third baseman have played at least 1,000 innings at the position. Chapman has a ten-run lead over second place in Defensive Runs Saved per 1,000 innings. He has a five-run lead over second place in UZR per 1,000 innings. Taking the average of the two, he has about a ten-run lead again. By the measure we have, Chapman is baseball’s best defensive third baseman, and it’s not even particularly close.
Now let’s split seasons and cover a decade, going back to 2009. Since then, there have been 302 third baseman player-seasons with at least 500 innings at the position. By DRS per 1,000 innings, Chapman’s two seasons rank first and third-best. By UZR per 1,000 innings, they rank fourth- and 14th-best. Taking the average, they rank first and fourth. Chapman has played a little over the equivalent of one full season. The numbers don’t disagree on the matter of his defense being sensational; it’s more a matter of degree. Chapman seems like prime Manny Machado, or prime Nolan Arenado.
In terms of Chapman’s baserunning? We have a measure called UBR, which measures baserunning value outside of steals and double plays. Chapman doesn’t steal, but that doesn’t mean he’s not still a baserunning plus. Since the start of last year, out of everyone, Chapman ranks sixth in baseball in UBR. He’s sandwiched between Christian Yelich and Xander Bogaerts.
And, of course, there’s the bat. Chapman has 716 career plate appearances. He has a wRC+ of 121, which the Statcast numbers entirely support. More than that, Chapman appears to have improved from his rookie campaign — he’s trimmed five points off his strikeout rate, and he’s trimmed six points off his chase rate. Chapman is more dangerous than he already was, and he ranks among the higher peak exit velocities. He has tremendous power, and now he’s improved his bat-to-ball skills.
Forget 2018 alone. It matters, but let’s just look at everything we have. Chapman debuted in 2017, so, I pulled every player who’s batted at least 500 times since the season opener. Our WAR measure uses UZR for defense, so here are the top position players in WAR per 600 plate appearances:
That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the best WAR, though. Some people prefer UZR, and some people prefer DRS. We know that neither is perfect. So here’s another, similar table, showing the same, but after swapping in DRS, and swapping out UZR:
At last, you could argue the right move is to take both DRS and UZR, and then go with the average. Here are the top ten position players via that approach:
Matt Chapman, fourth place. Maybe your takeaway is about Mike Trout. These things pretty much always come back to Mike Trout. Matt Chapman isn’t as good as Mike Trout, because no one is as good as Mike Trout. But as the non-Trout category goes, Chapman belongs. Even if you don’t believe he’s as good as Ramirez, Judge, or Betts, the point is that he’s close. The point is that there’s statistical reason to believe he’s right there. Chapman is not the best player in baseball, but he has been one of them, almost from the get-go, because he’s a positive contributor in every way. He’s a defensive specialist who’s good at the other stuff too.
It’s perfectly fair to wonder whether Chapman’s defense is being accurately measured. It’s perfectly fair to wonder how long he might keep it up. But we do know, beyond almost any doubt, Chapman is an elite defender, and we know that has real value. We know his bat and baserunning also have value, and it looks like his hitting has only improved. Don’t worry about specific WARs and specific decimals. The numbers just help to inform the general conclusion — that conclusion being, Matt Chapman is one of the very best players. He’s not the whole reason why the A’s are where they are, but if you’re searching that roster for a superstar, consider that search concluded.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.