Over the last few years, the A’s have had a high-end player problem, in that they haven’t had any. Jed Lowrie currently leads the team with +2.3 WAR; by comparison, the Astros have seven players who have already reached that mark, and that does not include their best pitcher, Dallas Keuchel, who spent two months on the DL. The team has developed some decent role players and decent enough everyday players, but they haven’t really had a franchise player since they traded Josh Donaldson to Toronto.
Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, I am starting to wonder if they’ve finally found a guy who at least has the potential to get to that level in the not too distant future. His name is Matt Chapman.
Chapman’s been a real prospect for a while, having been the A’s first round pick in the 2014 draft. Eric Longenhagen listed him as an honorable mention on his pre-season Top 100, giving him a 50 Future Value grade based on his power and defensive abilities. There were questions over whether the bat would play enough to make him a regular at third base, though, as he’s always struck out too much and thus hits for some very low averages.
Well, Chapman still strikes out a lot, but after running a 130 wRC+ in Triple-A, the A’s have decided to see how it all works in the big leagues. And so far, they have to be encouraged with the results. Through his first 34 games in the big leagues, Chapman is hitting .231/.316/.513, good for a 120 wRC+. Yeah, the average is still low, but he draws walks and the power looks legitimate, so even with the strikeouts, he’s not an offensive black hole.
He hits too many infield flies for that .278 BABIP to have much room to move upwards, so this might be his offensive ceiling unless he can fix that or improve his contact rate. The A’s should probably expect something closer to the 91 wRC+ that ZIPS and Steamer project going forward, though with how well the ball flies these days, perhaps his power will play up more than those projections think. So why am I calling a 24-year-old with a maybe-average bat a potential star?
Because Matt Chapman can really play third base. Here’s what Eric wrote about his defense this spring.
He’s an excellent defensive third baseman, flexible in both the knees and at the waist, and adept at positioning his body as he approaches grounders, in a way that allows him to make strong, accurate throws. He also has a terrific first step and lateral range, with solid hands. He’s a future plus defensive third baseman with a plus arm, and there are scouts who have 70s on either or both.
Or, if you want something a little more recent, here’s the last A’s star third baseman on their current youngster.
“That was a nice night,” (Josh Donaldson) told The Chronicle. “He made some great plays — that double play to make the stop and to still be able to get off the throw, and then that leaping catch at shortstop, those were tough. His athleticism was definitely on display.”
Want to see Chapman in action and not just read other people lauding his glove work? Say no more.
Over at Athletics Nation, Alex Hall did a whole piece on Chapman’s glove, including some more GIFs if you’re not sold just yet. But while Chapman is making spectacular plays, he’s not just making spectacular plays. While you never want to draw conclusions based solely on partial seasons of defensive data, the numbers back up what everyone sees with their eyes; Chapman is an out-machine at third base.
In 302 innings at third base, Baseball Info Solutions has recorded 74 balls hit into Chapman’s zones, and he’s made the play on 64 of those 74 plays, for an 87% conversion rate. League average for a third baseman is 70%. Nolan Arenado, the everyday 3B with the highest RZR, is at 76%.
That’s why BIS has already credited him with 12 Defensive Runs Saved, which ranks #1 among all American League third baseman this year. Yeah, DRS has him ahead of Manny Machado and Evan Longoria in about 1/3 of the innings played.
UZR is much more conservative in assigning fielding value to 3Bs this year, with the range being +9 to -7 instead of +16 to -13, but even with the more compact values, Chapman grades out as an elite glove there, with his +4 UZR translating to +22 over 150 games. Basically, by any kind of measure you want to use, Matt Chapman looks like an outstanding third baseman.
It’s always easier to buy into these kinds of performances when it lines up with the prior scouting reports, and Chapman is showing why the scouts putting 70s on both his glove and arm weren’t crazy. While it’s obviously still too early to make any kind of final determination of his value, it feels perfectly reasonable to project Chapman as something like a +10 to +15 third baseman; that would put him in line with what guys like Beltre, Machado, Arenado, and Rendon grade out at over larger samples.
And if Chapman’s something like a league average hitter with premium defense at third base, then he’s probably already pushing towards being a +3 WAR player, at age-24. Defense peaks early, so he might have less upside than some other guys at that level at this age, but it’s worth noting that KATOH saw significant star potential even before this season.
And KATOH was even higher on him after what he did in the minors this year, revising his +6.7 WAR projection up to +8.7 on the mid-season Top 100 update, where Chapman ranked as the 22nd best prospect in baseball by the stats-only model. Just going on minor league performance, KATOH likes Chapman more than Yoan Moncada or Amed Rosario, who are often considered two of the very best prospects in baseball. And Chapman’s stock has only gone up since getting to the big leagues, which KATOH doesn’t factor in.
Sure, maybe “Todd Frazier with better defense” doesn’t scream franchise player, but it’s worth remembering that at his peak, Frazier put up back to back seasons over +4 WAR, and has averaged better than +3 WAR per 600 plate appearances over his entire career. Chapman looks even better with the glove than Frazier, and if he can develop any further as a hitter, it’s not crazy to think that he could throw up a few +5 WAR seasons.
Of course, there’s a lot of risk in this skillset too. Defensive value jumps around more than offensive value, and as a high-K, high-popup guy, he could easily hit .180 if he struggles when pitchers start adjusting to him. Average-bat/elite glove guys aren’t always recognized as stars, but if the A’s end up with the third base version of Kevin Kiermiaer, I think they’ll be pretty happy. And given what Chapman has done this year, that doesn’t look like an absurd projection anymore.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.