You know about Matt Chapman. Right? Of course you know about him. You’re a smart, literate baseball fan. You’re even pretty sure that Matt Chapman is on the A’s these days, and that he’s good with the glove. He is good with the glove. And, in fact, he’s only ever been on the A’s, because he’s only 24 years old and was born the year before they started the O.J. murder trial. But you knew that. Didn’t you?
Anyway, if you know those things about Matt Chapman, you know, probably, about the same amount of things about Matt Chapman as the average baseball fan knew before oh, about two weeks ago. And that’s because in the last two weeks, Matt Chapman has hit as many major-league home runs as anybody not named Charlie Blackmon, Bryce Harper, or Mike Trout, and gotten on base more than 40% of the time to boot. We’re just about 10% of the way through the 2018 big-league schedule, and Matt Chapman is leading the major leagues in WAR.
This won’t last, probably. So this isn’t a piece about how, because we’re already X plate appearances into the season, A’s fans should believe that Chapman is going to sustain the .650 slugging percentage he’s put up so far and become the second coming of Sal Bando but with more power, or whatever. This is a piece about how Chapman has already had an extremely good 16 days at work, and about what he’s been doing differently during those 16 days. If you’d like to make this piece about the future, go for it. That’s on you, though. This is a piece about what Matt Chapman’s doing now.
First, the past. That’s a video of Matt Chapman hitting his 14th and final home run of 2017, against the Gallopin’ Guadalajaran, Miguel González, who tried to locate a second fastball right where he’d put the first one and instead ended up locating it somewhere over the wall in dead center field. I’m showing this to you now to demonstrate that Matt Chapman’s power didn’t come out of nowhere, exactly. Big-league hitters with power are meant to hit fastballs like that one out to dead center field, and Chapman did. He hit 30 home runs last year, between the big leagues and two different minor-league stops. He’s always had very good power. The thing was, he wasn’t as good at putting the power into action in a game setting as he could have been.
How come? Well, here’s a different image of Chapman’s 2017, one that might be a little less flattering to the man. This is a picture of the microsecond before Chapman went down swinging against a Jake Diekman slider that ended up about three feet from the plate. This picture is from the night after Chapman hit that very nice home run against Miguel González. This picture is also, I think, representative of the things Chapman would do when he wasn’t doing well last year, which is swinging way too hard at way too many pitches he had no business hitting hard. And then missing.
I bring this up because of some things that have happened to Matt Chapman’s plate-discipline figures in these, the first three weeks or so of the 2018 major-league season. Here’s what’s happened, in roughly ascending order of importance: he’s stopped swinging quite so much, in general; he’s stopped swinging at pitches outside the zone even more than he’s stopped swinging, in general; and he’s started making more contact with pitches thrown just about everywhere, but especially pitches thrown outside the zone. And, yes, he’s led the majors in WAR through games played on Sunday.
All that has mattered, I think, because it suggests that moments like the one pictured in the still frame above — with the right half totally collapsed and the arms outstretched, flailing at a pitch that was never going to come close to the zone — have occurred much less frequently this year than they did last. And indeed, Chapman’s swinging-strike rate is down about four percentage points and his strikeout rate, in general, is down 12 percentage points. These are both things that have a lot to do with recognizing big-league pitches better out of the hand, I think. Some of those pitches aren’t meant to be hit, or swung at, and it’s best to lay off of them entirely. Chapman’s gotten better at recognizing which pitches are which so far this year, and it’s helped.
Moreover, Chapman has been more ready to pounce on those pitches he is meant to hit when they come in. Two of Chapman’s 2018 home runs have come on the second pitch or earlier, and all but one came in the first four offerings a pitcher gave him. By contrast, five of last year’s 14 came on the fifth pitch of the sequence or later. Matt Chapman has been better at recognizing what’s hittable and what’s not earlier in the count. And it’s paying off.
Here, for example, is Chapman this April hitting the second straight slider he saw from Shohei Ohtani a very long way:
This is a nice parallel to the González video from 2017, I think, because in some superficial ways it’s very much the same idea: the pitcher throws one pitch, which works, and tries to do it again; Chapman then hits it out of the park. But last year, the pitcher doing the throwing was Miguel González, and the pitch he was throwing was a fastball which ended up middle-in. That pitch should get creamed. This year, the pitcher was Shohei Ohtani, who — with no disrespect meant to Miguel González — is by far the better of the two pitchers. As for the pitch, it was a slider on the bottom outside corner of the plate which frankly wasn’t even that bad of a pitch. Ohtani hit his spot. Chapman just hit his, better.
I promised this was a piece about the past, and not about the future, so I won’t go fully declarative here and say that it sure looks like Matt Chapman’s pitch recognition and plate discipline have gotten a whole hell of a lot better in 2018 than they were in 2017, and that if you combine those skills with his plus raw power and his very excellent glove at third base, you’ve got yourself quite a valuable player. I won’t say that, because the world could come crashing down tomorrow. But I will say that, over his first 16 days at the office in 2018, Chapman sure looks like a guy who’s figured something out at the plate, and that something has him leading the major leagues in WAR the day after Jackie Robinson Day, 2018. That’s what Matt Chapman has been doing so far this year, and I’m looking forward to seeing if he can keep it up in the summertime.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness. By night he tweets.