(Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)
Matt Chapman had a very solid rookie campaign in 2017 as he was good for a 2.7 fWAR over 84 games played. He has always been reported to be an excellent defender at third base but in 2017 his offensive stats were more of a mixed bag. During his 2015-2017 seasons in the minors, we saw a player that was going to hit for plenty of power, strike out a lot, and hit for a low batting average. During his partial season in the majors, we saw exactly that. He hit 14 home runs, struck out 28% of the time, and hit for a .234 batting average. For a rookie season that’s not half bad if you ask me, but let’s look at it a little closer.
In 2017 he walked at a near 10% rate, demonstrating he is not a total loss in the plate discipline department. Chapman actually exhibited fairly decent underlying plate discipline numbers for a guy showing strikeout rates consistently near 30%, sporting a contact rate of 73%, an outside swing rate of 26.6%, and a swinging strike rate of 11.5%. None of those numbers are great, but they certainly aren’t terrible. They sort of hint that Chapman might have good patience when choosing to swing or hold off but when he does swing he doesn’t always make contact. So perhaps a good hitter’s eye but poor barrel control?
For rookie hitters, we often expect them to show some of their worst plate discipline numbers early on and then to improve over the following couple years of their career. If 2017 was going to be Chapman’s starting ground then I am fairly optimistic about him as I wouldn’t consider it a total disaster. We already know he hits the ball hard and in the air from his minor league track record, all he has to do is show some semblance of plate discipline and we have a star on our hands, right? Remember his best skills are his glove and his arm on defense so if he’s also a strong hitter then the Oakland Athletics would have a cornerstone player much like the one they traded away in 2014, Josh Donaldson. As a prospect, Chapman got 60s on his power, arm, and glove but closer to a 40 on his hit tool.
Coming into 2018, we had some reasons for optimism. Thus far after 13 games, Chapman is sitting at a .347 batting average with a .418 on-base percentage. He has already been good for a 1.1 fWAR, which is tied for the major league lead so far in our tiny sample size of 2 weeks of baseball. Being productive is one thing, but what he’s doing is showing a 10.9% walk rate and an 18.2% strikeout rate. Let me just put some of these plate discipline numbers in a table for you to get a proper idea of where they stand in comparison to previous years.
|2016 (AA / AAA)||589||11.5||29.4||.237||14.2||135|
What we can see here is there have been clear improvements by Matt Chapman over the last couple years but what we’ve seen in 2018 has far exceeded the plate discipline he has shown in the past. If you look at this year’s spring training numbers, you’ll also see Chapman had a 10% walk rate and a 20% strikeout rate over 50 plate appearances. Combine that with the past two weeks and now you’re talking a sample size of over 100 at-bats of these improvements and it starts to look less and less like an anomaly. He has improved his batting eye by cutting his outside swing rate to a minuscule 19.4%. Getting the bat on the ball has also improved greatly as his contact rate jumped from 73% last year to 78% so far this year.
This new plate discipline may represent an improvement for Chapman, but is he still hitting the ball with the same authority as in the past? Well, in short, yes of course he is. He has hit 4 home runs thus far but he’s also showing a 49% hard-hit rate. According to xStats.org, he has been good for a 10% Value Hit Percentage and a 16% Poor Hit Percentage, both well above average. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these particular stats, they effectively say he has a high percentage of batted balls that are virtually guaranteed to go for extra bases and has a very low percentage of batted balls that are virtually guaranteed outs. You can read more about those stats here.
One aspect of Chapman’s batted ball profile that I like is that he sprays the ball over the entire field fairly evenly. In the minor leagues he seemed to be a dead pull hitter but so far in the majors, he hasn’t even topped a 40% pull percentage. This indicates to me that he hasn’t sold out for power. Players like Rougned Odor or Joey Gallo have fly ball percentages over 40% and pull percentages over 50, which indicates that they are basically maxed out trying to pull everything for power. Chapman does have fly ball percentages up in that range but he doesn’t pull the ball nearly as much. His opposite-field percentage is over 30% right now.
So to pull this together we have a gold glove caliber defender who has 60-grade power and much-improved plate discipline. He was good for 2.7 fWAR in half a season last year. Theoretically, over a full season, he would’ve been good for 5.4 fWAR. With the improvements Chapman is showing this year we could realistically see him reach the 6-7 fWAR range in 2018. That would put him among the top few players in the game. I don’t know if that’s far too bold to suggest but that’s the direction the numbers are pointing at the moment. That potential is even more exciting in the context of a player who still hasn’t even had 400 plate appearances in the majors yet. I’m excited to see how this season goes for Chapman.