There’s no replacing Matt Chapman
As a singularly talented defensive third baseman with a power bat that actually plays in the Coliseum, what Chapman brings to the table doesn’t exist elsewhere. (Before you say it: Nolan Arenado is also out for the year.)
With Chapman on the shelf, some combination of Jake Lamb, Chad Pinder, and Vimael Machín will fill in for the AL West champs. Tommy La Stella has seen a couple of starts there, but he more regularly splits his time between second and DH.
In brief: Pinder is a supersub with significant L/R splits. Machin, 26, made his major league debut this season, slashing .203/.299/.237 over 67 plate appearances. Lamb signed for the minimum after the last-place Diamondbacks cut him loose.
To reiterate: these guys are not Chapman. This isn’t moneyball where two or three or four players can patch together the production left behind by departed free agents. Not only is that not the goal: it’s not the challenge the A’s now face. This is a playoffs problem. Fortunately, as Cody Ross, David Freese, Steve Pearce and a host of others can attest – you don’t have to be a superstar to make a difference in the crap-shoot that is the MLB playoffs.
Instead of replacing Chappy – again, impossible – Melvin can lean into splits, pinch hit, pinch run, defensively replace, ride the hot hand, and play the match-ups. That process starts with assessing their in-house options – and we can do the same.
Chad Pinder, Right-Handed Safety Blanket
Pinder’s primary value proposition for the A’s is that he plays everywhere. Melvin enjoys the freedom to pinch-hit, pinch-run, and play the match-ups – Pinder’s versatility is the safety blanket that makes those tactics possible. The 28-year-old Virginian has covered every position except pitcher and catcher in his career, with the most playing time coming in left field, second base, and right field, in that order. Third base clocks in at a relatively distant fourth, but that’s largely a function of Chapman’s stability at the position.
Before we even get to his bat skills, the elephant in the room is this: Pinder hasn’t played since September 13th because of a strained right hamstring. Hamstrings are notoriously fickle, but at last word, the A’s expected Pinder to be ready for the playoffs.
But will he help? Hitting .226/.281/.396 on the year, Pinder’s triple slash has a similar shape to Chapman’s, but without the prodigious power. If they were vacuum cleaners, Pinder would be the old-school, handheld vac. Useful for any area of the house, but not all that effective anywhere. Even where it does work, it can’t match the power of Chapman – the industrial shop vac.
The man is a big league ballplayer, of course, so let’s give him his due. Here’s a broad strokes checklist of what the numbers tell us about Pinder:
- below average walk ability (7% BB%)
- average at putting ball in play (21.1 K%)
- above-average hard hit percentage (46.3 Hard Hit %)
- hits breaking balls increasingly well (.411 xwOBA vs. breaking balls)
- increasingly more trouble with fastballs (.293 xwOBA vs. fastballs)
- pitchers attack him in the zone, and he doesn’t chase (25.3 Chase %)
- swings often and swings early (45.6 1st Pitch Swing %)
- pitchers get him out around the edges of the strike zone
The 28-year-old doesn’t handle fastballs as well as he used to, though he’s been able to balance that out by increasing his productivity against breaking balls. Below is a histogram of pitches Pinder has seen this season by velocity, with lower xwOBA shaded darker. 95 mph and up plummets his xwOBA.
This pattern holds regardless of handedness. There’s really not a power lefty anywhere in the playoff field (except in Oakland), so a healthy Pinder probably starts against southpaws. Lefties with heat can give him trouble, so don’t be surprised to see him pinch-hit for late in a game against, say, Aroldis Chapman or Taylor Rogers.
The other place you might conceivably start Pinder is against a breaking-ball heavy right-hander with wandering command. Pinder doesn’t chase, but you can get him out with weak contact when nibbling around the edges of the zone. He might want to avoid Randy Dobnak, for instance, because he’s so often around the plate (2.51 BB/9), whereas Tanner Roark (4.84 BB/9) brings the right blend of wildness with non-elite velocity. In a vacuum (different kind of vacuum), you could justify starting him against Lance McCullers Jr. or Christian Javier, but the calculus there might change if he’s not 100% healthy.
Taijuan Walker, meanwhile, fits the bill somewhat, but his arsenal lends itself more to a north-south approach with four-seamers up and sinkers/split-fingers diving low, while Pinder has fared best against east-west curveballs and sliders.
Vimael Machín vs. Jake Lamb
We don’t know as much about Machín because he’s spent very little time in the bigs to date. But the numbers we do have tell a tale, and here it is:
- left-handed batter
- takes his walks (11.8 BB%)
- puts the ball in play (14.7 K%)
- little to no power (.033 ISO)
- keeps the ball out of the air (44% GB%)
- hits the ball the other way (46% OPPO%)
- fastball hitter (.405 xwOBA v. fastballs)
Playing off Pinder’s strenths, the A’s could look to get Machín in the lineup primarily against right-handers, and preferably those who bring heat. If they’re wild, all the better because Machín will take his walks. But if that last week is any indication, Machín isn’t likely to see too much postseason action.
That’s because Lamb has been the everyday third baseman more-or-less since he arrived from Arizona. They’d want to get a look at him, obviously, before throwing him out there with the season on the line, but he also bring significantly more upside at the plate than either Pinder or Machín. Before injuries derailed his career in 2018, Lamb was a 2-3 fWAR player for back-to-back seasons. He launched 29 home runs one year and 30 the next while producing 12% more offense than your average Joe.
Times have changed, of course. Lamb’s been 20% worse than average from 2018 to the present. That said, he’s had uneven playing time ever since returning from injury. When the Diamondbacks traded for Eduardo Escobar, the playing time became even more sparse. That’s a difficult psychological place to try and get your groove back. And yet, advanced metrics like xwOBA, Hard Hit %, and Exit Velocity suggest he’s close to – or maybe even better than the hitter he was from 2016 to 2017. For what it’s worth, he certainly has impressed over 6 games in Oakland with a triple slash of .364/.417/.727. That’s 111% more offensive production than average. It’s been a good week. But that’s not who Lamb is either.
He never hit lefties well: 56 wRC+ vs. LHP, 108 wRC+ vs. RHP. So we can take lefties off the table unless Melvin wants to ride the blindly ride the hot bat – which is absolutely a viable strategy come playoff time. Otherwise, what we think we know about Lamb is this:
- can’t hit lefties (.173/.279/.330 career)
- lots of swing and miss in his game (27% K%)
- big power (.196 career ISO)
- not hitting breaking balls as well as fastballs in 2020 (41.9 Whiff % vs. breaking balls)
- significant pull hitter (46.7% Pull %)
Lamb is a traditional slugger. He likes fastballs middle-in, and you can get him to swing through soft stuff, especially low in the zone.
When looking for points of differentiation between Lamb and Machín, the simplest answer is power: Lamb has it and Machín doesn’t. But there’s also approach: Lamb looks to pull the ball in the air, while Machín goes the other way on the ground.
Likeliest Playoff Matchups
The A’s are champs in the west. The Rays have a 99.2% chance to win the East per Fangraphs. The Twins have a 71.1% chance to win the Central with the White Sox holding 18% and the Indians 10.9%. Of the eight teams currently in playoff seeding, the Blue Jays have the worst chance of making the playoff – at 99.2%. In other words, the field of eight is set.
Based on projections, the Athletics are looking at the #2 seed, which would set them to take on the better of the two wild card teams. That’s going to be the third place finisher in the Central, most likely the Indians. They’re a tough draw.
Beyond that, Oakland’s .623 winning percentage entering play on Tuesday is only percentage points better than the White Sox’ .618 winning percentage. The top seed isn’t out of reach either, but the Rays hold a two-game lead as of right now. A #3 seed would mean a showdown with the worst of the three 2nd place qualifiers, which is almost certain to be the Astros.
They won’t get a rematch with the Rays, and probably won’t see them at all unless facing off in the ALCS. Assuming the Rays take the top seed, they’re going to get the Blue Jays in the first round, so they’re an unlikely opponent as well for Oakland. The White Sox aren’t likely to drop to third place either. Even though they have the toughest remaining schedule, a 3-game lead over the Indians ought to hold unless Cleveland goes on a run.
Below are the top 4 starters for the Indians and Astros. Only 3 will get starts, but given how hectic wild card games have been in the past, it’ll be all hands on deck and all four are likely to see the hill.
Pinder’s career follows traditional splits with a 108 wRC+ against lefties and 89 wRC+ against righties, but Valdez is the only southpaw in the bunch, and his power approach could give Pinder fits. Still, if Pinder is healthy and Valdez is starting, he’s gotta be the guy at third. Expect him not to get much run until late in games against the Indians should that be the match-up.
To find a good match-up for Machín, we might look for a wormkiller who gives up opposite field contact. Lance McCullers‘ profile plays to Machín’s strengths in those ways, as might Civale and Greinke to a lesser degree. Machín could also be helpful if you want long at-bats and someone to put the ball in play. Carrasco‘s command can wander, potentially making a match for him there.
More often than not, however, Lamb’s gonna be the guy. He’s not Matt Chapman, but in the playoffs, he might not have to be.
(Graphic by Zach Ennis)