By Miles Klotz
Unless you’re an absolute die-hard fan of baseball, you probably haven’t heard the name Matt Chapman. After all, it would seem unlikely that a third baseman with a .762 OPS and .231 batting average on the last place Oakland Athletics would deserve any serious recognition. But Chapman is already establishing himself as one of baseball brightest young defensive players, and a cornerstone for a rebuilding A’s franchise to build around.
Before I dive into the statistical reasons for why Chapman is already a better defensive third baseman than show-stoppers like Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado and Anthony Rendon, here are a couple plays showing off his ridiculous arm strength and top-tier baseball instincts.
Here’s Chapman doubling off Trey Mancini at first on a line drive to third base. The arm strength needed to fire a baseball at the speed necessary to get a runner who was less than a third of the way from first to second, and was already diving back to the back, is rather insane, and Chapman made it look routine.
Here’s another example of Chapman’s ridiculous arm strength. Perhaps Nelson Cruz could have beat out that ball if he was running at full speed, but Chapman’s throw still beat him by several steps despite being more than the length of the diamond away and off of his back foot.
Chapman was playing closer to the hole at shortstop here, and plays the ball perfectly, keeping his balance and making a perfect throw to second as he spins to start a double play that left the bases loaded.
It’s clear that Chapman possesses a really strong arm and gets clear reads on the ball on every play. His defensive abilities and arm strength have been lauded for a while – in 2014, his draft year (when he was selected 25th overall by Oakland), Baseball America wrote that “Chapman’s plus-plus is a major asset at the hot corner, where he has the actions and instincts to be an above-average defender.” BA also noted that Chapman touched 98 MPH as a pitcher for the USA National Collegiate Baseball Team in 2013, although he did not pitch in college for Cal State Fullerton. Coming into the 2017 season, Chapman was ranked by Baseball America as the 94th best prospect in baseball, and by Baseball Prospectus as the 100th best prospect in baseball, mostly due to his stellar defensive abilities.
Chapman was called up to the majors on June 15, making his debut against the New York Yankees in Oakland. So far this season (as of games through September 4th), Chapman has played 518 innings in the field, and does not qualify for the batting title, with only 230 plate appearances. The advanced defensive statistics that follow are defined by Fangraphs:
Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR): puts a run value to defense, attempting to quantify how many runs a player saved or gave up through their fielding prowess (or lack thereof).
Defensive Runs Above Average (Def): measures a player’s defensive value relative to league average. Def is the combination of two important factors of defensive performance: value relative to positional average (fielding runs) and positional value relative to other positions (positional adjustment).
Defensive Runs Saved (DRS): rates individual players as above or below average on defense. Captures a player’s total defensive value.
Here are Chapman’s numbers in those stats, with his rank among MLB third baseman in parentheses (no minimum plate appearances):
UZR: 6.9 (3rd)
Def: 7.8 (3rd)
DRS: 17 (T-2nd)
These numbers come in only 59 games – if those numbers are extrapolated to what would be expected over the span of double his current pace (118 games – less than the 137 that the A’s have played this season), he would lead all three categories by a significant margin. Chapman’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) sits at 2.6 on Baseball-Reference and 1.7 on Fangraphs despite his fairly anemic offensive numbers (his .296 on-base percentage is 36th among the 43 third baseman with at least 200 plate appearances). He ranks ninth among all AL defensive players in Baseball-Reference’s Defensive WAR numbers, at 1.9.
A decade ago, Chapman may not even have been seeing the field regularly. Thanks to the introduction of these more advanced statistics, we can see that Chapman has been arguably the most valuable defensive player in the league in the 2 and 1/2 months since he was called up to the majors. But his traditional, and outdated, fielding stats leave much to be desired. He has nine errors and a .956 fielding percentage, numbers that rank towards the middle of the pack of third baseman with at least 500 innings in the field. In the past, managers and general managers would scoff at the idea of playing a third baseman everyday with a fielding percentage at .956, but the game is evolving, and Chapman’s defense can now be appreciated for how stellar it is. He may not be a household name yet, but if he keeps this stellar level of defensive play up, we can expect to see Chapman’s name mentioned above the likes of Arenado and Machado for the title of Best Defensive Third Baseman.