For the past five years, MLB has been historically rich with third base talent. Names like Arenado, Rendon, Bregman, and Ramirez are perennially near the top of MVP voting, and many teams seem to have a competent presence at the hot corner coming into the 2021 season.
Two-time Platinum Glove winner Matt Chapman has muscled his way into the conversation of best third baseman in baseball, but even a diehard Chapman acolyte like myself would be fighting an uphill battle to argue that he has risen to the top of the stacked third baseman class. While no one can touch his defense, players like Rendon, Bregman, and Ramirez provide their teams with more offense while also providing a decent amount of value on the defensive end. While he might not currently own that spot, I think that there is a chance he might ascend there in the upcoming season.
How much better can Matt Chapman be for the Oakland A’s?
In Matt Chapman’s short career, he has proven to be both an above-average hitter and one of the best defensive third basemen in the league. He hits the heck out of the baseball, being at least in the top 4% of hitters in average exit velocity. This has translated into very good, yet not quite elite, power numbers. The A’s third baseman has also displayed some respectable plate discipline, at one point posting a 10.9% BB rate, good for 36th in the majors in 2019.
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Chapman’s defense is on a whole different level. He is about as decorated as one can be, winning two Platinum Glove awards in the two full seasons he’s played in. Every defensive metric known to man rates him as the best third baseman. If you are still a skeptic, you can watch one of his defensive highlight reels and see for yourself (I’ve watched them many times. Trust me: they’re great). If the young A’s third baseman is going to reach new heights, it will not be because of a defensive improvement. So the question becomes, “How can Chapman improve his offense?” This is a question that Matt Chapman seemed to ask himself after the 2019 season.
Chapman’s shortened 2020 season was shortened even more by a hip injury, so we only have a sample size of 37 games, but in that handful of games, it looks like he came into the season with a new approach. He still knocked the skin off the ball but raised his launch angle by over seven degrees and almost halved his groundball rate. While this flyball approach unlocked some extra power in Chapman’s swing, it came at the expense of his plate approach. His walk rate got cut in half, and he posted a strikeout rate that would have put Chappy solidly in the top (or bottom) ten if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.
These numbers don’t clearly forecast how Chapman’s 2021 season will go, but I feel very positive about the direction he is going in. Chapman has proven that his glove isn’t his only elite tool. He hits the ball about as hard as anyone, and he seems to be demonstrating his willingness to experiment and harness it more effectively. Swing changes don’t happen overnight, and while there were some 2020 swing change growing pains, he raised his slugging percentage by 30 points and was doing a much better job of getting the ball in the air. If Chappy can put together a walk rate close to his 2019 walk rate alongside this new flyball-oriented approach, a good hitter just became a great hitter, and I think we are talking about a clear MVP candidate, a sleeper pick no longer.
There are, of course, many other factors that could influence Matt Chapman’s 2021. It seems the ball will be deadened in 2021, which might play in Chapman’s favor as a hitter who hits the ball harder than most of his peers. I am not a doctor and have no idea if his recent hip injury will plague him at all. It was also reported that the Mets were in talks to acquire Chapman in a trade (I might become physically ill if a Chapman trade happens this year. I love this man too much).
Even if none of these changes affect Matt Chapman and has a season identical to his 2019, we are still watching a truly unique and amazing player. It will be exciting to see if he can build on his already incredibly stellar play in the upcoming season.