As Nico detailed yesterday, the A’s farm system is a bit hard to gauge. There’s some depth and there’s blue chip talent, but whether that system will turn the A’s into contenders is still hard to say. Of those prospects, Matt Chapman is arguably the most unsure.
The crux of Matt Chapman is his ability to make contact. When he does hit the ball, he does so with authority, leading the Texas league in homeruns last year. His defense is his calling card and that alone should make him a big leaguer. His contact skills will determine whether those tools make him a part time guy who never pans out, a solid but unspectacular regular, or something closer to a star player.
Just a level away from the big league level, time is running out for Chapman to make a major change in his game to rid himself of his contact issues. How have players who struggled making contact at the AA level fared in their next stops?
Finding comparisons for Chapman
Some caveats, of course. Statistical comps are great, especially when the highlight of the offseason is baseball’s legal document, but they are far from perfect. At best, they give us an idea of how similar players have progressed but, especially with minor leaguers, they’re nothing more than a historical guide. Every big leaguer is a unique snowflake, and every player can mature in his own way. Oh, and they ignore defense.
Without the aid of major league resources it’s harder to compare Chapman with similar players at a granular level. We can do it at a broader level: Chapman is a slugger (most homeruns in the Texas League last season, 29) with strikeout issues (highest K rate, 29.2%). How have guys like that done?
To compare, I looked at players who ranked top five in AA in both K-rate and home runs. I also (somewhat arbitrarily) only included players who were at the time, considered top prospects. There were a number of older, career minor leaguers who put up similar numbers but just didn’t make all that much sense as comparative fits.
Matt Olson, 1B, Athletics (2015): 17 HR, 23.8% K-rate
With 2015 being so recent, Olson isn’t much of a data point. We do know that he struggled in AAA, though he did pick up his play in the second half of 2016. If Chapman were to put up Olson’s AAA numbers at the big league, he’d be passable by virtue of his stellar defense. Overall though, Olson is not a success story.
Joey Gallo, 3B/OF, Rangers (2014): 21 HR, 39.5% K-rate
Joey Gallo is like Matt Olson with every attribute amplified. More strikeouts and generational power, and hence, more risk and reward. Unlike Olson, and more relevantly unlike Chapman, Gallo isn’t a defensive stud.
But we’re concerned about offense here, and we should in fact be at least slightly concerned. Gallo is a top prospect because of his bat, and that bat has scuffled at the big league level. The contact is absent which has caused him to have negative value in 2016, and that has made him a small sample bust. Gallo should be an excellent Chapman-esque preview going forward, though his power is truly special and his contact is worse than Chapman’s.
John Sickels compared Gallo to Chris Davis, a real life example of the high power, low contact mold breaking extremely right.
I think the common Chris Davis comp will work: Gallo will have some outstanding seasons and some weak ones. You can't count on much batting average in any given year but the power and OBP will be there.
Domingo Santana, OF, Astros (2013): 25 HR, 29.2% K-rate
As we go further back, we’ll run into more data points with relevant Major League numbers. Domingo Santana is the first guy who fits that mold. In 2016, his first season with substantial big league time, he was solid with the bat. His .795 OPS put him roughly 10% better than league average offensively, though he was supported by an unsustainably high .352 BABIP.
The mark that is weirdly both concerning and comforting at the same time is Santana’s ML K-rate. He went down without putting the ball in play nearly a third of the time (32.4%), a step back from his already poor contact numbers. In spite of that, he put up solid offensive numbers. As Sickels alluded to with Gallo and Davis, there’s an element of luck involved and Santana’s 2016 is an example of things breaking right. Even if Chapman does fail to take that step forward with his contact skills, he could luck into some solid seasons.
George Springer, OF, Astros (2013): 25 HR, 29.2% K-rate
A bonafide success! Through AA, Springer was a strikeout machine, sitting just south of the 30% mark year over year. Upon reaching AAA, Springer made some sort of adjustment, dropping that mark below the 25% threshold. Since then, he’s put the ball in play at a fairly high rate. He has lost some power but overall, he’s been an offensive stud.
Springer is known as one of the best athletes in the game, so the ability to adjust is probably a shade less surprising than it would be with dozens of other players. There’s of course a mental aspect of making that change, and Springer’s demonstrative ability to do so can hopefully be a guide for Chapman to do the same.
Brandon Waring, 3B, Orioles, 2010: 22 HR, 32.8% K-rate
Waring never made the bigs. Here’s your worst case scenario for Chapman offensively, though Waring was never quite the prospect Matt Chapman is now.
Miguel Sano, 3B, Twins, 2013: 19 HR, 29.2% K-rate
Like Gallo, Sano is a flawed player with a generational tool. His power matches that of Gallo, and therefore exceeds that of Chapman. Good and bad news here - Sano has been a valuable player in spite of being a worse defender than Chapman (and it’s not close) but his K-rate is still out of control.
Some very tenuous conclusions
-Lowering your K-rate is a difficult proposition. We know this cause if it was easy, people would just do it. Of the six guys who ranked at the top of both the home run and strikeout leaderboards, only one has successfully lowered that K-rate, and he (Springer) did so with some effect to his power.
-Defense is so, so important. Someone tell the A’s! If Chapman is unable to tone down the strikeouts, his offensive output might be something like Domingo Santana’s 2016, in which his wRC+ stood at 110 with the help of some BABIP luck. That output made Santana roughly a league average player, but if you combined it with someone with the defensive chops of Chapman? You’ve got yourself an asset.
-Personally, seeing the guys on this lists tempers my expectations. It’s not exactly a surprise, but striking out at league leading rates in the minors doesn’t bode well for big league stardom. That’s not to say Chapman won’t be a good player, nor does it mean he can’t ditch the swing and miss ways. It just means he’s got some things on which to work.