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Matt Chapman is already the best defensive third baseman in the American League

The numbers and GIFs have spoken.

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Didn’t even have to vault a water cooler for this one.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s are going to finish in last place this season. As they play out the string for the rest of September it’s important for us to find little things to enjoy, because there won’t be a lot of wins. At the top of that list of positives is Matt Chapman’s defense, which is already as good as any you’ll find in the league.

We covered this topic once already in late July, and over at FanGraphs Dave Cameron is similarly impressed. Over the ensuing six weeks since my last post, I’ve been saving highlights of great plays he’s made when I see them on Twitter, so that I’ll have them handy if I want them later. There are nine new ones since then. Here are two of my favorites.

I’m not sure Cooler Catch is meaningfully different than Josh Donaldson’s Tarp Catch. Long run, dangerous obstacle, caught the ball, stuck the landing. Chapman adds the extra style points of just walking off like nothing amazing had just happened. Here’s another one where he catches a foul ball in medium-deep LF. Range!

That would have been a good play if Chapman had made that diving stop and thrown out the runner. It’s a great play because he made that diving stop and still had time to start a double play. Even with Miguel Sano running, that’s impressive.

There is a comp I keep coming back to in my head, if you’ll bear with me for a moment. When Yoenis Cespedes was on the A’s, his at-bats were something special. When he came up to the plate, I would stop whatever I was doing to focus because it felt like there was a greater chance than usual that something incredible might happen. Put down that bite of food for a minute, or look up from the article I was writing, or literally stop the pub trivia night I was hosting until he was done batting (I’m not kidding about that last one).

Even if other hitters had better numbers than the 118 wRC+ he posted in his time here, Cespedes still had this extra presence. If you didn’t look up to see him, then why were you even following baseball at all? That’s how I feel when a ball is hit toward Matt Chapman.

That all makes Chapman arguably the most exciting player on the A’s, but we’re going a step further here. He’s already the best defensive third baseman in the entire American League, and he’s got the numbers to back it up. Here are the MLB leaders in Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating, entering Friday.

# Name DRS Inn Name UZR Inn
1 Arenado +20 1171 Rendon +13.3 1122
2 Chapman +18 532 Arenado +7.1 1171
3 Gyorko +16 838 Chapman +6.9 532
4 Longoria +13 1099 Frazier +5.7 940
5 Frazier +10 940 Beltre +4.5 546
6 Rendon +9 1122 Machado +4.4 1193
7 Machado +8 1193 Seager +4.4 1176

These metrics are best not used in small samples because they don’t provide reliable precision over a few weeks, or months, or even a full season necessarily. But we’re not talking about marginal differences here. Chapman’s DRS is at a level most players never reach at any point of any season in their careers. These are effectively counting stats, as opposed to a rate like batting average, and he already tops the AL leaderboard on both measures in less than half a season’s worth of innings. The only others who can challenge him are Nolan Arenado (Colorado) and Anthony Rendon (Washington). You can’t fluke into that in any sample size.

If you remove the 3B qualifier and consider defenders at all positions for Defensive Runs Saved, he trails only outfielders Mookie Betts (+30) and Byron Buxton (+24), shortstop Andrelton Simmons (+25), and Arenado. Switch over to a DRS/yr rate stat to account for playing time and he’s got them all beat.

Over at FanGraphs, the UZR/150 rate stat is slightly more conservative, but he still ranks 9th in MLB (min. 500 innings) behind Simmons, Rendon, and six outfielders (including Betts but not Buxton). Add in their positional adjustment and Chapman is still tied for 31st in “Def” (total defensive value), behind almost exclusively up-the-middle players (plus Arenado, Rendon, and Betts). The players he’s tied with are Zack Cozart and Addison Russell, two top shortstops who have each played more innings.

And what about historically at third base? Chapman is even on a pace that would shatter Manny Machado’s record-setting +35 DRS campaign from 2013, which took nearly 1400 innings to put together. Since DRS began in 2002, only 13 other third basemen have ever put up a season of +18 or better, on a total of 25 other occasions, only twice in less than 1100 innings. Chapman has done it in his rookie year, in half that amount of playing time.

OK that was a lot of numbers. Pause for a video break.

LOL wut that had to be CGI.

To be fair, Chapman has made his share of errors as well. His total of nine is already middle-of-the-pack despite his short playing time, and already higher than the two main NL guys. There’s a chance the errors were ordered by his Cybernet overlords so he could blend in with the humans, but we can’t count on that yet. If you still cling to fielding percentage as a valuable metric then you may not be impressed, just as you probably weren’t with Josh Donaldson. Also how are you reading this on your pager?

The good news is that the Eyeball Test has an answer for that concern. As a rookie, you’d expect at least some kind of growing pain from Chapman, and that has come in the form of harnessing the power of his elite throwing arm. When he first came up, he had the tendency to gun full velocity on every play, and that resulted in a few extra miscues early on. He’s already learned to tone that down and reserve the high-90s cannon for when he really needs it. Otherwise, his fielding mistakes have been isolated instances, far overshadowed by his good plays.

Pause for relevant video.

Chapman’s main competition in the American League is Manny Machado, Adrian Beltre, Evan Longoria, Kyle Seager, and maybe Todd Frazier, and he’s got them all dominated statistically. He’s got the highlights to back up his numbers. Scouts love him, as noted by Mark Simon of ESPN. What’s left to discuss?

Well, there is one more thing to talk about. Can anyone give me a good reason why Chapman shouldn’t win the 2017 Gold Glove award? The obvious argument would be a lack of playing time, but he should at least pass the half-season mark if he stays in the everyday lineup — there’s no official threshold, but a majority of your team’s games at the position seems like a good place to start (update: there is a threshold and he didn’t meet it this year). Furthermore, there is no long-term incumbent to knock off, as the last three years have seen three different recipients. Last season’s pick, Beltre, missed half of 2017 himself due to injury, so it’s tough to make a case for him over Chappie.

I think we’re past the theoretical point here. The way things are going right now, Chapman has the best case for the Gold Glove award this year, even though he’s not allowed to win it. And by this time next year, the rest of the country will probably know what we already do: Matt Chapman is the best defensive third baseman in the American League. In fact, Baseball Prospectus says he’s already the best in all of baseball.

As a reminder, Chapman and Arenado went to the same high school, El Toro in Southern California. Please tell me someone has hired their infield coach by now.