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Matt Chapman leads baseball in WAR, and other small-sample fun

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The A’s lineup is getting serious.

The WAR Machine
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Oakland A’s have played 13 games this year, which means we’re still in the thick of small-sample statistical silliness. The club is 5-8 overall, but Pythagoras suggests they deserve to be 6-7 and the eyeball knows they could have been 8-5 with some proper adult defense. Only time will tell the true story, but for now we can enjoy some exaggerated early-season numbers. (Click here to see the last installment.)

Matt Chapman: WAR Machine

Actually, this one isn’t necessarily an April fluke. We already knew Chapman is a monster on the defensive side of the ball, after he shattered the advanced metrics in his debut last summer. Now he’s also realizing his potential on offense, which was always present but never as sure of a guarantee as his glove.

Chapman’s wRC+ ranks eighth among qualified MLB hitters so far. On one hand, his .371 BABIP will surely drop, but on the other hand his 18.2% strikeout rate is much lower than expected. His biggest question mark was always his ability to consistently make contact, but his 7.9% swinging-strike rate is one of the lowest on the team and significantly better than league average (10.6%). I’m more encouraged by those contact skills than I am apprehensive about the batted-ball luck, especially considering he’s the team leader in homers on a club that includes Khris Davis and Matt Olson (and he’s 7th in MLB in average exit velocity).

Add it all up, and Chapman has already accrued one full WAR, after just 8% of the season.

# fWAR bWAR
1 Chapman (1.1) Dickerson (1.3)
2 Gregorius (1.0) Chapman (1.2)
3 Trout (0.9) Trout (1.2)
4 Harper (0.9) Simmons (1.1)
5 Judge (0.9) Gregorius (1.0)

Chapman leads MLB in fWAR so far, and he’s just a tick behind Corey Dickerson in bWAR thanks to some wonky defensive valuation (Dickerson is already +6 in DRS, which I promise is a fluke that will regress heavily). If you combine the two WAR scales, Chapman comes out ahead at 2.3, leading Mike Trout (2.1), Dickerson (2.0), and Didi Gregorius (2.0).

None of this matters so early in the season, but Athletics Nation has high hopes for Chapman and there’s not really a better start you can have than leading the world in WAR. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come.

Piscotty grounded

On the down side, Stephen Piscotty is still off to a wretched first impression in green and gold. He’s not hitting at all, with no on-base ability or power, leading to a wRC+ of 46. He’s also been clumsy and ineffective on defense.

However, here’s one sign for hope. Piscotty leads all qualified MLB hitters with a 74.3% groundball rate, and there is nothing in his career history to suggest that’s real. His career mark is 46.6%, his career-high is 49.2%, and when he was coming up through Triple-A it was even lower. Failure to get the ball in the air is simply not a problem he’s ever had, and there’s no reason to expect that he’s suddenly forgotten how to elevate. More likely, he’ll eventually come around and find his groove.

As always there are no guarantees, but when a player is slumping early it’s nice to be able to point at one really weird cause that is likely unsustainable.

Team effort

The A’s are still only about average in terms of scoring, with their 4.62 runs per game ranking 12th (league average is 4.31). It’s not for lack of opportunity, though.

Oakland ranks third in MLB with a 117 wRC+, behind only the Angels (137, wtf) and Pirates (129, led by breakouts from Dickerson and Gregory Polanco). That success is partly fueled by a league-best .323 BABIP, with only mediocre rates of walks and isolated slugging. On the other hand, the lineup may not have fully hit its stride yet and there are still exciting young reinforcements to look forward to.

It truly is a team effort, as well. Six of the everyday starters have above-average wRC+ marks (Chapman 205, Lowrie 171, Olson 135, Joyce 133, Khrush 119, Semien 104), while both catchers are around average. Only Piscotty and the makeshift CF options are below average, and top prospect Dustin Fowler could wind up fixing one of those weak spots when he eventually makes the jump to Oakland.

Now for the odd part: The A’s are ninth in batting average with runners in scoring position, and 11th in OPS w/ RISP. That’s mostly thanks to their big day on Wednesday, which raised their RISP average from .215 to .261 (and from bottom-third in the league to top-third). They’re still among the worst at driving in the runner from third base with less than two out (9 RBI in 23 PAs). They’ll need to consistently improve in those areas if they want their excellent hitting to help them score runs and win games.

Pitching

Don’t ask, it’s as bad as you think it is. Just follow High-A Stockton’s rotation instead and pretend they’re in Oakland.

Here are the nicest things I can think to say right now:

  • The bullpen is only 12th in innings, and most of the teams above them on that list have played fewer games than the A’s. You’d expect them to lead this category given their lack of workhorse starters.
  • The rotation has the worst strand rate in baseball (62.2% LOB, league is at 73.4%). That will probably get better as time goes on, especially since the bullpen has been only bad (not terrible) at holding inherited runners (39% scored).
  • The bullpen has blown only one save so far (11 save/hold chances), and even that one was really Chapman’s fault thanks to a key defensive error. That’s the very definition of “fluky things we’re not worried will happen again.”
  • The staff still has the lowest walk rate in baseball (2.02 BB/9, or 5.3% of batters).

Now the pitchers travel to Safeco (yay!) to face Seattle’s 7th-ranked 110 wRC+ (aww).