Earlier this season Matt Chapman surprised nearly everyone when he stood atop the fWAR leaderboard as the best position player in baseball. He has since nestled into a tie with Mitch Haniger and Asdrubal Cabrera for 7th place at 1.5 fWAR. However, it isn’t merely his defense that is propping him up as most would have told you before the start of the 2018 season. While Chapman has remained among the game’s elite defenders, and not just at the third base position, it was his improvement on offense that has rocketed him up the leaderboards.
Chapman’s wRC+ and wOBA both sit within the top-5 of MLB third baseman. He is hitting for power without sacrificing too much in the way of batting average on on-base percentage, also his great speed allows him to take the extra base when needed (he is tied for the MLB lead in triples with 3 and his 0.9 UBR is in the top-10). Chapman is one of the game’s premier young players whether the rest of baseball has noticed, or not.
One key element of Chapman’s game that seems to fueling his ascent up most leaderboards is his plate discipline. He always posted strong walk rates in the minor leagues, and in his half-season in 2017 his walk rate was above average.
His walk rate is up one point while his strikeout rate is down a whopping 5 points. That’s a tremendous improvement over what was already borderline league average plate discipline.
|2017||9.8 %||28.2 %||0.35|
|2018||10.9 %||23.5 %||0.46|
|2018 MLB Average||9.0 %||22.7 %||0.40|
Why is Chapman suddenly walking more and striking out less? It’s simple: he’s swinging less. The biggest difference is coming on balls outside of the zone as Chapman has become a more disciplined hitter by not swinging at those pitches as often, but when he does he is hitting them more often.
Chapman’s Plate Discipline
|2018 MLB Average||29.40%||66.20%||45.40%||62.00%||85.00%||76.60%||43.50%||59.90%||10.60%|
Unlike 2017, Chapman seems to be hitting baseballs all over the zone, as well. You can see in the 2017 heatmap below that Chapman liked pitches in one particular area, whereas in the 2018 image you see a much wider range:
Chapman’s improved discipline is an even more welcome change when coupled with the fact that he hits the ball really hard when he makes contact. Among MLB hitters with at least 70 batted-ball events Chapman ranks 25th in hard-hit percentage with 44.7% of balls in play hit at 95+MPH, as measured by Stacast. His average exit velocity of 91.9 MPH is good for 17th in baseball and his 9 barrels are tied with Bryce Harper for 22nd in baseball. Lastly, his average distance of 190 feet is good for 25th in baseball. It is no wonder we’ve seen a uptick in production from the third baseman as hard contact more often obviously leads to good results.
Additionally, Chapman seems to be making the most of his power but pulling more of the balls he puts in play.
Chapman’s Batted Balls
|2017||34.5 %||38.5 %||27.0 %|
|2018||42.1 %||30.3 %||27.6 %|
All but two of his extra base hits have been to his pull side, and the majority of his hard-hit balls have been to that aside as well.
There is a lot to like about Chapman’s profile currently, especially the gains he’s made in the way of plate discipline. However, we are just a month in to the 2018 season so it is a development that still needs work from Chapman if it is to stick around, and it needs monitoring from us as it signals that Chapman is on his way to being even better than most imagined.