The Oakland A’s and Colorado Rockies are playing this week, and that means a showdown between the two best third basemen in the sport: Matt Chapman and Nolan Arenado. Sure, Alex Bregman and Anthony Rendon really make it a top quartet, since that pair are both superior hitters and MVP finalists who met in the World Series last year, but they can’t match up when it comes to the task of actually playing third base.
It’s well-known that Chapman and Arenado were high school teammates, at El Toro High School down in Orange County. But that’s only the beginning of the eerie connection between these two.
Not only are Chapman and Arenado both MLB stars, at the same position, from the same hometown, they’re also virtually identical as players.
Begin with their defense. It’s not just that they’re both good fielders, it’s that they’re the best defenders in the sport at any position. That’s not just my opinion either, as there’s an actual award that measures this, with a nationwide fan vote. Arenado won the NL Platinum Glove the last three years running, and Chapman won the AL version each of the last two summers, which are also his only full seasons in the majors so far. Sure, fan votes aren’t perfect, but when they consistently choose players from Oakland and Colorado, that says something.
There are also other more scholarly awards, even beyond the Gold Glove, which neither player has ever not won in any season of their careers — Arenado has seven, and Chapman only missed in his rookie year because he debuted too late to be eligible for the voting. Chapman came out on top for the last two MLB-wide Fielding Bible awards at third base, but Arenado earned the three before that. And on and on.
Chapman may be generationally great at third base, but he’s not entirely alone. I think he’s slightly better than Arenado, and so do the panel of top experts for the Fielding Bible, but the point is they’re peers. It’s possible that two of the best three 3B defenders in history are playing right now. And they do it the same way, with impossible range in every direction, superhuman throwing arms, and the boldness, aggressiveness, reflexes, and IQ to maximize it all.
So that’s one side of the ball. What about offense?
If you just look at the surface numbers, it appears Arenado has Chapman beat easily. He’s got an extra 57 points of OPS, and three 40-homer seasons while Chappy has topped out at 36. If you’re into RBI, Arenado has three years of 130+ and five over 100, while Chapman has never reached triple digits in a good A’s lineup.
But there is crucial context within those raw stats, even beyond the fact that Arenado has enjoyed more of his prime already while the younger Chapman is only starting his. Arenado has played his career at the notorious Coors Field, a hitter’s paradise with its thin mountain air, while Chapman has spent his in the suppressive Coliseum, with its thick marine layer and expansive foul territory. If we use more advanced, controlled, and/or isolated metrics, the story changes. Here are a few career marks.
That’s a lot closer than their homer totals would suggest, and there are further explanations for what little discrepancy you see above.
The wRC+ is adjusted for league and park, and Chapman actually comes out ahead. Arenado has the edge in Statcast’s xwOBA, but there’s an asterisk because the numbers only go back to 2015, which leaves out his relatively weaker first two years before his prime kicked in — factor those in, and it’s probably closer to a tie.
Chapman has the higher walk rate, but the once-aggressive Arenado has improved there and has now been at that same 10% level for the last four years, though his career mark hasn’t quite caught up. Chapman also strikes out more (23.9% vs. 15.2%), but that’s partly just because he works longer at-bats — they swing-and-miss at nearly equal rates, with Arenado surprisingly measuring in slightly higher.
When they do make contact, they get the same results. Their BABIP is identical, with Arenado’s lower K-rate explaining his higher batting average. Their ISO, which stands for isolated slugging percentage (slugging minus batting average), shows them with similar power results, again remembering that Arenado’s isn’t adjusted for Coors. In order to break the tie, you have to go to Statcast, where Chapman has the healthy edge in both barrel percentage and hard-hit rate.
If I had to pick between them overall, I’d go with Chapman. The unbiased experts prefer him on defense, and he gets the edge on offense because they’re already tied before Chapman even fully gets into his prime years. But the point here isn’t to have a contest, it’s that it’s even close enough to require the conversation in the first place. Rockies fans would surely put Arenado on top, and they’d be able to make a convincing case for that opinion. It’s uncanny.
When I’m gauging how ridiculous something might be, one way I like to think of it is this: If I saw this happen in a movie, would I scoff at how contrived and unrealistic the writing is? Would it seem like everything just lined up too perfectly in a way that natural coincidence could never achieve?
In this case, the answer is yes. If you made a Hollywood film about two baseball players who grew up together on the same high school team, who both made the majors and then rose to become two of the sport’s top superstars while playing the same position, and were both equally good at everything, I’d be like, yeah right. That stuff doesn’t happen in real life. But that’s what we’ve got here — real life being stranger than fiction.
I suppose in the movie they’d have to face off in an epic World Series clash, in which their full range of talents were on frequent display as they carried their respective teams to a stalemate, until a dramatic Game 7 play centrally involving both of them to decide it. Followed by some memorably heartwarming exchange between them to call back to an earlier scene of a formative moment from their youth. And Kevin Costner is probably there.
Check back in October, because the writing for all of 2020 in general has been hacky and this year jumped the shark months ago, so that Chapenado script certainly isn’t impossible.