It’s been a tough couple years for Matt Chapman.
The Oakland A’s third baseman factored into the MVP voting in each of 2018 and 2019, with an excellent bat and the best glove in the majors. But in 2020 he got hurt, requiring hip surgery that knocked him out for the rest of that season. He was able to get back on the field for the beginning of 2021, but typical prognosis for his injury recovery suggested he’d still be affected for at least some of this summer, before factoring in the rust of basically missing a year.
Overall, Chapman rebounded reasonably well this season. He played 151 games, passing the first test of simply staying healthy. He hit 27 homers, the second-highest total of his career so far. There’s a good chance he’ll win another Gold Glove. And he ranked second among A’s position players in both versions of WAR, around 3.5 on each scale, which symbolizes the range of a strong everyday starter but not quite an All-Star.
That’s far below the lofty baseline he set in his best years, especially now that he should be in his prime at age 28, but it was still a productive campaign relative to the average player. Unfortunately there was a significant weakness holding him back from more.
- Chapman, 2021: .210/.314/.403, 101 wRC+, 27 HR, 12.9% BB, 32.5% Ks
In 2018-19 he had his strikeout rate in the decent 22-24% range, but it shot up to a stratospheric 35% in his abbreviated 2020, and it stayed high this summer. The steady diet of whiffs helped suppress his batting average, and resulted in plenty of runners left on base when just some contact and a productive out would have helped.
Over the span of a full season, with 622 plate appearance, Chapman finished with 202 strikeouts. That’s an A’s franchise record.
- 202: Matt Chapman, 2021
- 197: Jack Cust, 2008
- 195: Khris Davis, 2017
- 185: Jack Cust, 2009
- 175: Jose Canseco, 1986
- 175: Khris Davis, 2018
- 171: Reggie Jackson, 1968
- 166: Khris Davis, 2016
- 164: Jack Cust, 2007
- 163: Matt Olson, 2018
Of course, the list is heavily weighted toward the last couple decades, as strikeouts have risen over time due to leaguewide changes in strategy. Only two of the 10 entries came before the 21st century, and both were future superstar sluggers cutting their teeth in their first full MLB seasons. Most of the list is just Cust and Davis playing Three True Outcomes.
Nobody from the Kansas City years shows up until 24th place, with Nelson Mathews at 143 in 1964. (Nelson’s son T.J. Mathews was later a reliever for Oakland, acquired in the Mark McGwire trade — McGwire tops out at 39th on the strikeout list in his rookie year, then never again higher than 66th.) You have to scroll down to 90th place to find a Philadelphia batter, Eddie Joost in 1947 with an MLB-leading 110, before he established himself as their longtime star shortstop.
The contrast in eras is made apparent by the fact that Chapman’s total of 202 wasn’t even enough to lead the majors this year. That distinction went to Joey Gallo with 213 in almost an identical number of plate appearances. Still, Chapman had the second-most this summer, and his total does crack the Top 15 of MLB history.
- 223: Mark Reynolds, 2009 ARZ
- 222: Adam Dunn, 2012 CHW
- 219: Chris Davis, 2016 BAL
- 217: Yoan Moncada, 2018 CHW
- 213: Joey Gallo, 2021 TEX/NYY
- 212: Chris Carter, 2013 HOU
- 211: Mark Reynolds, 2010 ARZ
- 211: Giancarlo Stanton, 2018 NYY
- 208: Chris Davis, 2015 BAL
- 208: Aaron Judge, 2017 NYY
- 207: Joey Gallo, 2018 TEX
- 206: Chris Carter, 2016 MIL
- 205: Drew Stubbs, 2011 CIN
- 204: Mark Reynolds, 2008 ARZ
- 202: Matt Chapman, 2021 OAK
That’s the entire 200 Strikeout Club, and they’re all from within the past 15 years. Four players have done it twice, and Reynolds three times, in a row. (Reynolds did also hit 104 homers those years.)
There have been five more near-misses of 199 strikeouts, including Ryan Howard twice, plus Dunn, (Chris) Davis, and rookie Kris Bryant. The 20th-century record, 189 by Bobby Bonds in 1970, stood for over three decades before Dunn broke it in 2004. “At least that is one Bonds I have a record over,” said Dunn at the time.
As for Chapman, this isn’t a list we particularly expected to see him on, even though it’s full of mostly good hitters. He had some strikeout issues as a prospect in the minors but appeared to have worked past them, and perhaps his teammatt, slugger Matt Olson, would have seemed a likelier candidate for induction if you’d asked last spring. But here we are.
What’s odd is that Chapman didn’t chase any more than he used to, and in fact remained one of the best in the league at not swinging outside the zone. But he began whiffing on pitches inside the zone, and his metrics plummeted against fastballs and breaking balls alike. Whether an issue of mechanics, or pitch recognition, or whatever, opponents could challenge him over the plate and beat him far more often than they used to.
He began heating up in August, with his surgery getting further in the rear-view mirror, but even as he went on a homer binge that month his strikeouts continued unabated. In September he went quiet again, batting .136 and posting his highest K-rate of any month this year. He said the following after the A’s were officially eliminated from postseason contention on Sept. 29, via Shayna Rubin of the Mercury News:
“For me, personally, I’m very upset with how I finished the season. I’m capable of more. It hurts when I feel like I could have done more to help this team and when I am playing at the level I usually do, I feel like I can help the team.”
Oakland had a winning record but a disappointing result in the standings, and similarly Chapman had a productive year but short of his past standards. Both of those outcomes offer plenty of motivation as work begins toward next season, and cutting down those strikeouts will be a key to bouncing back.
Fortunately, there’s good news. We’ve seen Chapman conquer strikeout issues before, when he first came up to the majors, so the idea isn’t purely a figment of our optimistic imagination. And he’s got a blueprint to follow in Olson, who just showed what slashing your strikeouts can do, reducing his rate by half and transforming from a .195 average in 2020 to MVP candidacy in 2021.
It’s been a tough couple of years for Chapman, and now he’s got a franchise record that nobody wants. But I wouldn’t bet against him next season.