Blue Jays’ Matt Chapman Reaching New Heights In Advance Of His Free Agency

While Matt Chapman was cutting his teeth as a young regular with the Oakland Athletics, I envisioned him as one of the best rising stars in the game, with an MVP on top. The clear pluses to his game were right in your face – he broke the baseball and moved like a cat at the hot corner, with exceptional first-step quickness, sure hands and a strong throwing arm. All he had to do was make the typical subtle enhancements around the edges that most young stars do in their formative years.

The only negative that could be held against Chapman early on was that he only made his MLB debut at 24 years old. Most young guys, even if they were drafted in college like the A’s in the 2014 1st round, make it to the majors at a younger age. So they could be forgiven for thinking that Chapman might lack a significant edge beyond the performance level he showed immediately after his promotion.

But that early standard was good enough. In 2018, Chapman’s first full season, he posted a 137 wRC+ and showed signs of further upside. His K/BB profile (23.7% K, 9.4% BB rate) was around league average. He crushed all types of balls – his 92.9 mph fly ball, 99.3 mph liner and 93.0 mph grounder average exit velocity were materially above the league average. Flies were hit over half a standard deviation, liners over a full standard deviation and grounders over two standard deviations heavier than the league average. Such a profile would indicate that there was more power in the tank. In addition, the defense was special – he won his first Gold Glove that season.

And in 2019, Chapman somehow got better. The K/BB profile tightened a bit (22.1 K, 11.1% BB rate). He has shifted his batting authority to the appropriate ball types, with his fly balls now over a standard deviation and liners now over two standard deviations heavier than average. Overall, his numbers took a bit of a hit as his line rate dropped to the 3rd percentile among all MLB regulars. It was a one-year breakdown – his ceiling was as high as ever. Plus, he won another Gold Glove.

Then the next step just didn’t happen. In the 2020 season shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic, he broke the baseball harder than ever — when he hit it. Chapman was floored by the implosion in his K/BB profile – his 35.5% K rate and 5.3% BB rate were and still are career worsts. On top of that, he’s become an extreme grounder for the first time in his career, inviting a switch and adding even more batting average risk.

In 2021, the BB rate regressed upwards, but the increase in K proved to be real as it only slightly improved to 32.9%. Chapman was now a low average, 200+ K dead pull occasional hitter who didn’t impact baseball as severely as he once did. During spring training in 2022, the A’s traded him to Toronto for a much more common package of prospects than they might have received a year earlier. The rival Jays were getting two years of Chapman’s services before his impending free agency after the 2023 season.

On the surface, his first year in Toronto didn’t look like much of an improvement — a .229-.324-.433 line and solid defense — but there were some very positive trends that took root.

First, there was a significant improvement in his K rate. The 27.4% K rate was still over half a standard deviation higher than the league average, but significantly down from his rare 2020-21 levels.

Second, he is finally back hitting all types of balls. While his 94.9 mph fly ball, 97.8 mph, and 89.9 mph exit velocities were all short of career highs, they were all over a standard deviation higher than the league average. He hasn’t been able to do that since 2019.

He has built on all those strengths so far in 2023 and appears to be in the process of reaching a new career high. He lowered his strikeout rate — a career-long problem — to 3.8%. 5.5% is his previous season low, and that was in his first full season in 2018. His 12.3% strikeout rate in 2020 is the highest I’ve ever seen. The K rate has continued its downward trend, at 25.9% so far in 2023. He’s also spraying the ball all over the ground for the first time in years. Chapman is giving away free cars at a much lower rate than ever before.

Then there is the contact authority. There isn’t much of a difference between the way Aaron Judge impacted baseball in his MVP season in 2022 and the way Chapman is doing it this season. Overall, Judge 2022 has an edge of 95.8 to 95.2 mph. On fly balls, Judge 2022 has an edge of 99.2 to 97.8 mph, while Chapman 2023 is ahead on liners (102.1 to 100.2 mph) and grounders (91.6 to 89.9 mph).

Oddly, Chapman’s mainstream numbers for 2023 really don’t fully reflect how well he’s performed. He somehow only hits .278 AVG-.778 SLG in the air despite his thunderous ball strike. On the other hand, he is much better on the line (.870 AVG-1.348 SLG) and grounders (.471 AVG-.588 SLG). Taken together, however, Chapman’s raw numbers understate his excellence. He “should” be hitting .293-.373-.602 to date for a 182 “Tru” Production+, significantly better than his current 160 wRC+.

Yes, his .315 batting average in Monday games is a bit of a mirage thanks mostly to his grounders finding more than their share of holes, but his .537 SLG doesn’t even come close to reflecting the hell he unleashes on pitchers.

Chapman emerged as a worthy rival to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as the most dangerous weapon in the Blue Jays’ deep lineup. This increases the Jays’ chances in a strong AL East and to make a deep playoff run. It could also make him the most attractive target on the free agent market this winter, and ultimately one of the richest players in baseball.

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Forbes – Business

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