The 2023 MLB season is almost a month old. That’s not enough time to make unequivocal conclusions, since the vast majority of stats are yet to stabilize.
However, it’s not an insignificant period of time, and three-plus weeks of stats are definitely not meaningless.
Having said that, it’s time to recognize what third baseman Matt Chapman is doing with the Toronto Blue Jays as they try to keep up with the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL East standings.
A trade piece coming from the Oakland Athletics before the 2022 season, he had a disappointing first year in a new uniform with a .229/.324/.433 line and a .757 OPS. He did have 55 extra-base hits, but people were starting to wonder how vulnerable he was as a hitter after finishing with a .210 average in 2021 and a .232 mark the year before.
You could say he was underachieving in recent years if we consider his vast potential, the one that led to an 8.3 WAR season in 2018 and a 6.6 finish when he was an All-Star in 2019. He decided it was time to modify some things with his swing and now he’s hitting at an MVP level in 2023.
Chapman is slashing a cool .364/.446/.659 with 11 doubles, five home runs and a 1.105 OPS from the cleanup spot. He’s also 10th in the American League with 18 RBIs, was named the AL Player of the Week after going 9 for 16 with three homers (including a grand slam) against the Los Angeles Angels and Detroit Tigers April 8-12, and has hit safely in his last four games (versus the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox).
His .467 wOBA ranks second in the major leagues, he’s tied for second in WAR with 1.7 (first in the American League) and leads the majors in batting WAR at 1.2. He also paces the league in OPS+ (209.6) and is tied for first in extra bases with 16.
What adjustments did he make? FanGraphs’ Esteban Rivera has written about him ditching a leg kick he had been using. He’s now implementing a gentle toe tap as a timing mechanism. This has helped his stride “to stay closed through foot strike and his feet to stay connected to the ground even after full knee extension,” according to Rivera. And this had led to an improvement in rotational direction.
Basically, his swing in recent seasons was not in perfect harmony when we examine each part. He used to over-rotate to his pull side and this could be part of the reason why he hit so many popups. He was fourth in popup percentage last year with an annoyingly high 13.1%.
Popups are the worst kind of batted ball because they are the easiest to field. They give defenders ample time to place themselves under the ball and make the play. At least some ground balls go through the infield for hits, right?
The adjustments he has made have helped him stay more balanced in his lower body and decrease his popup percentage to 6.3. Fewer popups, more line drives and more fly balls are a desirable outcome when you consider how often he hits the ball hard.
“I wasn’t making enough contact, I wasn’t driving the ball to right field and wasn’t behind the baseball as much,” Chapman told Sportsnet early in spring training. “I was kind of out and around and pulling the ball a lot. I wanted to get back to being able to use the whole field and be even more athletic in the box. I know I’m better than that.”
This year, Chapman is hitting 32.8% of balls to his pull side, 40.6% to the middle of the field and 26.6% to right field. The split was 44.8%/36.5%/18.8% last year.
Now, he is not only able to hit the ball the other way, but also to do it with authority:
Chapman is doing things extremely well at the plate, and there are ways to quantify that. Raw value (RV) is a stat that allows us to determine how good he has been considering every pitch, not just the outcome of the at-bat.
Total RV is a cumulative stat that combines plate skills quantity and quality of contact, and RV+ tells is how the hitter performs relative to his peers. In RV+, 100 is considered league-average performance, and higher is better.
Chapman leads MLB in RV+ (213) and ranks second in total raw value (13.6) behind only Paul Goldschmidt (13.7). This means that no one in baseball is doing a better job in the three stages of hitting: pitch recognition, making contact, and what happens after contact.
We can measure those with discipline+, contact+ and BIP+, respectively. Chapman’s 123 discipline+ is comfortably above the league average and good enough for ninth in baseball. It’s also a slight improvement on the 121 mark he had in 2022.
Making contact was a problem last year when the third baseman posted a slightly below-average 95 contact+. This year, he’s closer to the league average at 97.
The largest change has come in BIP+, a stat that tries to determine how much damage a hitter inflicts on contact. He was at 149 last year but has taken the number to an MLB-best 271 in 2023. He is really punishing the ball both at the Rogers Centre and on the road.
For some reason, Chapman, a right-handed hitter, batted just .245 with a .425 slugging percentage in 106 at-bats against left-handed pitchers last season. He particularly struggled vs. four-seam fastballs – the pitch he saw the most (214 pitches) against them. He had a 20 RV+ and a 9 BIP+, which is puzzling, to say the least. The sample size is still tiny, but he has been feasting on heaters thrown by southpaws this year with a 244 RV+ and a 256 BIP+.
Shockingly, the Victorville, California native’s defense hasn’t been its usual elite self in the early stages of the 2023 campaign. He ranks in the third percentile in outs above average, and we are talking about a guy who has won two Platinum Glove awards and three Gold Glove awards. Still, it’s reasonable to expect it to improve as the season advances.
All things considered, Chapman appears to have taken his game to another level offensively. A subtle change can make a huge difference, and he might be the latest example of that.
He’s now leading the league in many offensive categories and is having the best and most competitive at-bats in baseball. Quite a change for a guy who hasn’t been able to crack the .250 batting-average threshold since 2018.
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