- Matt Chapman is among the headliners in one of the deepest talent pools baseball has ever seen at third base. That's good news for the A's, who are on another remarkable run in the second half of this season.
OAKLAND — Quick: name the best third baseman in baseball. For four years that quick answer would be Nolan Arenado of Colorado. That no longer is the default choice, not with one of the deepest classes of third basemen the game has seen in the expansion era, including Matt Chapman of Oakland.
Two years ago, when he first arrived in the major leagues with an Athletics team that went 75-87, Chapman made an admission to his manager, Bob Melvin.
“This is hard for me,” Chapman said.
He wasn’t talking about the skill level required to play Major League Baseball. Recalled Melvin, “He said, ‘I’ve never played on a losing team before–ever.’ This guy won in the minor leagues. He has won his whole life. The next year we won 97 games.
“When you look at our team, the young guys are the leaders. Chad Pinder is a leader. Matt Chapman is a leader. Matt Olson is a leader. We allow them to be themselves.”
With Chapman leading the way (slugging .638 this month), Oakland is winning again at the right time. The A’s, who went 42-23 last year in the second half, are 21-12 since the All-Star break, including a huge series win over Houston in which they took three out of four. They are 1 1/2 games out of the second wild card and begin a three-game series against the Yankees at home on Tuesday.
Chapman had a breakout season last year, his first full season, when he led all third basemen in Wins Above Replacement and finished seventh in MVP voting. This season Chapman made his first All-Star team, already has set career highs in home runs (29) and RBI (70), is fourth in the league in extra-base hits and is such an extraordinary defender that he has redefined how the third base position is played.
Chapman and Alex Bregman of Houston are the new pacesetters in what is becoming a new golden age at third base. The slugging percentage at the position has never been higher than it is this year (.463; insert your own disclaimer here about the aerodynamic baseballs).
Bregman leads all third basemen in WAR and is one of only three players with more walks than strikeouts (also Carlos Santana and Mookie Betts). Rafael Devers leads the AL in hits, doubles and RBI. Eduardo Escobar shares the NL lead in RBI. Anthony Rendon leads all third basemen in OPS and Eugenio Suarez in home runs. Kris Bryant is an All-Star again and approaching his MVP numbers of 2016. Three of the top nine OPS hitters are third basemen (Rendon, Devers and Bregman).
Take a look at the major league leaders in WAR at third base (minimum two-thirds of games played at the position), and you’ll notice the field is so deep that the top seven don’t even include the two highest paid third basemen in baseball history, Manny Machado ($300 million) and Arenado ($260 million). Also missing the cut are Gio Urshela, Jose Ramirez, Yoan Moncada, Suarez, Evan Longoria and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
WAR Leaders, Third Basemen
|1. Alex Bregman, Astros||25||5.9|
|2. Matt Chapman, A's||26||5.8|
|3. Rafael Devers, Red Sox||22||4.9|
|4. Anthony Rendon, Nationals||29||4.4|
|5. Josh Donaldson, Braves||33||4.2|
|6. Justin Turner, Dodgers||37||3.7|
|7. Kris Bryant, Cubs||27||3.6|
Arenado in the past four seasons ranked fourth, first, fifth and fifth, and now he’s down to eighth–and that’s still with an OPS better than .900 for a fourth straight year.
Is this the greatest depth at the position in the modern game? It’s at least one of them, especially because the youth at this position makes this class all the more impressive. To be the best golden age these guys will have to compete against classes such as these in the expansion era:
1971: Nine third basemen among the league’s 24 teams posted a WAR of 4.0 or better, a record for such a percentage. The group included Sal Bando, Graig Nettles, Tony Perez, Brooks Robinson and Joe Torre.
1983: The only season with four future first-ballot Hall of Famers with a WAR of at least 4.0: Wade Boggs, George Brett, Paul Molitor and Mike Schmidt.
2006: Third basemen posted a combined OPS of .805, the highest in recorded history at the position. The best of the lot were Adrian Beltre, Miguel Cabrera, Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez and David Wright.
Houston manager A.J. Hinch likes to challenge Bregman each series by telling him he expects him to outplay the opposing third baseman. Watching Bregman and Chapman go at it over the weekend in Oakland was a showcase of the two best third basemen in baseball right now. Bregman, because he strikes out less and gets on base more, is the slightly better hitter (140 OPS+ to 130). Chapman is the slightly better fielder.
Chapman played behind Arenado as a sophomore at El Toro High School in Lake Forest, Calif. As a 5-foot-11, 186-pound senior, Chapman went undrafted. So he enrolled at Cal State Fullerton, where as a kid he worked as bat boy, watching guys like Kurt Suzuki and Justin Turner (another former Fullerton batboy). By the time he left, Chapman was listed as 6-2, 210 and when the A’s selected him with the 25th pick of the 2014 draft, Chapman declared as a matter of fact, “I was the best third baseman in college baseball” that season. (Chapman was the only third baseman drafted in the first round that year.)
As Chapman and Olson (2012 first round) developed in the minors, the A’s knew they were the building blocks of their next winning team. Both are power hitters who also are premier defenders. With a healthy Ramon Laureano in centerfield and a vastly improved Marcus Semien at shortstop, Oakland is one of the best defensive teams in baseball. Only the Astros are better at turning batted balls into outs and holding opponents to a lower batting average on balls in play.
Chapman takes hits away by playing third base deeper than anybody ever had on a regular basis. He starts in an exaggerated crouch and plays the position with angles to the ball like a shortstop, rather than the traditional “step-and-a-dive” side-to-side movement of most third basemen. Bregman has adopted the same strategy, a technique that only works because of a strong arm and quick feet.
“You can’t bunt on him,” Semien said. “He has this knack of being able to read the hitter and know when he’s bunting, and when he does read it he’s incredibly quick coming in. I’ve seen him do it many times.”
“There was one game,” Melvin said, “when Dee Gordon was up. I was looking at Matt and going like ‘C’mon. Move up, move up.’ And he just nods to me like, ‘Don’t worry. I got it.’ Dee Gordon puts down a perfect bunt. And you know how that guy can fly. Matt is all over it, makes a perfect play and throws him out.
“By playing so deep, he gets to balls and makes plays in places nobody else does. That’s why his defensive metrics are off the charts.”
Semien has improved his own defensive game, he said, because of Chapman. Semien has adopted a modified version of the Chapman pre-pitch crouch–an unusual position for a shortstop–and is playing a step or two closer to second base this year, in part because Chapman covers so much ground to Semien’s right.
“I feel like more balls are hit up the middle than in the 5.5 hole,” Semien said. “And with Chappy there, I can give hitters a little more of that side and take away hits up the middle.”
The A’s are a fun team to watch when they get on these second-half runs. They hit home runs, they defend the field extraordinarily well and they run the bases smartly. And now their pitching is being reinforced.
The trades for starters Tanner Roark and Homer Bailey have helped so much Oakland isn’t yet sure what to do about Sean Manaea as he completes his minor league rehab. Lefty A.J. Puk is likely to join the club soon as a 6-foot-7 version of Josh Hader. Jesus Luzardo could be an option as a piggy-back starter. And relievers Lou Trivino and Blake Treinen, the backbone of the bullpen last year, have rediscovered their best stuff in the past two weeks in what have been down years.
To get back to the postseason for a second straight year, based on how Cleveland and Tampa Bay are playing, Oakland must reach about 94 wins. That would require a 23-14 finish in these final 37 games–and Chapman to keep playing a leading role.