Today is Matt Chapman’s 27th birthday. It’s certain that he didn’t plan to spend it lightyears away from Major League Baseball parks, but that’s where things are in this age of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
The A’s have seen their third baseman go in 2½ seasons from prospect to an All-Star and perhaps the best defensive player in the game, regardless of position. He’s won not just Gold Gloves for his work at third base but back-to-back American League Platinum Gloves, which goes to the league’s best overall defender.
(Fun fact: The winner of the Platinum Award in the National League the last two years in Nolan Arenado, also a third baseman and a player who was two years ahead of Chapman at Southern California’s El Toro High. For the record, in 2009 when Arenado was a senior and Chapman a sophomore, both were shortstops, and Chapman only started when Arenado pitched.)
It’s clear that Chapman, who hit 36 homers to tie for the A’s team lead with first baseman Matt Olson, is a special player.
Just how special is in many ways a matter of opinion, but on Twitter Tuesday @cespedesbbq pointed out Chapman is one of just three players in history to record two seasons of 8.0+ bWAR (wins above replacement as calculated by Baseball-reference.com) in the first three years of a career.
One is the impeccably named Snuffy Stirnweiss, who was a breakout star with the Yankees during World War II but whose career cratered after the war was over. The other in Mike Trout, generally seen as the best all-around player in the game today.
When looking at players with a bWAR of 8.0 or better twice in the first four years of a career, there are some interesting names that come into the mix. Names like Albert Pujols and Cal Ripken Jr. and Willie Mays and Ralph Kiner and Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio.
Those are some seriously stellar names. Mays might be the best player the game has ever seen. Williams might be the best hitter. DiMaggio is a legend among legends in New York. Ripken helped redefine the shortstop position while playing longer without missing a game than anyone in MLB history. Kiner is a Hall of Fame outfielder who only played 10 years, but who averaged 37 homers a season and led the NL in homers his first seven big league seasons. Pujols is a can’t-miss Hall of Famer when his name first appears on the ballot.
And then there’s Matt Chapman, who has a bWAR of 8.3 each of the last two seasons, keeping in mind that only eight bWAR of 8.0 have been recorded the last two seasons.
Manager Bob Melvin likes to say that Chapman is always one swing away from putting the ball in the seats, and says “he will be in the MVP conversation for years to come.” But the manager also says that there are things about his third baseman that drive him a little bonkers.
At the top of the list is the way that Chapman plays deep behind the bag. He plays so deep and with such success that third basemen in both leagues are starting to follow suit. Of course, not all of them have Chapman’s ability to race in on balls hit slowly down the line.
“He drives me crazy with how deep he plays,” Melvin admitted last year. “I hate bunt hits. A guy will drop a bunt, and just when I’m about to get mad, (Chapman) will throw him out by a half-step at first base.”
When Chapman will once again be able to dazzle on defense or jack one into the seats no one can say.
We can say it can’t come soon enough.
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