Matt Chapman is having a peculiar year. His slash line of .246/.285/.578 is extremely hard to make sense of. Obviously, the gargantuan slugging percentage he is posting is great, but an OBP below the .300 mark is terrible. Chapman has become very boom or bust. If he hits the ball? Great! It’s more likely than not going to be an extra base hit. But when he’s not getting those extra base hits, he’s waving at strike three, unable to make contact. It’s a strange transformation, one of the league’s best all-around hitters becoming a two true outcome guy.
For Chapman in 2020, it’s XBH or bust. His ISO of .328, a career best, is 12th in MLB, ahead of MVP candidates Mike Trout and Mike Yastrzemski. But his OBP, a mark of .289 and a career low, is 137th in the major leagues among qualified batters. It’s an interesting situation for Chapman, because in many ways he is having a career year, though his wRC+ doesn’t show it. His mark of 125 is the same as his 2019 season, but his xwOBA (.371), xwOBACON (.532), and barrel percentage (18.1%) are far and away career bests.
Chapman’s improved outcomes aren’t a product of increased aggression (his swing percentage of 45.3% in 2020 isn’t a notable change from his career norm of 42.2%), nor is it derived from hitting the ball harder (his average exit velocity of 93.3 this year isn’t too far out of line with his career average of 92.4, and his current hard hit percentage of 50.6% is very close to the 49.0% he posted in 2019). What we can point the finger at for Chapman’s drastic rise in results is a significant increase in his launch angle. He went from a 17 degree career launch angle (pre-2020) to a 25 degree launch angle so far this year.
Chapman never suffered from Eric Hosmer-itis, having a launch angle low enough to prevent you from getting the most out of well struck balls, but he was predominantly a ground ball hitter which limited his power. Now, with a retooled swing, Chapman has lowered his ground ball rate from 41.7% in 2019 to 24.1% this year. However, he hasn’t replaced his ground balls with fly balls. His fly ball rate has also seen a decline, from 28.0% in 2019 to 19.3% in 2020. Instead, Chapman has been driving the ball. Quite literally. His line drive rate has skyrocketed to a 38.6% rate, and has helped lead Chapman to this career-best year. He’s also started pulling the ball more, going from a 38.7% pull rate to 45.8%. It’s a less drastic change, but still an important one to note. These changes are why Chapman is ninth in the MLB in both xSLG and xwOBACON. Instead of improving by hitting the ball harder, Chapman has started to hit the ball smarter.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for Chapman. He’s walking less and striking out more, which is unfortunate. Chapman was never the best when it came to drawing walks and avoiding the K, but you could never call it a weakness. Since his debut in 2017 to 2019, his career BB% and K% of 10.0 and 24.6 respectively were perfectly respectable compared to the MLB average of 8.5 BB% and 22.3 K%.
This year, that’s all changed. His strikeout rate has jumped all the way to 31.9% and the rate at which he draws walks has fallen to just 5.9%. The cause of this problem is hard to diagnose. Like I said before, Chapman’s swing rate hasn’t seen an increase. Pitchers aren’t pitching him any differently. But his swinging strike rate has shot up drastically, from a 9.2% mark in 2019 to the 14.2% mark he’s sporting right now. Pitches he would hit before are now pitches he misses swinging at. His contact rate has fallen from 77.7% in 2019 to 68.6% in 2020. Sitting in the 22nd percentile for whiff rate and 16th percentile for K rate is not good, and will inevitably put a cap on your productivity.
Maybe this is just an anomaly from the shortened season that will smooth itself out, or maybe it’s a byproduct of Chapman’s new swing. There is a chance Chapman adjusts to his new swing and lays off of the pitches that his new swing makes difficult to hit. If he does, and goes back to his 2017-2019 walk and strikeout rates, he would be one of the best players in baseball on both sides of the ball. But, maybe this is the new normal. Maybe Matt Chapman becomes like Joey Gallo, a skilled hitter who crushes the balls he hits, but more often than not doesn’t make contact.
It’s a tough pickle for Chapman and the A’s. You don’t want to tell Chapman to go back to swinging his old way, because he’s getting great results when he hits the ball with this new swing. But those results might always have a ceiling to them, with a shrunken walk rate and elevated strikeout rate. Chapman was already a very skilled hitter. These changes can make him into one of the best. Emphasis on can.