What happened to Matt Chapman’s Defence in 2022?

Throughout his major league career, Matt Chapman has been regarded as one of the best, if not the best, defensive third baseman in the game. If you combine the 2017-2021 seasons, he leads DRS (Defensive Runs Saved), and Statcasts OAA (Outs Above Average) has him as second best behind Nolan Arenado. 

They are both generational talents and clearly a step up from the next-best defensive 3B, but their seemingly similar paths diverged in the 2022 season.

Arenado was once again one of the best only behind Ke’Bryan Hayes, who was robbed of the golden glove by Arenado for the second year in a row. But that’s a separate article. For both of the top public-facing defensive metrics to have Chapman ranked with less defensively competent third basemen, like Yoan Moncada and Eugenio Suarez, is a big surprise.

So what’s changed?

The obvious answer to that is that he now plays for a different team, which could mean slightly different positioning and different shift usages. Also, he plays at home on an artificial field inside a dome in Toronto compared to playing on the grass in the Californian sun. Let’s see what the stats tell us.

Shift usage and Positioning

As you can see, the Blue Jays in 2022 shifted more than the Athletics did in 2021 and has come almost entirely from shifting righties twice as much. The Blue Jays also faced more lefties, so even though the percentage shifted is very similar, they shifted against them 200 more times—so, more shifts, but what does that mean for Chapman?

Well, not actually much when it comes to Chapman. He basically sets up in an identical position against a right-handed hitter when the shift is on or not. He also has virtually the same average position for the Blue Jays as he did for the Athletics, so I don’t see this being a major issue.

Breaking Down DRS

The sites that have created these metrics enable us to break them down into subcategories, but they choose to do it in different manners.

DRS allows us to break it down into various categories, the direction of the play and the separate parts which make up DRS, like range and throwing. 

Looking through this, we can see that his range number is a bit lower than it was in the peak of 2018-19. It was actually better than it was in 2021, when he still managed to put up great numbers.  

What seems to be the major factor here is the runs saved from throwing, which had been as high as 12 previously and averaging around seven for the other years. In 2022, it was -3. If that was his usual average, he would have had a DRS around 12, which would have placed him fourth best. 

So how/why is his “throwing” costing him that much? He doesn’t seem to have any more errors than normal, actually, he has fewer, which can sometimes be a useful hint if a player is having issues throwing off target. We cannot get more from DRS, so let’s switch over to OAA and a few other Statcast metrics to look into this further.

Throwing a Spanner

If he’s not getting more errors due to throwing mistakes, let’s look to see if his arm strength has dropped. Thanks to a newly released and updated metric, we can now do this on Baseball Savant with its Arm Strength Leaderboard.

In 2021, Chapman ranked second on this metric for 3B with a speed of 87.0mph, only behind Manny Machado and 2mph faster than Arenado. Fast forward to 2022, and he still ranks second at 87.3mph, this time to Patrick Wisdom, and 2.3mph faster than Nolan.

So, his arm speed hasn’t dropped off, and he isn’t throwing so badly that he is giving up more errors. What’s going on? Let’s see if the breakdown’s available for OAA to see if we can get somewhere.

Understanding Estimated Success Rate

Baseball Savant gives you this brilliant tool to break down a fielder’s performance, here you can cut the data in a variety of ways and get the performance of the defender. It’s a tool you should all play around with to learn about how good (or bad) certain fielders are. The only limitation is for power users like me, who would just prefer to have the background data to play about with ourselves. If you want to learn more about OAA, I wrote a piece on it a while back, and I suggest you give that a perusal.

Using this tool, we can see how well Matt Chapman did against certain difficulties of balls in play, and we can work out how he accumulates his OAA. So, a bit of manual data collection later, we get this chart.

What this shows is what type of plays Matt Chapman previously excelled at. He wasn’t a defender that was making unbelievable plays; he was turning the chances which 60% or better, into outs at a better rate than his peers. In 2022, it looks like he wasn’t doing better than his peers on the play in the 65-90% range like he was doing before. 

A bit more of playing around the tool, and you will find that the majority of this is coming from plays where he is going in on the play. He was 5 OAA on plays like that (65-90%) in 2021 and 0 OAA in 2022.

This potential brings us right back to what I originally suspected, and maybe he hasn’t got used to playing on the artificial surface, and maybe the constant switch between the two is hurting him. 

So, we know he isn’t making those plays. Let’s see if we can see some examples of how players are getting on base when the ball comes to him.

Maybe it’s the transfer

Now we know what we are looking for, we can hit the Savant search tool and try and find some examples of what might be going wrong. Using Chapman’s usual starting positions, I searched and watch over 50 plays. I might have found something very interesting. Watch these three plays.

This may very well be selection bias, but that’s three transfer mistakes by Chapman on plays where he has made it to the ball. Is this our golden apple? Have I worked out what went wrong?

Maybe but probably not. It’s hard to get into the gritty details here because we just don’t have all the defensive data publicly available, so this isn’t going to be a hill I will die on, but something I’ll definitely point to if someone else asks what’s up with Chapman’s defence.

What does the future hold?

If it is just a transfer problem, then that is something which Toronto and Chapman should easily be able to work on. He still has the range he did before, and he still has the arm. With work, I’d imagine we’d see Chapman going back to the top end of defensive 3B in MLB.

The publicly available metrics are split for 2023, but it is very early to take much significance from this data yet. (2 DRS and -3 OAA).

It would be remiss of me to go through this whole article without mentioning that Chapman did have surgery for a hip issue in 2020, but given his numbers were good in 2021, I doubt this is the cause unless it has made some recurrence we don’t know about.

Featured image of Matt Chapman by Richard Lautens/Toronto Star

Russell is Bat Flips and Nerds’ resident analytical genius, and arguably Europe’s finest sabermetrician.  If you’re not following Russell on Twitter @REassom then you’re doing baseball wrong.

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