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Can Matt Chapman Find Glove in a Turfless Place?

Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Chapman is the second-highest-ranked position player left on the free agent market, and few players have a more evocative reputation: Four Gold Gloves in five full major league seasons, plus various newfangled defensive awards like a Platinum Glove and the Wilson Overall Defensive Player of the Year. Chapman is like a movie that won the Oscar and the Palme d’Or, and you look at the DVD cover and see it also won Best Picture at the Inland Empire Film Critics Association Awards. Lots of people think he’s good.

Even if Chapman weren’t a great defender, he’d be a valuable free agent. He’s reliable: Since his first full year in the majors, 2018, he’s never missed more than 23 games in a season. He has a career wRC+ of 118, and he’s averaged 29 home runs per 162 games. Jeimer Candelario, who is seven months younger than Chapman and has had only one season as good as Chapman’s worst full campaign in the majors, just got $45 million over three years. Ben Clemens predicted that Chapman’s free agent contract would be $24 million a year over five years; the median crowdsource estimate was 4 years at $20 million per. I tend to trust Ben’s judgment more than that of the crowd, wise as the crowd may be.

But Chapman is, nevertheless, an interesting case: a high-strikeout hitter who doesn’t put up huge power numbers, and a glove-first player at a bat-first position. That’s a precarious profile when considering a player for a long-term contract into his mid-30s.

Defense can be an unpredictable thing, particularly at a position like third base that involves a lot of quick-twitch, explosive actions, flinging one’s body onto the ground, and hurtling ribs first into the dugout railing a couple times a week.

For most players, defensive value might fluctuate a little, but their true talent is close enough to league average that it doesn’t fundamentally change who they are as a player. A few runs either side of the median is not only not a big deal, it’s so hard to predict you might as well not bother. But an elite, consensus-best-in-baseball-type defender could be worth as much as two wins compared to an average one. Great defenders never get paid as much as equally valuable hitters, but clubs will play a premium for an above-average hitter who also provides value on defense. And when the latter disappears, it changes the value proposition.

Take J.T. Realmuto as an example. Defense at catcher is an entirely different proposition than defense at third base, but both Realmuto and Chapman are good-but-not-great hitters who demand star level consideration because of best-in-the-game-level defensive performance. More to the point from an economic perspective, both of them are great athletes in their early 30s, which is around the time the human body stops reacting well to being ridden hard and put away wet.

In 2022, Realmuto led all NL catchers in Defensive Runs Above Average, which along with a 128 wRC+ put him at 6.5 WAR, the most among major league catchers. In 10 years, nobody is going to remember how good Realmuto was because he got overshadowed in the playoffs, but he was not very far from having a legitimate NL MVP case. In 2023, Realmuto’s bat took a step back (maybe two steps, down to a 102 wRC+), and he was 32nd in Def out of 38 catchers with at least 500 defensive innings. That knocked him all the way down to 1.5 WAR.

It’s about as extreme an example as you’ll find, as Realmuto is not only getting older, but he also had to contend with a whole raft of rule changes that altered the most difficult part of his job.

The Phillies can’t be too worried about Realmuto, who’s entering the fourth year of his second contract with the team. But what about a team that’s looking to employ Chapman for the first time? Chapman doesn’t have quite as far to fall, and nothing in his statistical record says he’s about do anything of the sort, but what if he’s only a good defensive third baseman moving forward, rather than a great one?

When the Blue Jays traded for Chapman, he was coming off a monster season with the glove. Chapman’s 16.0 Def was the top mark in the league for a third baseman and 13th best at any position; he was the only corner player in the top 20 that year.

Over two seasons in Toronto, Chapman’s been good defensively — 4.6 and 5.7 Def — but not great. In 2022, he was the 11th-best defensive third baseman in baseball; in 2023, he was seventh.

What’s changed in that time? Well, obviously the shift rules impact how infielders defend their position. Plus, Ke’Bryan Hayes got called up in 2021 and ruined the curve for everyone else.

But Chapman also went from playing on natural grass to playing on the only AstroTurf field in the majors: an infield that turns groundballs into hits at a higher rate than any other ballpark he’d have to play on.

His first year in Toronto, Chapman’s average positioning was farther off the third base line than it had been in any of his seasons with Oakland. In 2023, with the shift out of play, it moved back toward the angle he’d been using previously, but a couple feet deeper, especially when compared to his first couple years in the majors. Positioning is not, in and of itself, a measure of defensive strength or weakness, but it’s interesting to see how Chapman moves around.

But does the Rogers Centre turf make it uniquely challenging to play third base in Toronto?

Toronto Blue Jays’ Third Base Defense, 2014-23

Man, that two-year Vladito–Travis Shaw period was pretty bleak, wasn’t it? Makes you understand why the Blue Jays traded for Chapman in the first place.

In the past two years, we have two individual instances of one defensive metric showing Toronto as having a positive outlier season. Let’s compare that to what the A’s have done. Not only did Chapman move from Oakland to Toronto, Josh Donaldson also made his way up Canseco Highway as well, giving us something approaching an apples-to-apples comparison.

Oakland Athletics’ Third Base Defense, 2014-23

Season Primary 3B Def Rank DRS Rank
2023 Jace Peterson 2.5 14 -13 29
2022 Vimael Machín -0.6 21 -4 20
2021 Matt Chapman 15.1 1 9 7
2020 Matt Chapman 2.2 10 2 9
2019 Matt Chapman 11.3 4 31 1
2018 Matt Chapman 7.1 6 21 1
2017 Matt Chapman 6.1 10 11 3
2016 Ryon Healy -3.4 24 -13 27
2015 Brett Lawrie -7.7 29 -9 25
2014 Josh Donaldson 11.7 4 15 3

Now, most ballparks of similar vintage and style to the Oakland Coliseum were originally carpeted with artificial turf — the playing surface at places like Veterans Stadium or Riverfront Park being legendary, or perhaps “notorious” is a better word — so I checked and made sure the Coliseum always had grass, at least for the past 10 years. That search brought up this 1992 incident, in which attendees of a Metallica-Guns N’ Roses double bill tore up the Coliseum’s playing surface and threw hunks of sod at one another.

The field having been replanted in the two decades since that fateful concert, Donaldson turned in a monster defensive season in 2014, and Chapman added several more in the late 2010s. Now, both players were younger, and presumably more spry and bouncy, in Oakland than in Toronto. But maybe there’s something to playing on turf that dulled Chapman’s sharpest defensive edges a little.

If Chapman is merely a good defender, rather than a great one, he’s still worth $20 million a year, and the market to sign him ought to be robust. But the margins for a player like this can be thin, and any team that’s interested in acquiring Chapman should have a plan to maximize his defensive utility before physical decline sets in.

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