Matt Chapman’s unfinished enterprise with the Bay

Matt Chapman didn’t leave his heart in San Francisco, but it’s clear that something was left behind after he was traded from the cross-Bay A’s to Toronto before the 2022 season. In the press conference announcing his signing, the 30-year-old California native felt like the Giants—though a different team in a different league in a different city—was a return, one written in the stars with “unfinished business” to attend to.

Once you leave home, you can never go back—truer words for one of the recent A’s diaspora, but the 2024 San Francisco Giants look somewhat close. Same state, same metropolitan area, and most importantly, Chapman will be returning to play under Bob Melvin, his first manager through his first 5 seasons, and Matt Williams, his third base coach in Oakland during 2018-2019—years the young infielder earned two Gold Gloves, one All Star nod, and consecutive finished in the top-10 of AL MVP voting.

I don’t blame Chapman for spelunking into the past for answers. In some sense, we all wish it was 2019 again. It seems like that was his last great year before the shortened COVID season. His Whiff and K rates hovered around league average in ‘18 & ‘19 before they jumped nearly 10-percentage points over his final two years with the A’s, lurking near the bottom marks of the sport. These trends didn’t get much better over the last two seasons in Toronto, and started to noticeably eat into his offensive numbers. He hasn’t posted a season OPS above the .800 mark since 2020. After exploding out of the blocks in April of last year with a .372 BA and 1.150 OPS over 109 PA, he lost his footing, tripped over first base and stumbled the rest of the season, batting .205 with a .659 OPS (88 wRC+).

The high rate of whiff (31.1% in ‘23) must be uber frustrating for Chapman given how often he swings at the right pitches (18.9 Chase%, 94th percentile), and how consistently he crushes the ball when contact is made. His .319 BABIP last season was the highest of his career while his 56.4 Hard-Hit-% led the MLB last season, and his 17.1 Barrel-%, or his 93.4 MPH average exit velocity were both in the 98th percentile of hitters.

These numbers aren’t an outlier either, Chapman has engaged our senses with his bat for the better part of his career, and these Statcast metrics are pretty solid indicators of success. If it looks and sounds like a hit, it generally is one. The big swing and a big miss are two sides to the same coin—it’s nothing new. In terms of batted profile, the biggest difference between those salad days and now for Chapman is a drop in ground ball rate and increase in fly balls—not a bad thing in its own right, but a couple degree jump in launch angle would certainly increase the likelihood of a whiff, and the possibility of a well-struck ball hanging in the air long enough to be chased down or coming up just short of the wall.

With the pillowy nature of his contract, 2024 is a chance to increase his value, it makes sense that Chapman would want to stack the odds in his favor. A familiar location among trusted mentors with a chance to reclaim a part of swing he must’ve left somewhere in the concrete catacombs of the Coliseum—yeah, we have a pretty good sense of what San Francisco means to Matt Chapman.

But what does Matt Chapman mean to San Francisco?

Ostensibly, the third baseman was not going to fill the biggest need on the Giants’ roster. Rotation depth was a capital-P priority, as well as a designated hitter and a centerfielder, while figuring out a way to shed some unwanted roster baggage were all more-pressing concerns. Besides, they had a pretty promising incumbent at third in J.D. Davis. There had been a reasonable discourse during the prolonged offseason whether pursuing Chapman was worth losing Davis, who was nowhere near Chapman’s glove, but had made himself a viable defensive option last season while being a reasonable comparison at the plate: a whole lotta whiff, a whole lotta loud contact. Davis was the same age, cheaper too, one of the rosters better bats, and under team control—a compelling case for standing pat was made by some.

In the grand scheme of things, no one should say ‘boo’ to the Chapman addition (but have at it in terms of how Davis was subsequently and unceremoniously dropped). San Francisco desperately needed some pop in the middle of the lineup—they got it when they signed Jorge Soler to a three year deal, and they reinforced it with Chapman in March.

Chapman smacked 39 doubles last year, tacking on his 17 home runs and 2 triples, and he had 13 more extra base hits than the closest Giant in 2023. His 3.5 fWAR (the lowest full season mark of his career) would’ve been second only to Thairo Estrada, and his platinum glove grounds the left side of the diamond for rotation stalwarts like Logan Webb and Alex Cobb who make their bread by inducing ground balls.

Maybe more than what Chapman brings to the field is what his signing meant for the Giant front office and its fan base. Wounds still healing from the fallout of failed pursuits of Aaron Judge and Bryce Harper in recent years, the circus around Carlos Correa and the empty promises of offseason “splashes”, were reopened by Shohei Ohtani’s and Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s spurning, made all the more painful and bitter by their decision to land in the same state, the same league, the same division, but juuuuusssst a wee bit south.

The community began to spiral, blame was levied, conspiracies nurtured as we stared down another season of cost-effective but middling play—but then, somewhat miraculously, the front office started checking off those boxes of need: the Korean star Jung-hoo Lee in center; recent Cy-Young winner Robbie Ray for the much-maligned Mitch Haniger and Anthony DeSclafani; flame throw reliever converted to starter Jordan Hicks; then Cuban missile Jorge Soler as an actual DH!

No, none of these players had the cut of Ohtani. Individually, they were not the machete poised to hack away at the thicket of mediocrity the San Francisco Giants have tangled themselves in these past seven seasons. But each had a point, an edge, and seemed to build off each other. Getting Chapman, maybe the most coveted position player in free agency after Cody Bellinger, was an act of good faith to the fans, while confirming that there was actually a plan. With his back against the wall, Farhan Zaidi wasn’t just going to close his eyes and flail his limbs. He had been playing the long game, one initiated weeks after the 2023 season ended when the club hired Bob Melvin as their manager. Chapman was in their sights, and ultimately was courted not just by the coaching staff, but the acquisitions they had already made (a team that wants to win—shocking!). This grand scheme, of course, culminated with signing Cy Young winner Blake Snell—a domino that might not have needed Chapman to fall, but if you’re a pitcher with a deep hatred of ground balls that find holes, it must’ve helped.

What started out on the precipice of turmoil became an incredibly successful offseason in terms of bettering the Giants’ on-field play. (Though off-field treatment of certain players and franchise icons still left much to be desired.) That being said, for both the third baseman and his new team, the business is still unfinished. Projections are one thing, and results are another. Every exciting roster addition comes with his own level of uncertainty, a question mark in terms of production, or health, or an opt out in their contract, or all three. Could Snell, like Carlos Rodon, be gone in a year? Will Soler stay healthy? Can Lee make the transition at the plate from the KBO to the MLB?

Matt Chapman represents that best of all: 100 MPH exit velocity can still end in an out.

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