The A’s have built a pair of reigning playoff teams, a much-welcome return to relevancy after three consecutive last place finishes from 2015-17. Recently, they’ve been anchored by a perhaps still-underrated superstar. Over the past two seasons, Matt Chapman has hit .263/.348/.507 (131 wRC+) with 60 home runs in 1286 plate appearances. More notably, he’s proven himself a wizard at third base, racking up an absurd 68 defensive runs saved. With his achievements on both sides of the ball, Chapman has been worth 12.8 fWAR/16.6 bWAR in the last two seasons alone. Baseball Reference’s value metric places him as the third-most valuable position player in that time (behind only Mike Trout and Mookie Betts). Fangraphs slots him sixth, with Alex Bregman, Christian Yelich and Anthony Rendon joining Trout and Betts in the top five.
Regardless of where specifically one would slot Chapman among the game’s best players, it’s apparent he’s at least in the conversation. Given the player he’s become, it’d be easy to assume he was seen as a ’can’t-miss’ talent dating back to his amateur days. That’s not really the case. He was the A’s first-round pick back in 2014, 25th overall. At the time, though, that pick could’ve been considered a bit of a reach, at least in comparison to public rankings.
Neither Baseball America nor MLB Pipeline had Chapman in their top 50 prospects pre-draft (BA slotted him 64th, while Pipeline placed him 82nd). Nor did he crack the top 30 of then-ESPN analysts Keith Law and Christopher Crawford the fall prior. That’s not meant to be a criticism of draft prognosticators. Despite his frame, Chapman never showed much power in games as an amateur. He hit a cumulative 13 home runs over his three years at Cal State Fullerton. It’s hardly surprising evaluators didn’t see a future 36-homer bat in the big leagues.
Questions about Chapman’s hitting prowess were prevalent enough that both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline pointed to pitching as a potential fallback. The elite arm strength he now shows off at the hot corner in Oakland helped him touch 98 MPH on the mound in college. While the consensus was that Chapman should be a given a shot in pro ball at third, where reviews on him defensively were always positive, it wasn’t hard to imagine him flaming out and moving to the mound someday.
To the A’s credit, they never seemed to budge on their evaluation of him as a hitter. Asked about a potential mound conversion for Chapman after the draft, A’s scouting director Eric Kubota shot down the idea to Jimmy Durkin of the Bay Area News Group. “He’s got a chance to be an elite defender at third base,” Kubota told Durkin. “He can really throw. We think his bat is ever-improving. We think there’s untapped power there. We think this is a guy who is going to develop into a power hitter.”
Kubota’s words look awfully prescient in hindsight. Obviously, the organization’s belief in Chapman wasn’t shared throughout the league. There’s no chance he’d have fallen to pick 25 if it were. If teams were to redraft the 2014 class today, Chapman would no doubt be at the top of most teams’ boards. His emergence is a credit to the A’s scouting and player development staffs (and a testament to Chapman himself), an example of the ideal progression teams dream of when they bring a talented player into the system. It’s also a reminder that teams’ evaluations of draft prospects can vary, sometimes to their immense success.