Fire and Ice: What Wood You Do?
It’s been one heck of a fun second week of baseball. Everyone is on the DL, multiple games have seen benches-clearing brawls, and Shohei Ohtani looks like he might actually stand a chance to be the phenom he was billed as. Ok, so there are varying degrees of “fun” there, but hey! Life isn’t just slurping down ice cream and raisins under a palm tree. Which denotes true fun, of course. You know what melts ice cream? If you answered “a spicy Dominican sunset,” well, you’re weird. Correct, but weird. It’s fire, you silly goose!
Fire – Matt Chapman, 3B, Oakland A’s
I didn’t have to reach too far for this one, since as of this writing Chapman is currently leading the league in fWAR at 1.1. While he is a Gold Glove-caliber defender at the hot corner, he is also off to a blistering start with the bat. In 13 games, he has amassed 11 runs, four homers, and 11 RBI with a .347/.418/.653 slash line. On top of all that, he makes me want to dance. I don’t know why, but every time I hear his name, I have to declare that HE’S THE CHAP MAN! Ski-bi-dibby-dib-yo-da-dub-dub, yo-da-dub-dub!
Shame on you if you didn’t click on that link. Anyway, expectations were relatively low coming into the season as far as offense is concerned with The Chap Man. He has displayed plus raw power throughout his minor league career as well as a good eye at the plate, maintaining a double-digit walk rate at every stop since 2015. He just missed that cutoff (9.8% BB%) in his 2016 debut, but close enough. However, he has always negated the walks with sometimes obscene strikeout totals, including a 30.9% K% at Triple-A before his call-up last year. In his 84 games with the A’s, he kept the Ks to 28.2%, which is bad but not bad bad, like Chris Davis bad. Plenty of sluggers have upper-20s strikeout rates these days, and nobody really seems to care anymore. A Chris Davis-type return is what drafters were expecting this year, considering he’s a sub-.250 career hitter in a bad lineup and ballpark.
Thus far, however, (and yes, small sample size caveats apply) he has shown signs of improvement in contact rate. Last season he made 72% contact, which is low, but again isn’t out of the ordinary for power hitters. To date, he has made contact at an 80% rate, which is doubtful to stick but still encouraging. His 7.9% swinging strike rate is markedly down from the 11.5% mark he posted last year. His O-swing% is also minuscule, sitting at 19.4%. These metrics have coalesced to give him much better strikeout and walk rates, at 10.9% BB% and 18.2% K%. Brian Creagh noted in his recent Statcast Corner that strikeout rates stabilize around 60 plate appearances, which Chapman is nearly at (55). Even if this regresses more than I think it will and he’s living in the mid-20s this year (still an impressive step forward), that’s going to help him hit for more average.
Most of Chapman’s homers in 2017 were pulled, but his overall batted-ball data paints a pretty picture of an all-fields approach. What killed his average was his whopping 67.3% FB+IFFB%. That is a boatload of easy outs. Even a 36% hard contact rate couldn’t save that, but this year he’s really doing his best to pulverize the ball with a with a 48.7% hard contact rate that ranks 11th in MLB. It’s too early to take stock in any batted-ball change, but it behooves him to take the opposite approach from a chunk of the league and actually lower his launch angle. If he can trim the pop-ups and level out some of those fly balls for line drives, we could see him pair his 25-30 HR power with a much-improved batting average. He’s looking like a real profit this year, so I wouldn’t be selling high.
Ice – Alex Wood, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers
“Wood” it surprise you if I told you I was wary of Alex Wood coming into the season? His ADP was hardly exorbitant as the 28th SP off the board, but his injury history still scared me off. He made 25 starts in 2017, which is actually good for him, and he delivered very good ratios. His value was floated by an unrepeatable 16-3 record, but to his credit, he started throwing his changeup more and found a lot of success. Through three starts in 2018, however, things have been … different.
Wood seems to have really backed off his sinker this year in favor of a nearly even three-way split with his changeup and curveball. It makes sense when taking a look at his velocity readings.
His velocity declined by three MPH over the course of 2017, which was another reason I was off him this draft season. Things aren’t looking good right now, either, with his fastball averaging just 89 MPH this year. He has also lost velocity on his changeup, making both his change and curve essentially the same velocity at 83 MPH. None of this is good. He’s still getting grounders at a 56.5% clip at least, and with his plus command, he will still be able to limit the free passes. However, given this dip in velocity and his injury history, it might be wise to put him on the market and see what comes back. It’s tough to sell high right now considering his last start was seven ER over 3.2 IP with a bad-sushi-hangover, so you could also try to be patient and wait for a good start before you sell. It’s a risk, like eating airport sushi, but it may give your trade partner the confidence he/she needs to pony up so you don’t have to take a loss.