No pressure, but Matt Chapman is one of a handful of A’s players that holds the key to the team’s success this year.
Not that strong performances up and down the roster won’t be essential for the A’s to dig themselves out of this tumultuous start on their quest for another division title. But as an anchor both defensively at the hot corner and offensively in the middle of the batting order, a bounce-back year for Chapman could raise the team’s ceiling significantly.
The comeback comes with a hitch. Chapman had surgery on a partially torn labrum in September — it forced him to miss the A’s 2020 postseason run. The injury also forced Chapman into some bad habits at the plate, he said. In 2020, he wasn’t able to think about the job, just how to do the job without hurting himself.
“I was in pain and not able to do the things I wanted to do,” he said. That led to Chapman creating some bad habits in the batter’s box as he tried to compensate for the pain in his back leg.
“Subconsciously I started using some of my bigger muscles and trying to muscle the ball to get bat speed instead of taking a direct, quick swing and use my back side,” Chapman said.
That led to an ugly stretch of games in which Chapman struck out in 10 consecutive at bats in a series against the San Diego Padres. He collected 54 total strikeouts in 142 at bats with eight walks along with a .232 average. His strikeout rate skyrocketed to 35.5%, which ranked among the worst in the league when news broke that he’d need to undergo surgery.
Chapman is back healthy with a vengeance in 2021, unabashed in his quest to win his third Platinum Glove and help lead the team to another postseason run — this time, he won’t be holed up in his Southern California home nursing an injury while watching his team compete on television. He and the A’s have a full 162 to work with this year, too, but those habits at the plate he developed with the injury have translated to this season.
“He’s still fighting to get those mechanics back,” manager Bob Melvin said. “It’s one thing to work on it in the cage, it’s another thing to go up and take your at-bats and not have to think about it. It’s a progression for him, for sure. He was coming out a little early and trying to do too much without squaring up like he normally does, and that came from the hip stuff. Sometimes it takes a while for that, but he’s aware of it and he’s working hard at it.”
Now, he’s trying not to use his upper body too much to generate power, which forces him to fly open with his front shoulder. He’s working to stay through the zone and keep his direction through center field instead of pulling off.
“Those are some of the things I’m trying to clean up at the plate right now,” Chapman said. “I think I created a few bad habits with that towards the end of last season and as I get stronger and more comfortable and more used to using my hip and legs again, it’s going to help.”
The subconscious compensation played out in Chapman’s first at bats this season. Los Angeles Dodgers’ starter Trevor Bauer served up a juicy fastball down the pike that Chapman delivered back for his first home run of the year in the A’s first win of the year on Wednesday. But he’s had trouble connecting with a steady dose of off-speed pitches opposing pitchers are feeding him and the rest of the A’s right-handers.
Chapman’s most promising at bat came in Friday’s win, when sailed through Lance McCullers’ sinker down and in for an opposite field line out hit 105 mph off the bat. Outfielder Kyle Tucker made a nice play on it, but Chapman was happy with the at-bat and contact.
Chapman’s bounce-back translates to his defensive capabilities, too. While clearly operating a difficult defensive position in pain last season, he’s flying and spinning with ease this year. He has a new neighbor this time with Elvis Andrus supplanting Marcus Semien at shortstop. The pair are still getting used to playing next to each other while complementing each styles other within the A’s shifts. They’ve been meeting after almost every defensive play to discuss.
“We had our scuffles in the beginning, but I think that was just getting used to playing with each other,” Chapman said. “We’re getting used to it and especially in the shift and turning double plays, that comes with timing and practice and we’ve been getting that done lately. The adjustment hasn’t been too hard and I think we’re just going to continue to get more sure.”
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Author: Shayna Rubin
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