You might read the headline and think I mean that we all need to patient for Matt Chapman to reach the big leagues. That’s true too, but I refer to my experience interviewing players back on March 4th when I set my sights on chatting with. among others, the A’s 3B prospect.
Besides the stress of just generally being an introvert playing the role of an extrovert, my annual clubhouse sojourn comes with additional challenges. I have access to the field all day, but the clubhouse itself is only open for an hour — and the player you are trying to catch may or may not be found in the clubhouse at any moment.
So after interviewing Max Schrock and Matt Olson, I checked Chapman’s locker again only to find it empty as it had been throughout the hour. He finally arrived there about 5 minutes to the end of the hour. Maybe I could set something up to chat on the field if he was willing...
Chapman’s locker was second from the walkway, so as I approached only Matt Joyce was between us. I waited to catch Chapman’s eye and experienced the phenomenon I seem to get at every restaurant: the moment I want to catch the waitresses eye, she seems to find every way of looking and moving so as not to see me. It’s uncanny. "OK, she has to turn to her right to leave that table and then she’ll be looking straight at me...What? Why did she turn left in the narrow space between two tables when it makes no sense to do so??? OK now she’s heading my way and...she’s looking down? Oh great, she notices a stain on her apron. Just look up for one split second, just one...Oh, you are not turning left where there are no tables...to open up the blinds? Are you kidding me???"
So I‘m standing there, feeling very conspicuous yet utterly invisible to the person in front of me. Joyce looks up and sees me, so I say "I’m tempted to call out, ‘Hey Matt’ that might be confusing." Joyce laughs, realizing that the locker arrangement indeed features back-to-back Matts. "Maybe try, ‘Mr. Chapman’?" he suggests. At that point, Matt-the-younger-one looks up and sees me waiting to introduce myself.
Trouble is, Chapman explains, he is supposed to be on the back field for stretching in just a few minutes. He offers to "walk and talk" but that doesn’t strike me as fodder for a good connection so I ask if he would be up for chatting in the dugout after. Chapman is agreeable and says stretching takes about 25 minutes. So I hang out by the dugout waiting.
You see what Chapman didn’t mention, perhaps didn’t even know, is that yes you stretch for 25 minutes, but then you hit on the back field, and then you have infield drills. So as various players -- and remember there are about 70 of them in camp at this point — finish their various drills and come by the dugout to get to the clubhouse, I feel like I am living an excerpt from "Are You My Mother?"
"Are you Matt Chapman?" (This is in my head.) "Are you Matt Chapman?" Somehow on a roster of 70 players an estimated 347 guys come towards me all of whom have in common that they are not Matt Chapman. My guess is that they hire several single-A players to walk in a big circle from the back fields to the clubhouse and back around to the back fields so that they pass by me 5-10 times each just to have more guys in uniform not be Matt Chapman.
No worries. At the 11th hour, it finally was Matt Chapman -- the third and final Matt I would speak to that morning. We sat in the dugout and chatted and he was, like his teammates, friendly and accommodating. He also appeared to have been well-schooled in the art of "creating sound bytes by pulling out cliches that don’t actually say anything," which don’t happen to intersect with the kind of quotes I am looking for. So that created a challenge, and perhaps a whiff rate higher than the 30% Chapman is trying to reduce.
I still hope to meet that player who, in a burst of refreshing candor, admits to me, "I try to give about, I don’t know, 90% effort or so to help the team. Or get a big contract, or whatever." Hey, there’s always next year.
In beginning our conversation I pointed out that Matts Olson and Chapman share similar strengths and challenges in being a "slight K-rate reduction away" from being big league ready. Retool? Adjust? Push on as is? What was the game plan for Chapman to take that final step and get his K-rate where it needed to be?
"My approach, basically, is show up every day, work hard and get better," Chapman explained, contrasting himself with the many players who told me, off the record, that their approach is to show up only 4 days/week, mess around, and decline slightly. "Obviously you need to trust what has gotten you to this point and realize that you are good enough to play at the next level, but there’s always things you need to work on to improve your game — those minor adjustments. For me personally it’s just a few minor adjustments and once I make those adjustments I think I’d be completely ready."
Chapman recognizes that essentially the "serenity prayer" — change what you can, accept what you can’t, and know the difference — really does apply to a top prospect on the cusp of the big leagues but not yet there. "All those things (such as when you make it to the big leagues) are out of your control," he knows. "If you focus on where you want to be — I mean everyone in the locker room wants to be a big league player, that’s the ultimate goal, always. (But) that’s not something you can dwell on. The thing that you can control is showing up, getting your work in and trying to get better, and if you get a little better each day and try to get more consistent..."
"Consistent" — that might be the word which separates the "haves" from the "have nots" in the A’s system. Many have talent but not all will be able to show consistency from day to day, month to month, season to season. "For me it’s about consistency," Chapman believes. "If I can be a consistent player I can be ready (for MLB)."
Or the key phrase might be "minor adjustments," almost an oxymoron in that with baseball the smallest adjustment can be huge. A timing mechanism (Josh Donaldson), a change in stance (Brandon Moss), a new cutter (Jesse Chavez): we have seen what a seemingly small tweak can do for a player’s development and career.
My exact question to Chapman on this: "You say you just to need to make some minor adjustments. Are those proprietary, like ‘I could tell you but I would have to kill you’ or are those ones you can share?" For a split second Chapman furrowed his brow with great concern, like he thought perhaps I was concerned that he was threatening my life. Then he relaxed and reflected on what adjustments he was referring to.
"For me, (it’s) simply just becoming a more well-rounded hitter," he feels. This encompasses several specific elements, such as "pitch selection, knowing what the pitchers are trying to do and being a smarter hitter, those little intricacies of hitting, and being able to go up there and take professional at bats every single time."
Chapman has now seen pitching at single-A, AA, and AAA, and can parse the differences found in the pitching at various levels. "The biggest thing that I’ve noticed is there’s talent at every level — every level you go to there’s going to be guys that throw 100, guys that have nasty offspeed pitches, guys that can run, guys that have power, there’s tools and talent at every level," Chapman notes. "But the higher up you go, you see it more often. You see guys who are more consistent, you get a more clean game. It just becomes harder and harder (because) the guys are just making their pitches more consistently and don’t make as many mistakes., the hitters take better at bats, the guys hit the ball harder, guys are faster and you need to make the plays quicker. The speed of the game goes up and up and the quality too." Essentially, the raw talent may be the same from A-ball to MLB, but the harnessing of it is night and day different.
Every fan has his or her view of how close Chapman is to being called up. Maybe the signing of Trevor Plouffe signals that the A’s feel Chapman needs a full season at AAA or perhaps a contact-filled April could vault him into the big league picture as soon as May. If anyone knows the answer, or the front office’s thinking, it doesn’t happen to be the guest of honor himself. "There’s really no communication about that," Chapman reveals. "It’s just kind of the business end of things. Me, I just focus on going out there and getting better...Obviously you want your ETA to be as fast as possible, everybody does! But never having played at the major league level, or being a professional baseball player for very long, to me it would be an honor to play in the major leagues whenever my name gets called."
For Chapman, he says he isn’t focused on forcing the team’s hand by wowing the front office with a spring training too good to keep him down. AAA’s fine too if it gets him where he needs to go. "I love playing the game of baseball," he offers. "My dream is to be a major league baseball player, playing in the major leagues as long as I can, so in reality you want to be there Opening Day...but I just love playing the game of baseball and whenever my name gets called I’ll be ready."
Now watch: Chapman will get the call right when he’s been standing in line at the post office for over an hour and he’s finally at the front. "OK fine, I’m not ready -- but I swear I will be in like 10 minutes," he will be forced to tell David Forst. You just can’t let the post office win.
As you probably know by now, it wouldn’t be a Nico-interview without trying to get a glimpse of the person behind the bat or glove. Asked how he sees his personality or how others see him, Chapman smiles maybe for the first time all interview. "Who am I...?" he repeats. "That’s a tough one, but for me I want to be known as a guy who works hard, that is a good teammate, that isn’t selfish," he muses. "My ultimate goal is to be a leader one day on and off the field. I like to spend time with my teammates — I feel like I’m a guy that is a big believer in camaraderie, do things off the field with your team, do things on the field. It builds a team, it builds character. I would say teams that spend a lot of time with each other and enjoy each other’s company win together, so for me I’d like to be a guy that brings guys together and has guys have a common goal while still working hard. I would like to be remembered as a guy who was a good person and a good teammate."
And does the world see him as he sees himself? What would his mom or dad say about him? "Hopefully the same," he says, adding, "Probably also that I can’t sit still and that I was a pain sometimes. But no, it’s all good — high energy and like to have fun." Was that Chapman in school? The A’s future 3Bman answers that with a simple observation: "Lotta energy. I loved recess." Asked if that was his best subject in school, Chapman laughs and points out, "I tried to make it my job, right?" Hey, so far so good.