In 2018, we watched Matt Chapman become a superstar right in front of our eyes. Oakland A’s fans already knew about the third baseman after he burst onto the scene in the second half of 2017, but last year, in his first full season, he truly announced his presence to the rest of the country. He was one of the best hitters in the majors in the second half while his team surged to a surprise Wild Card berth, and was the consensus best defender in the sport at any position, all of which earned him 7th place in the AL MVP race.
Chapman has enjoyed another great season in 2019, once again clearing 6 WAR on both scales. He’s been a strong hitter again, and even set a career-high in homers. His fielding metrics lead the sport, again. He finally earned his first All-Star berth.
But he’s slumped lately. Entering Wednesday, he was batting .137 (with a 65 wRC+) over 20 games in September, with his team battling in another tight postseason race. And then, when things were starting to look dire for Oakland, Chapman gave us all a reminder that he is in fact a superstar, and in doing so may well have saved the A’s season.
That’s not to say that anyone needed a reminder about Chapman. No one had given up on him because of one brief slump, and he’s continued to make unbelievable plays in the field. But teammate Marcus Semien has taken over the recent headlines, as he’s been on fire for months and now looks like the A’s top candidate for MVP, and we haven’t seen Chappy in the middle of the highlights as often as we’re used to. That changed the last couple nights.
If the A’s had lost on Wednesday, they would have fallen out of the top spot in the Wild Card race, passed by the Rays. They still would have been in playoff position, but with only a one-game cushion over the Indians with four to play, and riding a deflating three-game losing streak at the worst possible time. Oakland had already lost to the Angels on Tuesday, managing just two runs along the way, and this time they were down 2-1 entering the 9th inning.
Chapman got his chance in that 9th, with the tying run on base and one out. He stepped to the plate amid a 5-for-32 skid, with two of those hits being infield singles. The opponent was Hansel Robles, who’s been a competent closer for the Angels this year, and who hadn’t allowed a run in over a month. Chapman came through.
The A’s were on the road so it wasn’t a walk-off, but the bullpen sealed it in the bottom of the inning for the victory. It was a game-winner, grasping exhilarating triumph from the imminent jaws of soul-sucking defeat. And it was a decisive blast — at 436 feet it was his fourth-longest of the year, and at 108.7 mph off the bat it was an absolute rocket.
Chapman laid down the hammer right when his team needed it, helping them hold their Wild Card lead and giving them an emotional boost entering their final series in Seattle. It was his 17th go-ahead homer this season, tied for the most in the AL.
But he wasn’t done yet. On Thursday, in the opener against the Mariners, Chapman’s bat came alive again. Facing the A’s longtime nemesis, Felix Hernandez, he went yard again to give them some early insurance. This one didn’t give them the lead, as they were already up 1-0 in the 2nd inning, but Seattle did eventually score one so Chapman’s blast turned out to be the difference in the game.
The point here isn’t to figure out who is the best or most important player on the team, nor to assign Chappy singular credit for the wins. After all, Semien was on base for both of these clutch shots, doing his job perfectly as the table-setter at the top of the lineup. Liam Hendriks shut down the opponent in the 9th inning of both games to close it out. The starters were good each time, and a couple other A’s did knock in runs.
But Chapman was having a quiet September, right up until the chips were down. Even amid a personal slump, he still had what it took to come through in the big spot and turn around the team’s fortunes right as they seemed to be slipping away. It was reminiscent of the first day of August, when he entered the 8th inning against Milwaukee in a 1-for-31 skid, facing elite reliever Josh Hader with the Brewers up by a run ... and launched a two-run homer to take the lead.
It’s kind of amazing that arguably Chapman’s two biggest home runs of the season (tonight and vs. Hader) came when he was mired in deep slumps.— Melissa Lockard (@melissalockard) September 26, 2019
“Big-time players show up like that,” said manager Bob Melvin after Wednesday’s game-winner in Anaheim, via NBCS.
There are plenty of other examples of Chapman’s brilliance. In June, against the very Rays team now chasing the A’s in the standings, he came up in the 9th inning, down two runs with two outs on the board, and launched a three-run, walk-off dinger off Diego Castillo. In August against the Astros, he took the lead in the 6th with a 453-foot moonshot off Aaron Sanchez, then after Houston came back to tie it, he took the lead again in the 8th (this time for good) with another solo homer off Chris Devenski.
But now we’ve got a couple more examples, and one in particular from Wednesday, that will be especially memorable because of when they happened in late September. We already knew that Chapman was a superstar, but he offered us a reminder this week. Even when he’s slumping, he’s still one of the most dangerous players in the game, and his latest heroics helped keep Oakland’s postseason hopes at full charge.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle interviewed Chapman before Wednesday’s game, and the final quote now looks downright prophetic.
“I’m telling you, this will be the worst year I play,” Chapman said, then concluded the interview by adding, “But we’re going to make a run at the playoffs and I’m going to get hot at the right time.”