The chip on his shoulder isn’t the direct reason for Matt Chapman’s incredible arm strength. The mind games Cal State Fullerton baseball coach Rick Vanderhook tried playing with him aren’t the reason Chapman seems to know what’s going to happen before it happens.
The platinum glove sitting on his mantle, emblematic of Chapman’s status as the best defensive player in the American League, isn’t the direct result of a golden light flashing above him after his 2018 breakout season with the Oakland Athletics.
No. To understand why Chapman — one of 10 Cal State Fullerton baseball products currently on a major league roster — is an All-Star and considered not only one of the game’s brightest stars, but its best defensive player, you must take all of it into account. The chip on the shoulder, the head games, the mindset he carries around like his Gold Gloves that he still isn’t one of the game’s upper echelon players – despite evidence to the contrary.
And that evidence, which comes in weekly, is considerable.
Last year, Chapman hit a career-high-at-any-pro-level .278, with 24 homers, 68 RBI, 42 doubles and 100 runs. His 8.2 WAR (wins above replacement, a stat that measures how much a player is better than the average major leaguer) was third in the American League behind Boston’s Mookie Betts and the Angels’ Mike Trout, who went 1-2 in league MVP voting.
Those offensive numbers only scratched the surface why Chapman finished seventh in MVP voting. Because when Chapman’s name is brought up, things get rather defensive.
En route to winning the Gold Glove, the Wilson Overall Defensive Player of the Year and the Rawlings Platinum Glove Award, which goes to the best defensive player at any position, Chapman led all AL third baseman in defensive WAR, in range factor, in putouts and assists. His 3.5 defensive WAR means he’s 3½ times a better defender than the average major league third baseman, while leading in range factor means he’s getting to balls no other third baseman can reach.
Balls like the one Toronto’s Yangervis Solarte hit last year. The A’s were in a shift for the left-handed Solarte, which meant Chapman was essentially playing shortstop. Solarte poked a ball away from the shift down the third-base line. Chapman roamed over, backhanded the ball, then threw against his momentum and nipped Solarte by a half-step.
“I’ve never seen a corner infielder save as many runs as he does,” said Athletics Manager Bob Melvin, who had to dig to find “just one play” that illustrates Chapman’s elite glove. “It starts with his arm strength. With his arm strength, it allows him to play deep, which allows him to get to more balls, whether it’s down the line or whether it’s in the hole. That allows us to move our shortstop toward the bag a little more.
“Even though he plays deep, he’s the best at bunts. He still comes in and gets guys on bunts. It just feels like there’s no way to get a ball by him.”
The evidence continues pouring in this season. Chapman made his first All-Star team and through Monday, is hitting .257 with 24 homers, 64 RBI, 27 doubles and a .515 slugging percentage. His errors are down from 20 to seven, and he once again leads AL third basemen in range factor, runs saved, putouts and assists.
Yet, Chapman refuses to acknowledge the evidence. That’s because he’s so focused on the process that produced that evidence.
“To be honest, I still feel that I haven’t realized that (being one of the upper echelon players). That’s why I’m really hard on myself,” he said.
Enter the chip on the shoulder. Chapman grew up in El Toro as one of those proverbial very good-but-not-great players who always had someone overshadowing him. In this case, it was Nolan Arenado, the same Nolan Arenado currently holding down the title as best third baseman in the National League for the Colorado Rockies.
Chapman learned very early that there are a plethora of ways to be successful in baseball, but only one way to find that success: grind, grind and grind some more. While waiting for his growth spurt to catch his classmates, he built a foundation of fundamentals: fielding, running and analyzing the game from every angle. When he filled out after his sophomore year and added arm strength and power to his arsenal, Chapman thought the offers would roll in.
They didn’t. The only school he heard from was Cal State Fullerton.
“It was always my dream to go there,” he said. “They recruited me, and I felt like my mindset and the way I operate works perfectly for there: hard-working; nobody’s too special, and everyone has to earn everything. I was put on an even playing field for the first time, and the best man got the job. I finally got to prove my worth.”
This turned out to be one of those blessings-in-disguise situations that probably enabled Chapman to have such a seamless transition to the major leagues. Because playing for the no-nonsense Vanderhook served as a perfect finishing school for Chapman, not only because of Vanderhook’s doctoral-level command of the game’s innumerable nuances, but his incessant skill at making his players as uncomfortable as possible.
“Hookie’s no joke. I learned you have to be tough if you’re going to go there, and I learned how to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Chapman said.
“He always used to challenge me, but he learned he didn’t have to challenge me too much, because I always rose to the occasion. The most he could do to me to make me mad was to tell me I was selfish and didn’t care about the team because that’s the furthest thing from the truth.
“That made me mentally tough coming out of there. I learned how to play the game inside and out. It’s like going to the Navy SEALS of baseball.”
It also explains why Chapman was the Athletics’ No. 1 draft pick in 2014, why he was an everyday major leaguer by the middle of 2017, a Gold and Platinum Glove owner in 2018 and an All-Star by 2019. His transition was virtually seamless because the Fullerton Finishing School already had a strong foundation to work with. Chapman knew the game. He just needed the right people to know that.
“You knew he would catch up as far as making adjustments and just his aptitude and understanding in playing baseball would suggest he’s going to develop pretty quickly and that’s exactly what you’re seeing,” Melvin said.
“Matt’s definitely a typical Titan baseball player in that he’s hard-nosed, he’s a team leader by example, but he also plays the game with a passion,” said former Cal State Fullerton standout Mark Kotsay, the Athletics’ quality control coach. “He cares about the game, and he cares about his teammates. He’s absolutely a Titan at heart.”
And now, Chapman is a purposeful and more relaxed Titan. The chip on his shoulder, the mind games that never stuck in his eventual Gold Glove, the mindset that built a four-tool All-Star who is on pace to become the greatest defensive player of his era all did their jobs.
Not surprisingly, Chapman is smart enough to understand that.
“I was bitter I didn’t get drafted. I didn’t get recruited by a bunch of colleges,” he said. “This is something not many people know, but I have Tourette’s. When I was younger, I was always a little shy about it and nervous about people knowing it. I felt different. For me, it motivated me to prove people wrong. I always had the mindset that I was different. I wanted to prove people wrong and that stuck with me forever.
“I’m pretty comfortable with it now, but it was definitely something I was embarrassed about when I was younger. I wanted nobody to know about it because of how kids are. But now that I look back on it, it was a blessing in disguise because it made me who I am today. It gave me that drive and that chip on my shoulder.”
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