DUNEDIN, Fla. — A few numbers stuck out to Matt Chapman as he took stock of his 2022 season and they didn’t include his 27 home runs, 76 RBIs and 4.1 fWAR.
Far more noteworthy to the Toronto Blue Jays third baseman was that he pulled the ball at a 47.7 per cent clip while striking out 170 times, each the second highest totals of his career, factors in his .229 batting average.
The empty at-bats bothered him — “If I can play to what I’m capable of doing, like I’ve done in years past, I can help carry a team and help the team win,” he says — so he decided to make a few adjustments. Gone is his leg kick, replaced by a toe tap that better leverages the ground to control the forward shift when he swings, with the end goal becoming a more complete hitter.
“I wasn’t making enough contact, I wasn’t driving the ball to right field and wasn’t behind the baseball as much,” Chapman says. “I was kind of out and around and pulling the ball a lot. I wanted to get back to being able to use the whole field and be even more athletic in the box.
“I know I’m better than that.”
That the 29-year-old’s harsh self-critique extends to his spectacular play in the field – “I also didn’t win a Gold Glove so I needed to work on my defence, too,” he notes – is demonstrative of why the pending free agent has become such a dominant force in the Blue Jays clubhouse.
Rather than brushing off the slight as a weird by-product of a flawed selection criteria that rewarded Ramon Urias of the Baltimore Orioles for 769.1 innings on the hot corner over his own 1,344.1, Chapman took the result personally.
That manager John Schneider says “I 100 per cent disagree with him not winning it,” and adds that after deep diving into the data, “you’re like, meh, this doesn’t make sense, move on, he’ll win it this year,” is of little comfort to Chapman.
“It was humbling to not win,” he says. “I need to come back and not take the little things for granted and get better. …
“I definitely looked into it … and I got docked on some plays I didn’t necessarily think I should have gotten docked on,” Chapman continues. “But if you look at the metrics, Urias saved more runs than me. I made less errors (five versus eight) and he only played 98 games, which was one of the things I thought stood out. I played 153, so that part of it I didn’t think was necessarily fair. But he saved more runs than I did in a lesser amount of time and Runs Prevented (5-1 for Urias) and Outs Above Average (7-1 for Urias) are huge. He had better numbers than I did.”
All of the numbers for Chapman will matter in more ways than one this year with free agency looming in the fall. Manny Machado’s $350-million, 11-year extension agreement with the San Diego Padres sets him up to not only be the best third baseman on the market by a wide margin, but one of the best offensive players available, too.
Chapman, the player-union rep for the Oakland Athletics during the lockout and for the Blue Jays last year, was heartened by the number of big contracts handed out during the off-season, saying “it shows that these teams have money and aren’t afraid to go over the (competitive balance tax) threshold.”
Given the worrying market trends leading into the lockout and compounded by the effects of the COVID pandemic, “it’s definitely nice to know that there are teams willing to spend money and that free agents are going to get paid as long as you take care of your business.”
Chapman is intent on doing that and worth noting is that prior to the 2020 season, he turned down a $150-million, 10-year contract extension from the Athletics, as Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported last spring.
Making it to free agency “is an accomplishment in itself,” he says and adds that “I’m proud that I didn’t sign that deal before in Oakland. And I’m proud that I’ve made it to this point in my career and that everything’s going to be OK.”
Still, Chapman stresses that he doesn’t “want this conversation to come off like that’s my focus because that’s not my focus. My focus is on winning baseball games for this team. I love being a Blue Jay and I love being here. That’s where my focus is.”
Whether there’s a future for him with the Blue Jays beyond this season will play out over time, but there should be no doubt about how invested he is.
Now in his second season with the club after arriving in a post-lockout trade last spring, Chapman feels more comfortable in his surrounding having earned the respect of his teammates. Especially early on in 2022, “I didn’t feel like I had the right to speak up about certain things … I didn’t want to come off as some new guy that wants to just come in and bark orders or anything like that.”
The familiarity he enjoys this spring frees him to be himself, to where “I can just talk to guys more, help lead guys more, help my teammates out in any way that they need, be there for them, pick guys up and move this team forward in any way I can.”
A part of that is the collective emphasis on the finer points of the game and the maturity that’s been a talking point throughout camp so far. He defines that growth as “just being professional, knowing what is expected of you when you want to be on a winning baseball team.”
“Being able to look yourself in the mirror and know that you’re doing everything you can to help this team on a daily basis,” Chapman continues. “Being able to communicate with your teammates, make each other better, holding each other accountable, little things like that. Last year we relied on talent a lot and let a few of those slip through the cracks. Sometimes those things catch up with you in the end. For us this year, it’s tightening up those little things that will eventually lead us to being able to capitalize in the moments we’re supposed to.”
There will be plenty riding on the ability to do precisely that for both Chapman and the Blue Jays.