Matt Chapman is starting to come into his own as a hitter. Known primarily for his defense — he won a Gold Glove last year in his first full big-league season — the 26-year-old third baseman is slashing .295/.384/.597. He leads the Oakland A’s in all three of those categories, while his nine home runs rank second, behind Khris “Mr. .247” Davis. Moreover, he’s displaying far better discipline than he did a year ago. Along with upping his walk rate, Chapman has nearly halved his K rate. Slowly but surely, he’s becoming an offensive force.
Chapman talked about his offensive approach, which includes looking for pitches middle, middle-away, when the A’s visited Fenway Park last week.
David Laurila: I start a lot of interviews with this question: Do you consider hitting to be more of an art, or more of a science?
Matt Chapman: “Baseball, in general, is kind of like a fine line. So it’s a little bit of both. It’s an art in the sense that everybody is unique — everybody has the things that work for them — and you have to let your natural ability take over. But then there are the mechanics and the numbers. That’s the science part of it. Both are important. You can’t live and die with either.
“For me, the science part is that I see little tiny things in my swing, on video, that need to be mechanically sound. When I’m not feeling as good as maybe I should, I’ll go to the film. I don’t dissect every little thing, but there are a few things I look at. Am I on time? Am I getting in the right hitting position? Sometimes when I struggle, it’s because I’m getting a little too pull-happy. So, is my barrel up, or am I opening up and my barrel is dropping?”
Laurila: Are you looking at more video, and data, than in the past?
Chapman: “It’s definitely more available to me than it was in the minor leagues. I’m also getting a little older and figuring out what works for me and what doesn’t. But the amount of access we have to information, and the amount of focus we put on things… yes, that has really helped me.”
Laurila: Is what works for you now what worked for you when you broke into pro ball or have you changed as a hitter?
Chapman: “I’ve definitely changed as a hitter. I think I’ve grown up. I was a similar hitter [at Cal State Fullerton] in that I took walks and hit for a higher average, but when I got to the minor leagues, I was still learning a lot . I was learning about myself, and the game of baseball — pro baseball — and how to become the hitter I wanted to become.
“I maybe got away with things in the minor leagues. Sometimes I’d go up there and not really have an approach. I’d give some at-bats away. Now that I’m here, I’m more disciplined, and more diligent in my work. I have to be.”
Laurila: Does your approach stay the same, or are you constantly adjusting?
Chapman: “Unless it’s glaring, I’m trying to… it’s like, if the guy has only been doing this, or doing that — that’s when I would change my approach. But for the most part, I can’t really bounce back and forth between approaches. When I’m going best is when I’m staying within my approach. If I stray away from it too much, things don’t really work for me.”
Laurila: Are you like many hitters in that you’re primarily sitting fastball and adjusting from there?
Chapman: “I’m more sitting a zone. I’m always on time for the fastball, so as much as anything, I’m looking for something in the middle of the plate and trying to make sure I’m taking advantage of mistakes.”
Laurila: You’re looking middle, middle-away…
Chapman: “I prefer the ball out-over, as opposed to in. Pitchers have been trying to pound me in more this year — they’re trying to not let me get my hands extended — but I’ve been able to make adjustments. It’s a back and forth thing. They adjust to you, and you have to adjust to them. At the same time, I have to stay disciplined, because what they’re trying to do is get me out of my approach.
“I’ve been getting hit by more pitches — I got one in the ribs last week — so they’re definitely coming in on me. You have to show them that you can handle the inside pitch. You can lay off it, or you can hit it hard a few times. Then you’ll get back to getting what you want.”
Laurila: I haven’t see you play a ton, but when I have, you’ve driven balls the other way with authority.
Chapman: “When I’m going good, that’s usually where I’m going. I would say the majority of my homers are to… maybe not to right field, but to center or left-center. The big part of the field. I don’t pull too many balls. That’s not to say that I won’t, but the majority of time I’m swinging well, I’m staying inside the ball and driving it toward the middle.”
Laurila: Why don’t you don’t pull the ball more often?
Chapman: “It’s just kind of how I grew up, and how I was taught the game. I was taught to use the other side of the field — use the entire field — and be a hitter first.”
Laurila: A number of hitters I’ve spoken to have stressed the importance of staying on their back leg.
Chapman: “Absolutely. A lot of times when I’m not going good, I’m coming off my back leg. When you look at all the best hitters, they’re kind of sitting on their back leg, making sure that they’re staying back. That’s huge, especially for recognizing pitches, and not chasing.”
Laurila: What is the key to pitch recognition?
Chapman: “I’d say just being ready to hit every pitch. I know that sounds cliche, but it’s being ready, and staying disciplined to your approach. When I’m fully focused to hit — to hit my pitch — I can lay off the pitches I don’t want to swing at. When you’re caught in between — when you’re maybe not fully committed — that’s when you’ll see guys chase.”
Laurila: How willing are you to take strikes?
Chapman: “You want to swing at the strikes, but at the same time, you don’t want to get out of your zone. If I’m looking away and I swing in, that’s when I know I’m not committed to my approach. If I’m looking away and I take the pitch in… that’s exactly what I want to do.
“You have to be willing to take strikes if it’s not the pitch you’re looking for. At the same time, you don’t want to automatically take the first pitch and put yourself in the hole. You have to be smart up there.”
Laurila: What is your timing mechanism?
Chapman: “I’m pretty much just trying to sit on my back leg, and from there my front foot kind of does its thing on its own. My hands are already in a spot where they’re ready to go. I kind of have that rhythm with my hands and my back leg. I like to keep everything tight. My hands just kind of naturally fall back in the slot, so for me it’s really just about not getting long.
“When I used to get into a slump, I would try to hit homers, or try to drive balls, instead of taking a step back and maybe choking up a little bit. I’ve learned to pull the reins back and take what they’re giving me, instead of trying to force myself upon it.
“When you’re feeling good, you feel like you can hit anything — you just let it go — but when you’re not feeling good, you need to have good at-bats. You need to be able to take your walks, find your barrel, and use the whole field. You don’t want to let yourself go up-and-down, up-and-down. You want to stay even.”
Laurila: You mentioned choking up on the bat. Do you do that?
Chapman: “I do. I choke up with two strikes. Sometimes I choke up even before that. Say there’s a runner at third base and one out. I don’t want to risk getting long and giving the pitcher an opportunity. When I choke up, I can handle the bat a little better, so if I need to get that runner in, I’ll try to make sure I make contact.”
Laurila: Piggybacking on everything we’ve covered, why are you a better hitter now than ever before?
Chapman: “I’m getting more comfortable in the league, and I’m working hard. I’m also healthy. This is the first year I’ve ever been healthy in the big leagues. I was hurt all of last year and just played through it, and I was also hurt my rookie year. So being healthy helps, and again, I’m working hard.
“That said, there’s still a lot of work to do. I don’t feel like I’m anywhere close to where I want to be. If you look at the minor leagues, I got better and better every year. Up here, I’ve been trying to get better and better every year. Hopefully I can keep doing that.”
Laurila: To close, what haven’t I asked you that I should? What is the good question I’m missing?
Chapman: “I don’t know. It feels like I’m always the one asking questions to guys about hitting. I’m asking them about what they’re doing, and what they’re looking for. I’m really still learning myself, and how to hit in this league. I’ve always been sort of a defense-first player, so now that my bat is coming around, it’s about taking in all the knowledge I can. Like I said, I’m just trying to get better.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.