The underrated star at the center of the A's surprising start

SEATTLE — Scott Servais remembered. And he guaranteed Dee Gordon remembered too. It’s not often the speedy second baseman is denied when he lays down a bunt. Not the way he runs.

The first time a player manages to throw out Gordon after a perfectly placed bunt, you write it off as a fluke. The second time he does it, the moment sticks with you for weeks.

Three weeks after the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics met for their first series of 2018, Matt Chapman’s excellent defensive plays were still on his opponents’ minds.

“Chapman got him last time,” Servais said prior to Wednesday’s game. “On a tremendous play. Dee doesn’t forget about that.”

Both plays were identical. Gordon dropped a well-placed bunt up the third base line, and began racing toward the bag. Chapman charged in hard, scooped up the ball in his glove and had just enough time to fire the ball to first to beat Gordon at the last possible second.

The second play was so close it drew a challenge. After a review, it was too close to overturn. Gordon could only shake his head. How did the same guy beat him twice?

Defense has always been Chapman’s strength. Baseball America called him a “premium defender” at third in 2015, and he’s more than lived up to that reputation during his brief time in the majors. It’s not a stretch to say he should win a couple Gold Glove awards before he’s done.

While Chapman takes a lot of pride in his defense, he made his swing a significant focus this offseason. Chapman hit .234/.313/.472, with 14 home runs, in 2017 with an approach he called “all-or-nothing.” He could hit for power. He could strike out. But there was little in-between.

Once the season was over, Chapman had one goal in mind: Be quicker to the ball.

“I just wanted to shorten my swing,” Chapman told Yahoo Sports. “Nothing too crazy. I just wanted to be able to be more direct to the ball and just give myself more room for error.”

Thus far, that approach has worked well. The 25-year-old has a .252/.346/.495 slash line, with six home runs, over 127 plate appearances.

Those figures was even higher before Chapman and the A’s ran into James Paxton on Wednesday. Paxton struck out 16 members of the Athletics during the contest. Chapman went down on strikes twice.

Despite Paxton’s dominant start, the Athletics won 3-2. All three runs came after Paxton was out of the game. The win pushed the A’s to a surprising 15-15.

Chapman nearly got to Paxton in the second inning, though. On a 0-1 pitch, he ripped a 109-mph line drive to deep left. Ichiro Suzuki chased it down, jumped at the last second and made a snow cone catch to rob Chapman of extra bases.

While the result was disappointing, that’s exactly the type of ball Chapman wants his swing to produce. He’s prioritized hitting line drives over anything else. That might come off as blasphemous in an era where launch angle is king, but Chapman has a good reason for trying to level out his swing.

“I knew I hit more fly balls than maybe your average player, but I also try to hit for power,” Chapman says. “So, it’s kind of a fine line. But I knew that if I tried to set myself for more line drives, my misses could be homers and then I would still be able to ‘miss’ some balls on the ground for hits.”

Matt Chapman focused on re-tooling his swing in the offseason. (AP Photo)
Matt Chapman focused on re-tooling his swing in the offseason. (AP Photo)

That’s what Chapman means when he talks about giving himself more “room for error.” If he’s trying to hit a line drive but happens to get under the ball, he might hit a home run. If he happens to get on top of it, he hopes the ball is hit hard enough to get through a hole in the infield.

It’s not as if Chapman is trying to avoid putting the ball in the air. In his mind, it’s about being a more balanced hitter. Chapman was among one of the most extreme fly ball hitters in 2017. He was one of only nine hitters to post a fly ball rate over 50 percent.

His new approach will still lead to power. Being quicker to the ball has dropped Chapman’s fly ball rate to about 40 percent. That’s on par with what Freddie Freeman and Mark Trumbo did last season. Both of those guys hit plenty of home runs.

How exactly does one shorten up their swing? For Chapman, one of the keys is his hands.

“That’s definitely an adjustment I made,” he says. “I think last year, they kinda creeped up and up a little bit. They were getting a little higher and a little farther away. And then that made me have more of a longer swing.”

With his hands closer to his body, Chapman feels like he’s cut out excess movement from his swing. He no longer has to clear his front shoulder to get his hands through the zone. His hands can move directly to the ball now.

To him, that’s made a big difference. Since he’s quicker to the ball now, Chapman has more time to make decisions at the plate. And when you’re constantly facing guys who throw 98 mph, a fraction of a second is significant.

As Chapman has shown, that’s all the time he needs to stay on his opponent’s mind for weeks.

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Chris Cwik is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at christophercwik@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Chris_Cwik

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