As difficult as it might be to fathom, Matt Chapman wasn’t the all-around star he is now when he first arrived to Oakland.
“A lot of hard work went into this, way before the big leagues even started for me,” Chapman said. “To accomplish this feels pretty good.”
When the A’s selected Chapman 25th overall in the 2014 Draft, the third baseman had already established himself as a defensive wizard. A couple of years in Oakland’s farm system was all it took for him to stand out as its top power-hitting prospect. But before he achieved this level of prowess at the plate that helped him earn his first All-Star selection in just his second full big league season, there was one flaw that Chapman had to deal with.
“The strikeouts were piling up,” A’s bench coach Ryan Christenson said. “He probably had the most raw power of anybody in our organization, and he knew it, but it was almost like he was just trying to launch these 500-foot homers every time he swung the bat.”
Christenson was Chapman’s Minor League manager from 2016-17. He observed what many in the A’s front office also saw from Chapman -- a bevy of punchouts to go with bunches of home runs.
It wasn’t a huge issue to the point where it might impede Chapman's path to the Majors, but lowering his strikeout total was the final component that could turn Chapman into a complete player.
After batting fourth or fifth for most of his Minor League career, Chapman was moved by Christenson up to the two-spot in an effort to change Chapman's approach. The move came in the second half of the '16 season at Double-A Midland, as Chapman’s strikeout totals were already in triple digits and climbing.
“He was kind of going through this funk, and I remember bringing him in the office and I told him, ‘We’re going to put you here for a little bit, and I want you to think like a two-hole hitter. The term we use is a ‘Slasher.’ Just hitting it all over the yard,” Christenson said. “He took to it and went on a little tear. He was hitting there for a week or so, and then we moved him back to the four or five-hole and he kept that same approach, and I think that’s what we’re seeing here, that line-drive, slashing approach.”
The defense continues to be off the charts for Chapman, whose 10 Defensive Runs Saved lead all third basemen, but what has transformed him into an all-around star are his offensive numbers. Chapman ranks second among American League third basemen with 21 homers, while slashing .265/.353/.534 with a team-leading 52 RBIs.
“Now I know what it takes to get to this point,” Chapman said. “I just gotta keep working hard.”
Chapman’s All-Star selection is no surprise, but the teammate who will be joining him in Cleveland has surprised even himself with the type of season he’s putting together that has resulted in his first career All-Star selection.
Liam Hendriks, a nine-year veteran in the midst of a career year, was named as a replacement for Rays starting pitcher Charlie Morton on Friday. The right-hander earned AL Reliever of the Month Award for June after allowing just one run over 15 innings. He enters the break on a career-high and A’s season-high 16 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings streak, with 28 strikeouts and two walks over that stretch.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for the 30-year-old Australian. Hendriks was designated for assignment last June 25 by the A’s, but he never lost hope on his baseball career. Instead of sulking, Hendriks accepted a demotion to Oakland’s Triple-A affiliate and made some major changes. He began playing long toss off flat ground before each game for the first time in his career, even if he knew he wasn’t pitching on that day, and changed up his eating habits to a low-carb variation of the keto diet. It’s the combination of those two regimens that led to an uptick on his fastball from around 93-95 mph to now touching 100 mph at times.
“I thought that may have been it with the A’s, but not baseball in general,” Hendriks said. “I was 29, so I felt I still had a lot of baseball left in me. I was sitting in [Triple-A] Nashville and doing what I could to get back. They saw enough last September to keep me around this year, and I feel like I’ve done them good.”
It was over last September that Hendriks began his resurgence. In that stretch, Hendriks limited hitters to a .423 OPS, while giving up just two earned runs in 12 outings, which led Oakland to use Hendriks as an opener in their 7-2 loss to the Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game.
He finished last season pretty solid, but Hendriks has taken it to a new level in 2019, with his 0.92 ERA the lowest among MLB relievers and leading all AL bullpen arms with a 1.8 WAR.
“It's been a whirlwind, for sure, don't get me wrong,” Hendriks said. “But I think it was almost a necessary evil for me to go down there and kind of gain perspective and get rid of the ego and be like, 'OK. It doesn't matter. Regardless of how I'm pitching, I don't deserve to pitch in whatever role. I'm just going to go out there and pitch whatever inning they want me to.' ... Just that change of mindset has helped me to come where I am now.”
Hendriks also takes quite a bit of national pride in his All-Star selection as he becomes just the third Australian native, and the first from the western region of the country, to be named an All-Star. The previous two Aussies were catcher Dave Nilsson (1999) and reliever Grant Balfour, who was also selected to represent the A’s, in 2013.
“It’s an honor,” Hendriks said. “It’s pretty exciting. I’m just hoping this helps raise awareness for baseball in Australia because right now we don’t quite have the funding that some other sports do. It’s a grind. We’ve got a good group of guys out there who are excited to come over here and hopefully it gets some new fans.”
The 2019 All-Star Game presented by Mastercard will be played on Tuesday at Progressive Field in Cleveland. It will be televised nationally by FOX Sports; in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet and RDS; and worldwide by partners in more than 180 countries. FOX Deportes will provide Spanish-language coverage in the United States, while ESPN Radio and ESPN Radio Deportes will provide exclusive national radio coverage. MLB Network, MLB.com and SiriusXM also will provide comprehensive All-Star Week coverage.