What Matt Chapman’s mound visits tell us about his leadership

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Toronto Blue Jays third-baseman Matt Chapman has been pivotal to the team's defensive success this season, both with his glove and his leadership. (Getty Images)
Toronto Blue Jays third-baseman Matt Chapman has been pivotal to the team's defensive success this season, both with his glove and his leadership. (Getty Images)

As the first inning slipped away from his pitcher, Matt Chapman made a judgement call.

The Toronto Blue Jays third baseman asked for time and trotted over to the mound, greeting Alek Manoah, who’d just thrown six straight balls and loaded the bases with two outs.

“It made me notice I had thrown six in a row,” Manoah said after Thursday’s win. “And then it was kind of a good breather; let me regroup a little bit and get right back in the zone.”

The pep talk was pivotal, as Manoah froze up White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal with a nasty full-count slider to escape the jam.

Chapman’s game is full of leadership moments like that. Already revered as a motivator-type personality in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse, the 29-year-old is blessed with a unique sense of baseball awareness. The high baseball IQ makes Chapman one of the best defenders in baseball, but it also helps him get a good feel of when his teammates need help.

“It's one of those things where I'm just in the game,” Chapman said of his mound visits, “and that's my way of trying to help the team win. Little things like that.”

The situation, Chapman said, had a lot to do with the decision to visit the mound.

“You just have to read the room a little bit,” he said. “But there's been times I go over there and it’s not like I say anything profound. Sometimes I barely even say anything, just give them a chance to catch their breath.”

Chapman is plugged into every pitch, and if he sees the momentum shifting the wrong way, he’ll be decisive and speak up. And those leadership duties extend beyond the occasional in-game mound visit. Chapman is a guy who keeps the morale high, even if the team is struggling.

“He's been phenomenal,” reliever Trent Thornton said of Chapman. “Just the same guy every day, making sure the guys are ready to go. That's the kind of teammate you want, always positive, always just picking guys up.”

But leadership isn’t a uniform entity. It needs to bend and morph to cater to different types of people. Chapman recognizes that and approaches every pitcher differently during his mid-game chats.

“For [Manoah], I mean, it's not like he needs a kick in the ass,” Chapman said. “He's up there; he's a bulldog every time he takes the mound.

“I'd rather go out there and the pitcher gets pissed off at me or something for coming out there after six pitches, than he walks another guy and give up big hit or something. I'd rather stop it before it starts.”

The decision to interrupt a pitcher can be a delicate one. Chapman estimates he’s visited Yusei Kikuchi on the mound once or twice this season, and now Manoah, but he couldn’t recall if he’d done it for Kevin Gausman yet. And maybe that not a bad thing.

“I'm not the biggest fan of [position player mound visits],” Gausman said. “But that's just my personal opinion … I like the thought process behind it. But if I'm pitching, I don't think I’d like that.”

That hasn’t stopped teammates from doing it to him, though. Gausman remembered, during his time with the Baltimore Orioles, that Manny Machado had come to chat with him a few times. One time, Chris Davis, Baltimore’s hulking first baseman, trotted out to the mound to give Gausman some advice.

“[Davis] actually did it to me against the Twins in Minnesota,” Gausman said. “We were up like 9-1 and I was having a grinding inning. And then he said something to me about like, ‘Hey, you're gonna be a dude here for a long time. But, like, why don't you start right now?’”

Those motivating, yet slightly passive-aggressive, words of wisdom didn’t work.

“I ended up giving up, I think, all of the runs back,” Gausman laughed.

Don’t get it wrong, though. Gausman loves having Chapman in the clubhouse and on defence behind him.

“He's constantly talking,” Gausman said. “The third baseman is essentially like another shortstop. And the shortstop, to me, is like the quarterback of the defence.”

Gausman compared Chapman to Evan Longoria, the 15-year veteran whom he shared the diamond with in San Francisco for two years. Gausman called Longoria “one of the best vocal third basemen” he’d ever been around. According to Gausman, Longoria was so locked in that he’d watch the catcher’s signs closely from third base, often returning to the dugout after an inning and praising a starting pitcher for shaking to a pitch in a specific situation.

“Some guys are just on a whole ‘nother level,” said the Blue Jays starting pitcher. “And Chappy’s like that, too. He's always thinking one or two steps ahead.”

Gausman said there’s one key element that has allowed Chapman to quickly rise to the rank of leader in Toronto.

“I think the biggest thing is respect,” Gausman said. “Everybody respects his level of play, his level of defence, his level of athleticism, everything. So I think we all just really respected him when he got here. And then now getting to know him, we're like, ‘Man, this guy's awesome. He's great.’"

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