Relievers in baseball are a volatile species. Good relievers come and go every year, but what makes a truly great relief pitcher is unflappable consistency and the ability to rise to the big moment.
For the first seven years of his big league career, Aroldis Chapman was that guy. He made four All-Star appearances with the Cincinnati Reds, was the closer on a Chicago Cubs team that won the World Series, and earned the richest contract for a reliever ever with the New York Yankees. His propensity as the hardest thrower added to his reputation as one of the most intimidating pitchers in baseball.
But in 2017, Chapman slipped a bit. He got injured, and his trademark velocity dropped slightly, his strikeouts went down, and he was even demoted as closer of the Yankees. Many Yankees fans wondered, this was the most expensive relief pitcher in baseball?
Chapman though, has rebounded admirably this year. He is striking out batters at the second-highest rate of his career, his walk rate and save percentage are right in line with his career totals, and he has yet to allow a home run on the season.
Chapman has been clutch, too. Like all good closers, Chapman’s numbers improve in what MLB.com defines as “late/close” situations. Chapman has continued to dominate left-handed batters, and opponents from both sides have hit just .134 combined against him this year.
Chapman’s dominant season has been among the best in the big leagues. Chapman is second in WAR and K/9 among relievers in the big leagues, behind only Milwaukee’s Josh Hader. When the MLB All-Star rosters are announced on July 9, you can be sure Chapman’s name will be on the short list of the game’s elite.
One of the keys to Chapman’s cold stretch last year was his perceived loss of velocity. However, the numbers show that Chapman still averaged 100.1 mph on his fastball last year, his third-highest average ever. This year, Chapman has “declined” to an average of 99.0 mph, but that is still right at his career average, and we haven’t even reached the summer yet, when his fastball really starts to pop.
Chapman is no longer the hardest thrower in the big leagues though, thanks to the emergence of St. Louis Cardinals rookie Jordan Hicks, who is averaging 99.7 mph on his heater. Still, this is a minuscule difference between Chapman and Hicks, who is nine years younger and has yet to complete 35 MLB innings. There are more hard throwers in the bigs now than before, but no one does it consistently better than Chapman.
While Chapman has not yet lost enough velocity to be concerning, he will likely begin to throw slower when his contract nears its end. He has combatted this by beginning to tinker with his pitch selection. Chapman is throwing his slider at a higher percentage than ever before, and he is generating a lot of whiffs as he becomes a more complete pitcher, not just a flamethrower. He is also throwing a variant to his fastball this year, a new sinker. He throws it just as hard as his four-seamer, and the late movement combined with the triple-digit speed is deadly.
Right now, only Wade Davis makes more money than Chapman among relievers. In the 2016 offseason, when the Yankees signed Chapman, they passed on Kenley Jansen, Mark Melancon and Greg Holland. Only Jansen is still performing at a consistently high level. And as relievers’ salaries will continue to rise, Yankee fans will be glad they signed Chapman when they did.
Chapman is currently in year two of a five-year, $86 million contract, and is still one of the top relievers in baseball. While the end of this contract could get a little ugly as Chapman nears his mid-30s, that should not distract Yankee fans from the exemplary season they’re getting from Chapman now. He’s going to be an All-Star, and he’s one of the few closers in baseball that you can definitively trust in the end game.
Every reliever goes through hot and cold streaks. This season has proven that Chapman’s struggles last season were just that, and not the sign of a greater demise.