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What to take from Aroldis Chapman’s return to the Yankees

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The Yankees’ closer exhibited some positive signs in his return, but also plenty to be concerned about in his shaky first outing since injury.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees are almost back at full strength as the season winds down. They were without Aaron Judge for nearly two months, but their superstar outfielder is back in the lineup now that his wrist has recovered enough. Similarly, their closer, Aroldis Chapman, has returned, making his first appearance off the disabled list against the Red Sox.

Unfortunately for Judge and Chapman, they don’t have much time to get their legs back under them before the playoffs commence. Both players will be monitored closely over the next couple weeks to see how their bodies respond and to what extent they’ve returned to form following injury.

Chapman’s return is particularly interesting, as prior to his trip to the DL, he was clearly playing at less than 100 percent. Chapman threw just five pitches in his last game before going on the shelf, all fastballs. Per Statcast, they averaged 96 mph, a far cry from Chapman’s typically historic velocity. His softest pitch came in at 95.2 mph. He clearly wasn’t himself.

Every game Chapman pitches, he’ll be scrutinized to see if he’s bounced back physically. After just one appearance, the early returns are somewhat mixed. Chapman did appear to be in a better place physically when he faced Boston, but was clearly not his best self. With such a small amount time remaining in the season, that could pose a problem.

On Thursday night, Chapman’s first four-seam fastball came in at 99.4 mph. That’s a good sign. He threw a few more 99 mph heaters until popping off a 100.3 mph fastball to Steve Pearce, his hardest pitch of the night. Just based off of that, Chapman clearly has regained some of his ceiling as one of the game’s hardest throwers.

Somewhat concerning, though, was how his velocity dropped off as his outing progressed. After maxing out at over 100 mph, Chapman threw a 96.9 mph pitch to Jackie Bradley Jr. He threw just over 97 mph to Sandy Leon. Seemingly sensing himself tire out, Chapman switched to a steady diet of sliders, at one point throwing four straight breaking pitches to Leon.

Thus, Chapman’s velocity was both a positive sign and a cause for concern. His velocity was up compared to his last outing before injury, but he showed little ability to maintain it over more than a dozen pitches or so. That isn’t entirely surprising, as Chapman was out for nearly a month, but he will need to add endurance quickly.

Perhaps most troubling, beyond Chapman’s lack of stamina, was his dearth of command. In particular, check out this zone chart showing the locations of Chapman’s sliders against the Red Sox, courtesy of Baseball Savant:

I count one well-executed slider, the one that was just below the knees, which Chapman threw to Steve Pearce in a 1-2 count. Otherwise, Chapman was way off with his breaking pitch. He hung one way up, lost one low, and left several in the middle of the zone. The slider he hung thigh-high on the inner part of the plate to Mookie Betts was tattooed for a three-run homer:

Chapman’s command of his fastball was a tad better, but still unimpressive:

He at least threw a couple nice fastballs up and on the edge of the zone inside to left-handers, but also missed way wide with his heater to right-handers. Chapman missed middle-middle a couple times, too, though Chapman has always had the pitch speed to get away with some fastballs down Broadway.

We’re only looking at one single outing here, so obviously no hard conclusions can be drawn. At the same time, we’re only going to be trafficking in small samples from here on out. Chapman has a very narrow window to get right before October, and if his first appearance was any indication, he isn’t right right now.

The Yankees need to monitor Chapman closely, to see if his stamina is improving and if he regains a semblance of command. Chapman will probably only have a handful of chances to iron out his endurance and command issues, with the end of the regulars season approaching rapidly. If he hasn’t appeared to have sorted himself when the Wild Card Game rolls around, the Yankees’ position will be a little more precarious.