Throughout Aroldis Chapman’s career, he has consistently been one of the more dominant relievers in all of baseball. Known for his flame-throwing capability, he has pretty much coasted so far in his career by blowing 101 past his opponents, yet he has typically struggled with command.
Chapman has a career 11.4% walk rate, 2.6% higher than the MLB average. The majority of the time he comes in to pitch, he is lights out, but there has always been a part of him that can completely let a game go. Yankee fans saw it at times last year, and the world saw it in 2016 when he blew the Cubs’ lead in Game Seven of the World Series against the Indians. Obviously, if a player catches up to a 102 mph fastball, you just have to tip your cap, but observers of Chapman know to panic if he comes out of the bullpen and throws three straight balls the catcher can barely reach.
If you compare Chapman’s statistics from last year and this year, though, you may be a little confused. They don’t seem to correlate with each other. Stacked next to 2018, Chapman has a worse K/9, a worse K%, and a higher BABIP, but his ERA is better. This is where we need to dive a little deeper.
Below are two heat-maps, courtesy of Baseball Savant. The first shows his slider location from the 2018 season, and the second shows the same from this season.
Obviously, 2019 has a smaller sample size, but so far this year, Chapman has clearly avoided leaving the slider up and has done an excellent job burying it in the zone. Good luck to hitters trying to barrel his breaking ball down there. We can even take a look at another one of his pitches to see his increased control. First, here’s what his fastball location looked like last year:
Then, of course, compared to this season:
So, once again, he has gained more control over his fastball and has simply pounded the strike zone with his prodigious heat.
This all might help explain why Chapman’s FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching, has improved. Last year, Chapman posted a 2.09 FIP, but like his ERA, his FIP has fallen in 2019, down to 1.65. As FIP attempts to estimate a pitcher’s play independent of defense by focusing solely on strikeouts, walks, home runs, and hit-by-pitches, it appears Chapman has been better this season at taking the game into his own hands.
What you can take from all this is that so far this season, Chapman seems to have gained a little more control and command over his game. This would make sense, as he is aging and cannot consistently hit 103 mph anymore. In a way, while still throwing in the high-nineties, he may have to transition to his own form of a finesse pitcher. We’ll see how he plays for the rest of the season, but so far he has been more consistent, which is what this team needs from a ninth-inning anchor.