Aroldis Chapman’s season consisted of unfortunate bookends, starting with a positive coronavirus test that delayed the start of his 2020 campaign, and ending with yet another deflating playoff homer. It’s the second year in a row Chapman’s last appearance of the season concluded with a moment Yankees fans couldn’t forget soon enough.
Chapman’s overall solid season started late and ended with three straight extended appearances due to diminished bullpen options, but his defining moment once again boiled down to being on the wrong end of a heartbreaking October moment, the exact one he’s being paid to prevent.
2020 Statistics: 13 games, 11.2 IP, 3.09 ERA, 2.93 FIP, 17.0 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 0.4 WAR
2021 Contract Status: Signed through 2022, 3 yrs/$48M (20-22)
Despite the brutal ending, Chapman was still solid out of the bullpen in what was a very brief sample size. The lefty wasn’t helped by a tough start to the season that included three earned runs in his first full inning of work, which included surrendering a walk-off home run to Amed Rosario and the Mets on Aug. 28. But Chapman settled in from there and returned to form through the rest of the regular season, allowing just one run over his next 10.2 innings of work, striking out 20 batters over that span.
Over Chapman’s final nine appearances of the regular season, he never pitched more than a full inning, and recorded at least two strikeouts in all of those appearances. The result was a strikeout rate of 17 per nine innings, his highest mark since his 2014 season with the Reds. That rate likely wouldn’t have held through a full season, but it seemed like Chapman internalized the shortened season reality and let it fly in 2020. His fastball velocity, like usual, sat in the 99th percentile of the league, and his first outing included a strikeout pitch to Rafael Devers that eclipsed 101 mph. So Chapman came out of the gate dealing, and stuck with his fastball more than usual through his drastically shortened season.
Chapman’s fastball usage in 2020 was a direct contrast to how he had been trending over the past four years, and while his average fastball velocity was the lowest of his career at 97.8 mph, his spin rate was the highest since 2016. If Chapman can maintain a higher spin rate to contrast a declining velocity that comes with age, he should be able to remain effective in the final years of his contract.
Of course, remaining effective will also come with a fresh arm that doesn’t fade out by the end of the season, and it can be argued that Chapman had to be relied upon too much at the end of the ALDS. Chapman pitched more than a full inning in his final three postseason appearances, something he never did over the course of the regular season. It worked out fine over the first two appearances before he surrendered the game-winning home run to Michael Brosseau in Game Five. Sure, Chapman was rested through the regular season, but how much does previous rest factor in during an immediate stretch of a heightened workload? The loss of Tommy Kahnle likely played a part in how the season ended, as Aaron Boone was forced to lean heavily on Chapman in an attempt to close out the series, and for the second year in a row, Chapman couldn’t finish the job.
With two years left on his contract, it will be interesting to see how Chapman navigates through a full season, if we get one in 2021. His fastball rate was up in 2020, but it was also hit harder than his previous two seasons. Perhaps he takes the offseason to perfect the splitter that he briefly introduced this year. Chapman will likely continue to be productive, but the Yankees would love to see that production end with Chapman on the mound when the final out of a postseason series is recorded, not walking off of it after surrendering a crippling home run.