It’s tough enough establishing a consistent routine as an everyday player during the strange 2020 MLB season, but it’s even more difficult for a relief pitcher like Aroldis Chapman. A pitcher with an arm that gets stronger with more reps may have a difficult time getting going in a season where reps have been hard to come by sometimes. The on-again, off-again nature of the schedule has led to periods where Chapman has worked regularly, and periods where he’s had upwards of four days off. Oh, and Chapman’s season was already delayed by his stint on the COVID-IL, although Chapman luckily only experienced mild symptoms.
This is to say that Chapman’s slow start to the 2020 season was just that – a slow start. It was not the impending doomsday some have predicted for the Yankees’ fireballer, the time when his electric fastball will lose velocity and stop dominating hitters, and his slider will be exposed as an average offering. Instead, Chapman’s fastball is as alive as ever in 2020.
Chapman had been experimenting with using his heater less over the past few years, but his usage rate on the cheese in 2020 is the highest it’s been since 2017. The velocity is also largely still there (97.8 mph on average is a tick below the 98.3 he averaged the last two years, but Chapman usually throws harder as the season progresses). Most importantly, opposing hitters still don’t like facing it. Opponents are batting just .059 off Chapman’s fastball this year, and 71.4 percent of his 2020 strikeouts have come on the heat. For comparison, that figure was 50.5 percent last year and 46.2 percent in 2018.
This is encouraging because Chapman had been using his slider more in recent years, especially in two-strike situations. Although his slider isn’t a bad pitch, the drop-off from his excellent fastball to the more pedestrian breaker is noticeable. Eight of the 13 home runs he’s allowed since 2016 have been off the slider, and that includes one rather infamous bomb. When you have a weapon as good as Chapman’s heater, there’s very little reason to let opposing hitters off the hook by throwing them the slider in a put-away situation.
Chapman’s put-away percentage (the amount of time that a two-strike pitch generates a strikeout) has risen on the fastball again. This year, 34.5 percent of his two-strike fastballs are generating strikeouts – in 2019, only 22.3 percent did the job, while only 19.7 percent of his two-strike heaters got whiffs in 2018. His heat maps show that he’s attacking inside a bit more, but it’s not a drastic change. Perhaps it just has more to do with sequencing, and maybe there’s a little bit of small-sample size optimism at play.
There will come a day when Chapman’s fastball becomes mortal, and to be honest, he’s not well-equipped for that day with his less impressive slider as his only other offering. That day has not yet come. Chapman’s fastball is still one of the 10 fastest in Major League Baseball, and he’s generating lots of whiffs on it. For Chapman to succeed in 2020, he needs to use his fastball before he loses it, and he’s been doing that so far.