There are not many positives the Yankees can take away from the mostly-lifeless showing against the Blue Jays this week. The Bombers lost three out of four divisional games at the worst possible time, adding much unneeded stress to the season finale against the Marlins. In their three losses, the offense mustered only seven runs while the pitching imploded to the tune of 29 runs surrendered. However, the Yankees can feel encouraged by one development from the disappointing series.
Aroldis Chapman confused viewers and Statcast alike Thursday night with a diabolical pitch to Alejandro Kirk. Entering in the bottom of the eighth inning of the 4-1 loss, the Yankees closer busted out a splitter with a tremendous amount of depth and gloveside run. The movement profile was so unorthodox that Statcast misidentified it as a slider, however closer inspection of his grip and the spin reveal that the pitch was indeed a splitter diving in on the right-handed Kirk.
Just to prove that the pitch wasn’t a fluke, Chapman finished off the at-bat with a more traditional armside splitter to collect the sword and leave Kirk completely bamboozled. This second splitter in the at-bat, while not as comically knee-bending as the first, still showed an impressive amount of depth and fade that you want out of a typical split. It’s the kind of movement that is so hard for a hitter to square up.
The two splitters bookended an untouchable 101 MPH fastball that was in Gary Sánchez’s glove by the time Kirk had swung. This unfair three-pitch sequence gave us a sneak peek into the devastating potential of incorporating this new weapon. You can see below the disruption in the hitter’s timing as well as the impossibility of covering all three pitch locations.
This isn’t the first time Chapman has experimented with the splitter. Entering spring training with the Reds in 2013, Chapman wanted to add a third pitch to the fastball-slider mix. He threw it in several spring outings, eliciting praise from then-manager Dusty Baker. Whatever success he experienced with the splitter that spring, Chapman scrapped the pitch by the regular season, and it was not to be seen again until Thursday night.
For a pitcher experiencing his worst season in pinstripes, Chapman needs to get creative to maintain his effectiveness as closer for the duration of his contract. His ERA and FIP are the highest they’ve been since joining the Yankees. His average fastball velocity is at a nadir while the Barrel% against has more than doubled from last year. Hitters are slugging his slider nearly double his next-highest season.
It appears part of the solution is to develop a third pitch rather than refine his current offerings, and I’m 100% on board. The splitter tends to be more difficult to identify out of the pitcher’s hand than a slider as it does not have the stereotypical “dot” you hear about. Its sinking action also means that a hanger is probably less likely to leave the yard than a hanging slider.
David Cone spoke to the merits of developing the splitter on last night’s YES broadcast of the game against the Marlins. He referenced the infamous 2-0 slider that Jose Altuve hit to walk off the 2019 ALCS, and how a splitter with fading action would be a much more effective pitch against a right hander. Undershirt buzzer or not, as soon as it became clear Chapman could not command his fastball, Altuve could basically assume a slider was coming.
We all know how fickle Chapman’s fastball command can be. Once a hitter is able to eliminate an offering from a two-pitch pitcher, his job becomes that much simpler — all he has to do is wait for Chapman to throw a hanger. Throw a third pitch into the mix, and all of a sudden it’s back to a guessing game for the batter.
The Yankees are in the midst of their championship window. Although he is one of the less talked about components of that window being open, Aroldis Chapman is nonetheless an indispensable weapon that the Yankees need to be able to rely on. They need him to dominate hitters in the highest leverage scenarios just as he has for the last five years, and a valuable asset in that role is his new-found splitter.