Since returning to the Yankees for a second stint, Aroldis Chapman has been the imposing face of some of the most feared bullpens in recent memory, and this year was supposed to be no exception. Unfortunately for the Yankees, though, Chapman took a big step back this season after a blazing hot start.
2021 Statistics: 61 games, 56.1 IP, 3.36 ERA, 3.99 FIP, 3.13 xFIP, 15.5 K/9, 6.1 BB/9, 0.6 fWAR
2022 Contract Status: $18,000,000 salary, last year of contract
It was a tale of two seasons for Chapman, who began 2021 on arguably the most dominant stretch of his entire career. From the beginning of April until the beginning of June — a span of 23 relief appearances — he was lights out, pitching to a 0.39 ERA, 1.43 FIP, 1.56 xFIP, and 16.83 K/9 while recording 12 saves.
Over the course of his next 38 appearances, however, Chapman pitched to a 5.40 ERA, 5.75 FIP, 4.22 xFIP, and a whopping 7.3 BB/9. For a stretch of about three or four weeks, Chapman lost control of everything he threw, resulting in him being temporarily demoted from the closer role.
So, what caused this sharp midseason decline? Statcast, as always, has some potential answers.
First, let’s talk about his control issues. Chapman’s walk percentage has always been bad — his career mark is 11.6 percent. In 2021, however, his walk rate ballooned to a staggeringly bad 15.6 percent. A high walk rate is typical for an effectively wild (for lack of a better term) flamethrower, but that mark is truly startling.
Secondly, there’s his xWOBACON. For his career, Chapman’s xWOBACON sits at .344 across 685 batted balls. That’s not a bad mark for a pitcher who relies on a hard fastball and, as a result, gives up a lot of hard contact. In 2021, though, this mark jumped to .435 across 105 batted balls. That’s a nearly 100 point swing. While there was some concern about his unusually high 2020 mark (.436) it was mostly chalked up to a small sample size, seeing as he only gave up 18 batted ball situations. As this season proved, however, this might be the new reality for Chapman.
Finally, let’s talk about his fastball. While his velocity was right in line with what it’s hovered around since 2017, his usage — 56.7 percent — was the lowest rate of his career. Chapman’s fastball has never been a high whiff pitch, but his jumps in wOBA and xWOBA on fastballs are startling to say the least. On 569 four-seam fastballs, his wOBA jumped from .290 in 2019 to .453 in 2021. Following suit, his xWOBA jumped from .314 to .420. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a drastic change before. Additionally, his hard hit percentage on fastballs jumped from just 24.2 percent in 2019 to a whopping 46.7 percent in 2021.
From roughly June until mid-September, it appeared that the problem with Chapman was simple: he couldn’t find the grip on his fastball anymore. Based on the Statcast data, though, it turns out that it wasn’t that simple. Not only did he struggle mightily with his command — a serious problem for a pitcher who has always had issues controlling his pitches — but, when he did locate his fastball, it was getting hit very, very hard. And, for the first time in his career, those hits were landing consistently.
Now, there are a few possible ways to look at these issues, and I want to address the elephant in the room right away. Major League Baseball’s crack down on sticky substances coincided with Chapman’s midseason issues. While his spin rates suggest he wasn’t using sticky stuff in terms of generating more spin, it is entirely possible that he was using it to gain a bit more control over the baseball.
Secondly, there are the injuries. It’s impossible to look past the gnarly fingernail issue he pitched through for nearly three weeks when discussing his atrocious numbers in June. I know a fingernail injury seems trivial at best to most, but it can be truly devastating for pitchers, and that’s especially true of pitchers who already struggle with their command when healthy. Additionally, Chapman spent some time on the IL with left elbow inflammation. While we don’t know the full extent of that injury, hearing about an elbow injury is always cause for concern for pitchers.
If you’re looking for positives from Chapman’s 2021 season, though, look at the bookends. As I mentioned earlier, his first 23 appearances of the season were the best stretch of his career. Likewise, his final 10 appearances were a return to form for the All-Star, as he pitched to a 0.93 ERA, 2.24 FIP, 2.17 xFIP, and 15.83 K/9 while dropping his BB/9 to a more respectable 2.79. Those 33 appearances account for over half of his season, and, for me, saved his season from a failing grade.
Looking forward, it’s hard to know what to expect from Chapman. Once the model of relief consistency, he’ll be 34 and showing serious signs of decline when the 2022 season starts. He’s also owed an exorbitant $18,000,000. The only thing I’m sure of at this point is that the Yankees really need him to regain his All-Star form.