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Is Aroldis Chapman worst when the lights are dim?

The closer’s numbers plummet in low leverage situations.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

In a recent Twitter Spaces hosted by Pinstripe Alley, there was a brief discussion about the Yankees’ closer, Aroldis Chapman. Looking at his 2021 season retrospectively is a difficult task — there were great times and there were not so great times. It was tough to pin down why one dominant month would be followed up by an awful month. A lot of the closer’s struggles are very easy to see, however, as he looks noticeably uncomfortable on the mound.

During the Spaces discussion, the idea was proposed that Chapman needs a little bit of motivation to bring his next level of focus. In other words, does Chapman only deliver when he’s got a bit of pressure on? We certainly cannot get into this head to understand how he is feeling in each situation, but we can take a look at how his performance varies when leverage increases or decreases.

Chapman has mostly been an elite reliever for the Yankees, so the expectations are that this mostly made a difference only this year. Let’s see if that’s the case. As you’d imagine, he had the most innings in high leverage situations (24.1 IP), followed by medium leverage (17.1 IP), then low leverage (14.2 IP). That should happen for a closer on one of the league’s contending teams.

For this type of exercise, I think it’s best to look at FIP over ERA. There is a time and place for both, but I’m mainly concerned with what Chapman controlled himself. The eye test says he loses his cool and command when the stakes are low. Predictably, the statistics back this up for the 2021 season. When the lights were dim, Chapman was awful. His walk rate shot up about five percent and his FIP ballooned to 5.62.

In comparison, his FIP in medium leverage situations was 2.59, much closer to his dominant form we were accustomed to seeing in previous seasons. In high leverage situations, his numbers are right in the middle. His K% decreases slightly and his FIP increased back up to 3.99. Perhaps Chapman lost some of his strikeout touch, but he was still decent. Don’t get me wrong, it’s right to have high expectations for a player of Chapman’s caliber no matter the leverage. I’m just curious to see if this anecdotal note was backed up by the numbers.

Just by looking at his stats in different levels of leverage, it’s easy to conclude that in 2021, Chapman needed a fire under him to bring his best stuff. This feels like it has been the case for a while. Luckily, we can check other seasons! His sample size in 2020 is miniscule, but when skipping to 2019, we can see Chapman’s worst innings were also in low leverage situations (2.81 FIP). In medium and high, his FIP was 1.74 and 2.27, respectively. The trend didn’t continue in 2018, but again, this anecdote was for mainly this season, and it turns out to be true.

I’m not sure what the remedy is for Chapman, it’s not ideal for your closer to be put into relatively easy situations and make them difficult. It’s possible Aaron Boone could keep Chapman away from them altogether, but if he needs the work then there’s no avoiding it. This happens to closers every now and then, and it’s up to them to narrow their focus no matter the situation. Let’s hope Chapman can put it together on his own.