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Yankees 2021 Season Preview: Aroldis Chapman

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The Yankees’ closer again has to shake off a lousy ending to an otherwise-fine year.

Division Series - New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Five Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Aroldis Chapman’s Yankees career has been a bumpy ride. On the positive side, he’s been a statistically great reliever — since 2016, only one reliever (Kenley Jansen) has a higher WAR than Chapman, and it’s only by one-tenth of a point. He also has the fifth-best strikeout rate, fourth-best home run rate, third-best ERA and best FIP of all relievers over that span.

However, his tenure has also been marred by throwing the pitches that doomed the Yankees’ 2019 and 2020 seasons, as well as a personal conduct suspension that hurt his reputation before he even threw a pitch in pinstripes. There’s always something to talk about with Chapman.

All of the game’s best closers have suffered blown saves in prominent moments; not even Mariano Rivera can claim perfection. The key is how they bounce back from those situations. After failing to fully do so last year, Chapman will have another chance as the Yankees’ closer in 2021.

2020 Stats: 11.2 IP, 3.09 ERA, 2.93 FIP, 0.86 WHIP, 3 SV, 16.97 K/9, 3.09 BB/9, 1.54 HR/9, 0.4 bWAR, 0.3 fWAR

2021 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 63 IP, 2.95 ERA, 2.94 FIP, 31 SV, 14.08 K/9, 4.26 BB/9, 0.90 HR/9, 1.9 fWAR

I have already made the case for why Chapman is the Yankees’ best option to keep closing games, and he will enter the 2021 campaign as the team’s ninth-inning guy yet again. This time though, he has a much better bullpen bridge to set things up. Although the Yankees could only trust two other non-Chapman relievers in last year’s playoffs, they’ve added Darren O’Day and Justin Wilson to pair with Zack Britton and Chad Green as the team’s setup and middle relief options this year. The final pitches will still come down to Chapman, but the team’s overall improved bullpen should make contests a little less stressful for Chapman.

The good news is that Chapman still has his stuff. We only have an 11-inning sample size to work with from last year, but his strikeout rate was higher than usual, and his walk rate didn’t get worse. Although his fastball velocity isn’t what it once was, it still averages an excellent 97.8 mph and generated a 42 percent whiff rate.

The one alarming part of Chapman’s performance was his dramatic spike in home runs allowed. Again, it was barely 15 innings (including the postseason), but he allowed two dingers in the regular season and that fateful blow to Mike Brosseau in Game 5 of the ALDS. Some of that could just be bad luck, though, because his hard-hit rate (27.8 percent) and average exit velocity (83.1 mph) were still well above-average. Still, Chapman’s home run rate will be something to watch in 2021.

Chapman turns 33 in three days, so he won’t be adding any serious fastball velocity at this point in his career. Despite that fact, Chapman has indicated that he may try out his new splitter, an offering that showed promise in very limited usage last season. For Chapman to continue to succeed over the life of his contract with the Yankees (which runs through next season), he’ll have to continue to find new ways to get hitters out as his fastball could experience some age-related regression.

For the 2021 Yankees, Aroldis Chapman is still the mainstay at the end of the team’s bullpen. After excruciating defeats to end the 2019 and 2020 campaigns, the Yankees are counting on Chapman to get the last out of the season this year. The Yankees’ statistically-superior closer should be able to provide another solid regular season, and hopefully a successful playoff run.