The Yankees slumped through their first few games of the season badly enough to fall to 6-11 at one point, their worst start since 1991. Although they fell back to .500 last night, they’ve still been playing better lately, going 10-5 since the poor beginning. Several players have gone hot and cold during the first five weeks of the season, but we can safely say that there have been two consistently dominant players on the roster whose level of play is a notch or two above everybody else: Gerrit Cole and Aroldis Chapman.
Much has been written about Cole at this point. He was the American League Pitcher of the Month in April, with a 1.61 ERA, a 40.2 percent strikeout rate and an unreal 1.8 percent walk rate so far. In the late innings, though, Chapman has been just as dominant wrapping up ballgames.
The closer has an immaculate 0.00 ERA with a negative FIP at-0.81. He has been that good, mostly fueled by a mind-blowing 68.4-percent strikeout rate. At 0.8, Chapman had twice as many Wins Above Replacement (FanGraphs edition) as every member of the starting rotation not named Gerrit Cole entering Friday.
You could say that Chapman is having a historic season and wouldn’t be wrong. However, we should note that the sample size available (11 innings) isn’t nearly enough to crown him as the man who will post the greatest campaign ever by a bullpen arm — not yet anyway. We have to give him more time.
So it’s more accurate to say that Chapman is having a historic start of the season. And everything is backed by career-best numbers across the board, including whiff rate (45.5), strikeout rate, FIP, ERA, and zone percentage (61.3.) Basically, he is earning more strikes than ever, evidenced by his excellent CSW (called strike + whiffs) of 37.5 percent, the second-best mark of his spectacular major league tenure.
An improved walk rate (a career-low 7.9 percent) and the introduction of a splitter have been the two keys for his immaculate season. So far, seven at-bats have ended with a splitter thrown by Chapman. He has gone seven-for-seven in finishing said at-bats with a strikeout. The pitch has an absurd 66.7 whiff rate. If Chapman keeps throwing it with confidence, he could be in for the best year of his career.
For reference, here are Chapman’s best seasons, by fWAR:
2012: 71.2 IP, 1.51 ERA, 1.55 FIP, 15.32 K/9, 3.2 fWAR
2014: 54.0 IP, 2.00 ERA, 0.89 FIP, 17.67 K/9, 2.8 fWAR
2016: 58.0 IP, 1.55 ERA, 1.42 FIP, 13.97 K/9, 2.7 fWAR
If he keeps his current level up, he is on pace to shatter his best seasonal fWAR and perhaps approach the 4.0 mark. Lots of starters would kill for a 4.0 fWAR year.
Chapman is, evidently, pitching at his very best. What he did in April — having a month with a perfect ERA — isn’t unprecedented for him. He’s done that nine times, including thrice in 2012 and at least once per year from 2014-17.
However, Chapman had finished a month with a negative FIP only once before April 2021, and it was with the Reds in July 2012, when he had a -0.60 FIP. Yet, that mark falls short of the -0.77 he just posted, and the 59.6 strikeout percentage he had in that summer of 2012 is also lower than the 69.0 percent register he put in the first month of this campaign.
That 2012 season is the closest barometer to Chapman’s performance thus far. En route to his first All-Star campaign and the only year of his career in which he also earned both Cy Young and MVP votes, he didn’t allow a single run until June 7th — a string of 29 consecutive scoreless frames (35 dating back to the end of 2011). Chapman notched a career-best 3.2 fWAR in 71.2 innings, striking out 122 batters and saving 38 games as the Reds won the NL Central.
Chapman appeared to be at the peak of his powers in 2012, but until he actually starts allowing runs again, he has a chance to somehow surpass it at age 33. He’s beating his 2012 peripherals in every category, and with his new splitter complimenting his already-imposing repertoire, he could end up being more dominant than he’s ever been during his excellent career.