The Yankees have an Aroldis Chapman problem. Their once-shutdown closer has been anything but for large stretches this season. Entering the back stretch, with each game taking on more importance than the one prior, the Bombers can ill-afford to squander wins via bullpen meltdowns.
Chapman’s 2021 season has been one of the topsy-turviest years for a reliever in recent memory. Through his first 23 appearances, he was the most dominant pitcher in baseball, with a 0.39 ERA and an inconceivable 50.6 percent strikeout rate. In his next nine outings, he was the most hittable pitcher in baseball, giving up 15 runs (14 earned) on 14 hits, nine walks, and four home runs in only 5.2 innings.
Things stabilized over his next eleven appearances, with the run suppression and wipeout stuff back to where we expected. Unfortunately, the volatile, borderline-unplayable Chapman has returned in two of his last three outings. The common thread across these wild swings in effectiveness: fastball command (or lack thereof).
I don’t need to tell you how good Chapman’s fastball can be. At its blazing best, it might be the most unhittable pitch in baseball. That said, I’ve always viewed Chapman as one of the premier tightrope walkers in the league. He’s an effectively wild pitcher, the type who rears back and heaves the heater as hard as possible rather than try to hit a spot.
David Cone has frequently mentioned the importance of release point when talking about Chapman’s fastball on YES broadcasts. When he has a consistent release point that he can repeat with confidence, he’s the best closer on the planet. However, when that release point gets out of whack, Chapman genuinely has no idea where the fastball is going. His three most recent outings are a perfect encapsulation of this point.
First we have his August 18 appearance against the Red Sox. He gave up a run on two hits and a walk, recording only two outs before being replaced by Lucas Luetge. For every good fastball, there’s another that missed by a foot.
Then we have his August 23 appearance against the Twins, when he retired the side in order on 11 pitches. Look how well he located the fastball on the edges of the zone.
Finally we have the pièce de résistance: Tuesday’s meltdown against the Twins. Only two fastballs found the zone, and after walking in a run, Chapman had to be pulled for Wandy Peralta to save the game.
Some of my fellow writers and I have been tearing our hair out trying to figure out where it all went wrong for Chapman. How could he be so lights-out in the first few months, only to forget how to throw a strike in many subsequent outings? Long story short, we don’t have a definitive answer, though one explanation I find particularly compelling is related to the league’s crackdown on foreign substances.
Chapman’s first stinker came on June 10 against the Twins, when he gave up four runs in the ninth. This game coincided with the same week that MLB announced that they would enforce the sticky substance ban on pitchers. Prior to that June 5 announcement, Chapman threw the four-seamer for a strike about 68.7 percent of the time. Post-announcement, that fell to roughly 61.1 percent. 7.6 points may not seem like a big deal, but in the world of pitching, it’s a sizeable disparity. While there is no definitive proof that Chapman was using a foreign substance, the numbers paint a pretty damning picture.
My theory — or rather our theory, considering the amount I’ve discussed this topic with my colleague Josh — is that an unforeseen consequence of the foreign substance ban has been a loss of fastball command. Sticky grip enhancers can be just as important for locating pitches as they are for generating extra spin. So, for a pitcher like Chapman who already has a tenuous grasp on fastball command, taking away something that allows him to control the pitch means he can no longer trust it.
On an individual game level, as soon as the trust in the fastball goes, Chapman is reduced to a one-pitch pitcher. Because he cannot reliably throw his splitter for strikes, Chapman is forced to rely solely on the slider. As part of a larger arsenal, it’s a good pitch, but when hitters can sit slider, they tee off. Everyone and their mother knew a slider was coming to Jorge Soler Tuesday night, which allowed him to spit on five straight.
So what do the Yankees do? The simple solution would be to remove Chapman from the closer role until he irons out the issues with his fastball. There are two major hurdles that could ground that plan before liftoff. First, the best Yankees team includes a full-strength Chapman in the ninth inning, and who knows what effect demoting him in the interim could have. Second is the Yankees’ own well-documented stubbornness.
Aaron Boone says Aroldis Chapman is the #Yankees closer.— Justin Shackil (@JustinShackil) August 18, 2021
In recent years, the Yankees have at times followed a strict, unyielding adherence to bullpen roles. Last year, Aaron Boone referred to these as “lanes.” In practice, this took the form of guys being assigned specific innings, and rarely being used in other situations — think Zack Britton for the eighth and Chapman for the ninth.
Chapman’s roughly $17 million salary is also no small matter. Would the Yankees really be willing to relegate a $17 million man to low-leverage middle inning appearances for a sustained stretch until the fastball command returns? Methinks not. Combined, the Yankees’ past behavior and Chapman’s salary would normally lead me to dismiss the plan to pull him from the closer role as dead in the water.
However, Boone has displayed a level of flexibility previously unseen when dealing with Chapman this season. Following his blown save against the Mets in early July, Chapman was replaced as closer by Chad Green for a two-week stretch. And more recently, we have seen an almost startling level of impatience from Boone when Chapman’s outings turn south.
Rather than leaving Chapman in to clean up his own mess, Boone has shown little hesitation to give Chapman the hook and bring in another reliever to complete the save. As I mentioned before, Boone went to Luetge to record the final out of the August 18 game against the Red Sox. Then on Tuesday, Boone called on Peralta to secure the final out of the 5-4 nail-biter against the Braves. That’s two out of the last three Chapman outings that he has been yanked from the game! You don’t see Dave Roberts pull Kenley Jansen or Tony La Russa pull Liam Hendriks for the final out of the game.
That’s what gives me hope that the Yankees may opt for a proactive approach to fix their closer. As I said earlier, if the Yankees are to achieve their goals this season, they will need a once-again dominant Chapman locking down victories. For the time being though, it’s hard to justify continuing to trot him out there with the game on the line.