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Inside Aroldis Chapman’s tumultuous season

The Yankees closer hasn't been quite the same in 2021.

MLB: New York Yankees at Atlanta Braves Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the Yankees had the best to ever do it closing out games in the ninth. Mariano Rivera was about as automatic as relievers come, and when he retired, there was a gigantic hole in the back of the bullpen left to be filled by Brian Cashman.

For a couple years, the Yankees plugged the gap with David Robertson and Andrew Miller, but with all of the resources at their disposal, they couldn’t resist bringing one of the top closers of this generation into the fold in Aroldis Chapman. There’s plenty of context to be added here, but most fans are familiar with the story of his arrival in New York and quick return following his Cubs detour. The Yankees signed him to a five-year, $86 million contract in the 2016-17 offseason, and despite every reasonable reservation one might still have, the player Aroldis Chapman stabilized the closer position for New York.

Yet here we are in 2021, and the hard-throwing lefty is having his worst campaign since his establishment as a perennial All-Star.

What happened?

Even in the age of pumping heat, Chapman is an outlier, and that has driven his success throughout his illustrious career. Given that his success is predicated on his fastball, it stands to reason that any step back in performance would have something to do with that as well.

Looking at his Pitch%, there has been a drop in the four-seam fastball usage over the years, but sitting at 58.5 percent, he’s basically at the same mark as in his last full season, 2019 — a pretty successful one. The spin rate dropped from 2451 to 2389 between 2020 to 2021, a slight decline that has been well-documented.

The problem for Chapman is that opposing hitters are doing damage we’re not accustomed to seeing against the heater. Here are the numbers:

  • 453 Pitches
  • 53 Batted Ball Events
  • .301 Batting Average
  • .575 Slugging Percentage
  • 29.3% Whiff%

For just one example of the surprising slugging success, look no further than Chapman’s blown save against the Twins on June 11th. Both Josh Donaldson and Nelson Cruz found success squaring up fastballs that — to be generous — weren’t Chapman’s best:

Those struggles, plus the veteran closer’s highest walk rate in a decade (16.2 percent), have led to an underwhelming season despite his previously high standards.

For the second year in a row, Chapman has allowed significant xwOBAcon (expected weighted on base average on contact): .437 and .453 in 2020 and 2021 respectively. For context, his career mark has usually hovered around the low .300s. This means that when hitters make contact, they’re not popping up or hitting the ball softly; they’re making loud contact. That, combined with more traffic on the bases thanks to Chapman’s inflated walk rate, is a recipe for crooked numbers.

The Yankees can at least be thankful that the situation with Chapman is not as bleak as it appeared during that terrible stretch near the All-Star Game. His ability to miss bats is still there, with 76 strikeouts over 45 innings, though since returning from the IL on August 18th, the uncomfortably shaky Chapman has returned. He’s been just as likely to dominate — as he did on Wednesday in Anaheim — as he is to look lost and fall apart — as he did yesterday against the Orioles.

So how will Aaron Boone proceed moving forward?

The Yankees are in the very thick of it in the race for October, and they’ll need bullpen stability to make any sort of noise. With that in mind, a couple points need to be acknowledged:

1. Aroldis Chapman in 2021 provides Yankees fans with the anxiety that so many other fanbases are familiar with in the ninth. The late-game instability is far from reassuring.

2. There are other relievers notching good seasons in New York, from Jonathan Loáisiga* to Chad Green and Lucas Luetge, just to name a few. However, they might be best deployed while not being locked into a particular inning, like the ninth.

So for now, it very well could make sense to keep the effective-enough Chapman where he’s most comfortable, unless specific game situations necessitate a move. The other relievers’ flexibility only makes them more valuable. If Chapman’s struggles continue throughout the start of September, then another discussion will be ahead.

There's still a month left for Chapman to improve his overall numbers and head into October with a high confidence level, but it's doubtful that the needle will really move either way at this point. The Yankees seem comfortable enough to stand by Chapman, and they’ll just have to hope the the Jekyll version comes out as the pennant race winds down rather than Hyde.

*Note: This article was written prior to the news of Loáisiga’s injury.