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Aroldis Chapman and the gnashing of teeth

The Yankees’ closer is one of the greatest relief pitchers of all time. Why doesn’t it feel like that?

New York Yankees v Chicago White Sox Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

This is a story about the eye test.

Yes, the eye test. No, the byline is not a mistake. This is about the eye test because statistically, Aroldis Chapman is amazing. Since the start of the century, just two relievers have been more valuable by fWAR — and everyone knows who is at the top. He’s sixth in K-BB%, seventh in ERA, second in FIP, and while he doesn’t have the workhorse loads of LaTroy Hawkins or longevity of Fernando Rodney, his 615 career innings isn’t anything to sneeze at.

We don’t even have to evaluate him against the rest of the 21st century. Since returning to the Yankees after his Cubs rental period, from 2017 on, this golden age of dominant relievers, he’s in the top 10 across baseball in fWAR, K-BB%, ERA and FIP. When he retires, he’ll likely end up in the Hall of Fame, but until then, statistically, he’s still putting up real value in the ninth inning.

So why do I feel so annoyed when he comes into games?

I know that I’m a Yankee fan, and I’ve been spoiled, not just by the greatest relief pitcher of all time, but by most of the great relievers the Yankees have rolled out over the last twenty years. Mariano Rivera is the standard that can’t be touched, for sure, but even of the 20 most dominant, by K-BB%, relievers since 2000, the Yankees have employed six of them. It’s natural to us to have a shutdown ‘pen to look forward to.

And yet, when it comes to the ninth inning, you’ll likely see in game threads or our Twitter feed something to the effect of “Don’t mess this up, Chapman”, which we don’t really say about any of the other high-leverage arms in the bullpen. Clay Holmes is a security blanket, and even past Yankee relievers like Andrew Miller didn’t engender that kind of sentiment.

Saturday night against the White Sox is a prime example. I really encourage aggressive, go-for-the-throat managing decisions, so if this team is going to have a designated closer, you better not be saving him for a save situation that may never come. Tie game in the ninth, hey, it makes sense to bring out one of the very best relief pitchers in the history of the game, except ... it’s Aroldis Chapman.

Pitchers are going to blow games. Mo blew games. But it just feels more expected with Chapman — maybe it has something to do with the multiple playoff games he’s lost on big home runs, maybe it has something to do with the fact you can always tell, right from the word go, if he doesn’t have it on a given night:

Usually, when an elite reliever blows it, he hangs a slider over the middle, a very obvious mistake but you’ve seen him wipe the floor with hitters using that same pitch, so you brush it off and think it probably won’t happen again.

With Chappy, when he’s off, he’s like that. The only pitches close are pitches right over the heart of the plate. Monday night he was better, working the edges more than Saturday, but still perpetually, semi-effectively wild:

Chapmans has never had Mo’s pinpoint command, and indeed, of that “top 20 relievers by K-BB%” bucket mentioned above, he has the highest career walk rate. So we shouldn’t be surprised that he can tend to be all over the place, but it’s probably the biggest factor in why I just don’t feel as safe with him in the game as you would expect for a player with his resume.

And then last night was, for the most part, more of the same. Chapman got two quick outs and was one measly strike away from fanning light-hitting rookie Tyler Nevin to clinch the Yankees’ 5-3 victory. Seven bad pitches later, the Orioles had scored and had the tying run at third, the winning run at second, and their 2021 MVP at the plate in Cedric Mullins.

In the near-blink of an eye, this effectively-over ballgame was not only prolonged, but in serious danger of turning into a loss. The batters who did this to Chapman involved Nevin, Robinson Chirinos, and Ryan McKenna — not exactly the most intimidating trio in the league. Thankfully, Mullins popped out, so Chapman got the save and the Yankees ended up on top, but it was far from the most comfortable appearance.

If anything, we know that Chapman’s high-leverage role with the Yankees might be reduced for the rest of his time in pinstripes. Holmes worked the ninth on Sunday, with Chappy getting the work in a non-save situation Monday night. Maybe this will change the way I feel about him — I’m certainly more tolerant of the rollercoaster he can be the less likely he is to blow a game — but for how much time, money and energy is spent building a near-bulletproof bullpen, it’s striking that the anchor of the last five years has never really made me feel as calm as he should.