Aroldis Chapman. Terrific reliever. Glad he's gone. Wish he was never here.
Although it was all but a foregone conclusion after he refused to show up for the Yankees' pre-playoff workouts without a guarantee that he'd make the roster, Aroldis Chapman is now officially an ex-Yankee, after signing a 1-year, $3.75 million contract with the Kansas City Royals this week. For most Yankee fans, the farewell here is going to be less teary and more like a Michael Kay "See Ya!". Chapman is a player who occupies a weird space in recent Yankee history, where he was technically good, but completely unenjoyable.
Chapman had a nine-year run from 2012-2020 of being a truly elite reliever. The length of that stretch puts him in some pretty rarified company, since top relievers' runs of dominance rarely last that long. All told, Chapman is probably a top 20 or 25 relief pitcher of all time, and top-10 of the last 35 years or so since the modern short reliever role really emerged. Since 1988, Chapman is sixth among relievers in fWAR and third in K-rate. His 2.48 ERA is well lower than hall of famers Lee Smith and Trevor Hoffman. It's not like the Yankees only got the tail end of this either. They had Chapman for more than five of those nine years - overall he gave them a 147 ERA+,1.14 WHIP and 153 saves, which is third in team history. If you like seeing triple digits on radar guns, he was your guy for that, too, ranking in the 99th or 100th percentile in fastball velo in six of his seven Yankee years (and still in the 96th in 2022).
OK, but lets get to that unenjoyable part. The circumstances under which Chapman arrived were...not great. Brian Cashman essentially money-balled off Chapman being one of the first MLB players suspended under its domestic violence policy - he brought him in for a light prospect package headlined by Eric Jagielo and Rookie Davis then flipped him months later for top-20 at the time prospect Gleyber Torres. That should have been the end of it, but instead, the Yankees brought Chapman back the following winter for five years and $86 million, a contract that nearly doubled the largest one they ever gave Mariano Rivera. After he opted out of that deal and was re-signed post-2019, the Yankees ended up paying Chapman just under $100 million from 2017-2022, while passing on more pressing needs to dip under the luxury tax twice.
Even in his good years, Chapman had stretches where he'd lose the plate, and for most of his tenure there were so many restrictions for how and when he could be used...only in save situations in the ninth or later, only for an inning at a time, and so on. Maybe it was because Chapman applied such maximum effort on every pitch, but he never pitched more than 57 innings in a season as a Yankee. Reliever usage is down even since Rivera's day, but even Chapman's closest contemporaries like Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel have been routinely in the 60's. And then there's the kicker - Chapman gave up go-ahead homers in season-ending series losses in back to back years in 2019 and 2020. He has been pretty solid in the postseason overall, but if you look at his most crucial moments as a Yankee, well there's Jose Altuve and Mike Broussard looking back.
One bright side, though, is that Aroldis Chapman seems to have taught the Yankees something really important - which is that you don't need Aroldis Chapman. For several years, Brian Cashman worked under the belief that a team could hide its starting pitching deficiencies and save money by investing heavily in the bullpen, as top relievers cost much less than top starters. From 2015-2019 the Yankees made a lot of moves to bring in or re-up star relievers like Andrew Miller, David Robertson, Zack Britton, Adam Ottavino and Chapman. In 2019 alone, they spent close to $40 million, or around 20 percent of their total payroll, on the latter trio. In 2021, as they lowered payroll to reset the luxury tax, they were still on the hook for $30 million for a washed Chapman and a hurt Britton.
But since then, they've focused on bringing along their own young relievers or finding talented arms undervalued by other teams. They haven't lost much production, if any. In 2022, they got just 0.4 less fWAR from the troika of Clay Holmes, Wandy Peralta and Michael King than they did in 2019 from Chapman, Britton and Ottavino, despite King missing the final two months. This winter they've kept up the same tact outside of a modest deal for Tommy Kahnle. As Yankee fans we were trained by the Rivera years to believe that a superstar closer is super-important, but that's just not the case. Mo was important. Just about every other reliever of the past four decades wasn't. That's even more true in the era we're in now, when a typical bullpen uses six or seven guys regularly in close games, not two or three like in 2003.