My main criticism of Aroldis Chapman’s pitching is two-fold. Firstly, I think velocity can be largely overrated. As the league’s average fastball velocity continues to climb, the traditional formula of runs allowed being shaved off for every mph gained has diminishing returns. What that also means is that if you lose mph as you age, unless you alter your strategy (like with what we have seen with CC Sabathia), you see a precipitous drop in performance. Chapman has reached that velocity peak already, and while he still sits at 99-101, a lack of rest, like during Friday night’s game, means that 97-99 makes a huge difference.
There’s also the issue with command. In that Friday game he not only couldn’t command his pitches, he couldn’t even control them, hurling a 102 mph fastball over Gary Sanchez’s head and off the umpire’s mask to bring in the tying run. Since his debut in 2010, only Pedro Strop has more wild pitches among relievers. He has also walked about four batters per nine consistently, so that becomes even more of an issue when your strikeout rate is anywhere below 12.
This year he has been quite effective barring that last outing, though, and he has not only kept walks to a relative minimum, but he has bumped he strikeout rate to 18 K/9. There was something incredibly more fascinating that jumped out at me when watching him pitch against the Astros; in particular, this pitch he threw to Evan Gattis:
Aroldis Chapman, Ridiculous 102 mph Fastball movement. pic.twitter.com/Y2XnYS9NWf— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 3, 2018
It’s an incredibly nasty pitch, something I had never seen before from Chapman; the Pitching Ninja noted that he actually threw it once with the Cubs back in 2016:
It definitely sticks out like a sore thumb, in a good way of course. It’s such an odd pitch that pitch classification systems have no real way of identifying it; FanGraphs just labels it a fastball, and Brooks Baseball actually believes it to be a sinker:
By Brooks’ count, which did not pick up on the more subtle 2016 pitch, he has thrown this pitch 13 times in his career. It’s even more odd that it’s just 13. Is this merely an accident, that he lets the ball whip out of his hands so fast it generates arm-side run? Or was this a deliberate attempt to create a pitch that runs counter to his 85 mph slider? It definitely doesn’t seem like an accident that he deployed it a few times against the Astros.
Either way, the Yankees should look at this brief glimpse as an absolute blessing. Once Chapman’s velocity inevitably dips, and it will, a straight 97 mph fastball with an average slider is not going to fool anyone, and then he’s just a run-of-the-mill reliever. But if he were to throw a 97 mph fastball with a 95 two-seamer with that amount of movement, he now has another vector east-west to work with, so hitters aren’t just looking fastball and off-speed in one direction:
I’m sure Chapman will be fine regardless of that this season. I’ve never talked about just a single year with him, but morphing what is a generational skill into something that can last for over a decade, which is next to impossible to do in the relief realm. If he were to unlock the two-seamer, it could one day become a pivotal part of his arsenal in the years to come.