The Curious Case of Aroldis Chapman – Yankee Bandwagon
A week ago Sunday, news emerged that the Yankees and the five time All Star hurler dubbed “The Cuban Missile”, Aroldis Chapman, had reached an agreement to extend his contract to a $48 million, 3 year deal. The news comes after a lot of speculation following another relatively dominant, yet uncharacteristically poor season for the 2016 World Series champion.
I’m not here to completely bash Chapman. He had a very solid year, one of his best since being traded back to the Yankees following the 2016 season where he posted a mind boggling 1.01 ERA. This season saw his ERA register at 2.21, earning him league wide praise as well as the American League Reliever of the Year award. To say that Chapman “fell off”, “lost his stuff” or “no longer has what it takes”, would be a gross mischaracterization of the Cuban born closer, however there were some notable differences in 2019.
From the early days of spring training there were murmurs of a loss in velocity, something which is the foundation of Chapmans entire pitching repertoire. Compared to his World Series winning season in which his average fastball was an impressive 101 miles per hour, 2019 saw Chapman finish the year with an average speed of 98 on his pitches. This isn’t necessarily cause for great concern. Clearly he won’t need to rework his stuff from a power to a finesse pitcher like Sabathia did years ago, or change anything for that matter, however velocity coupled with pitch placement proved to be a challenge for Chapman in tight situations.
Instances of loading the bases against Minnesota and giving up a walk off home run to Travis d’Arnaud,showed the Yankee faithful flashes of a Chapman who struggled with power and placement, an issue to the start studded closer. Like batters getting off their “A swing”, for a stretch of the regular season Chapman struggled to throw that “A pitch”. Whether it was that slight loss in velocity, pitch placement, or even issues with his throwing arm *cough cough Joe Maddon*, it forced Chapman to slightly tweak his repertoire, more specifically, his pitch selection.
Although still heavily reliant on his four-seam fastball, unlike previous years, Chapman incorporated his slider on a much more regular basis. Ultimately it was that “get me over slider” which failed him in Game 6 of the ALCS, however regardless of the result of that one game, it was that change in pitch frequency which saved Chapman’s regular season. Focusing more on the slider reset his mechanics, favoring placement rather than power. The slider registering at just over 85mph forced Chapman to put a premium on placement, which in turn helped his fastball to once again find the zone.
However the focus should be less on the successful transition and more on why he had to make such drastic changes to his pitch selection. Although the foundation of his repertoire at its core hasn’t changed, the need to drop a pitch altogether in the form of his changeup is cause for concern. Whether that change will continue into the 2020 season, with Larry Rothschild gone and Matt Blake set to take over, is to be seen.
Regardless of what happened last season, 2020 will see Aroldis Chapman return to the Bronx. Were people begging for him to stay? No not particularly. Chapman is an asset, a true force of nature, a guy you can be confident with on the mound. Would our bullpen collapse if he was no longer a part of it? No. In fact a sizable portion of the Yankee fanbase called for the Yankee front office to let him walk, favoring fellow lefty Zack Britton to assume the “closer” role.
Can you blame them? The Game 6 defeat against Houston (which I’ll admit wasn’t totally his fault) left a sour taste in the mouths of Yankee fans. It was heartbreaking. The Yankees had rallied to tie the game and who else but Aroldis Chapman stepped up to blow the game. The pitch selection and placement can be dissected until the end of time, but statistically, Chapman’s use of the slider was extremely effective, with a higher swing rate (47%) than what’s considered his most dominant pitch, the fourseam fastball (41%). In what’s increasingly becoming a statistics driven sport, he made the right decision.
In short, the Yankee faithful are divided. A closer which any team would be lucky to have is in essence being rejected by his own fan base. Small errors made along the way have cost Aroldis Chapman his credibility in the Bronx. I for one will enjoy the Chappy train while it lasts, but come 2021 the Yankees should move on to a younger, more versatile and multifaceted arm to lead the bullpen.