Aroldis Chapman gave the Yankees a scare on Tuesday for the first time this season, if only briefly.
Pitching against the Rays in the ninth, the closer’s velocity took a noticeable dive for a few pitches, which warranted a visit from the training staff. Fortunately for Chapman and the Yankees, the issue was merely a sore fingernail. He quickly got over it.
Working around an error and a walk, Chapman returned to his flame-throwing ways, ending the game with 100- and 99.8-mph fastballs, the latter of which resulted in a strikeout. New York won the game, 3-1, at Tropicana Field.
The momentary fright aside, Chapman continued what has been a near-perfect start to his 2021 season. The owner of a pristine 0.00 ERA and eight saves, he has struck out 30 of the 51 batters he’s faced over 14 innings, resulting in an astounding 58.8 K%. For comparison, he struck out 22 over 11.2 innings (48.9%) during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. With five free passes this year, Chapman owns a 6.00 K/BB ratio. His WHIP is 0.643 and his FIP is in the negatives (-0.11). Opponents are batting a measly .087 against him.
Chapman, 33, is pitching some of the best baseball of his accomplished career, and his 1.0 fWAR trails only Boston’s Matt Barnes among relief pitchers.
One reason behind Chapman’s next-level success is his velocity. Even with Tuesday’s temporary drop-off, the southpaw is averaging 98.9 mph on his four-seamer. That’s the fastest it’s been since 2017, when his heater averaged 100 mph. The pitch is also spinning at a slightly higher rate (2,462 RPMs) than it was last year.
However, Chapman is using his fastball less, throwing it 52.7% of the time this year compared to 72.4% last year, according to Statcast. Instead, he is using his slider a tad more (22%) and has made his sinker and splitter increased and equal members of his repertoire (12.7%). The latter two pitches have both resulted in whiff rates above 66%.
The splitter, in particular, has been crucial to Chapman’s dominance this season. He first started experimenting with it last year, only throwing a total of three in game action. This year, however, the pitch has become a reliable and consistent option, one that pairs rather well with his fastball.
Chapman’s splitter, which has yet to allow a hit and has picked up significant spin since last year, has become his No. 2 put-away pitch behind his sinker.
The point here is that Chapman, whose left arm got him the nickname “The Cuban Missile,” is no longer relying so heavily on his fastball.
Consider that in 2017, the year he last averaged 100 mph on the four-seam, Chapman threw his fastball 76.9 percent of the time. Then, in 2018, he threw his slider a then-career-high 25.4% of the time, because throwing straight gas all the time probably isn’t sustainable for a human limb, even Chapman’s. The slider, along with the sinker and splitter, were further worked into the mix in recent years, thus aiding what has been a gradual reinvention of sorts for Chapman.
Now we’re seeing that makeover culminate with the best imaginable outcomes this season.
We’ll see how long these numbers last—he’s going to give up a run at some point, and striking out nearly 60% of the batters he faces probably isn’t sustainable either—but it’s no surprise to see Chapman enjoying some of the best results of his career.
He already had one of the best pitches in all of baseball. Now he has a collection of them, and he’s putting them all to good use.
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