Reds' Chapman showing signs of stardom, but still searching for role

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On Sunday in Chicago, Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman threw an unhittable pitch. It wasn't a 100 mph fastball behind the ear flap, or a slider a time zone off the plate. It was a strike. A 99 mile-an-hour pitch on the inside corner and at the knees of Cubs third baseman Ian Stewart. Stewart couldn't have hit it with God's bat.

"Ridiculous,'' Reds first baseman Joey Votto called it. "I'm not going to say it was unhittable. He was just overmatched. No disrespect to him. I've been overmatched. Sometimes, you face your kryptonite.''

We still don't know much about Aroldis Chapman. He speaks very little English. He sets up Reds closer Sean Marshall, not exactly his ticket to the stars. Chapman works in Cincinnati, which, apparently, is somewhere between Philly and the Illinois state line.

He's in his third season and the Reds have lassoed Chapman's 106 mph fastball and made it something he can control. They are working to perfect his slider and his sinking, two-seam fastball. They're newly impressed with the way he works between appearances and how he continues to adjust to this brave, new, strange world that is not Cuba.

And they still don't know quite what to do with him.

"He will be a starter,'' Reds manager Dusty Baker said. It's like saying a tree will be a table. At some point, Chapman will start games. You don't spend $30 million on a man so he can be an eighth-inning caddie. Not in smallish-money Cincinnati. Striking out the side once is nice. What if he did it two or three times, every fifth day?

As with any pitcher, but especially a pitcher who throws as hard as Chapman, the worry is something will fray, tear or pop. General manager Walt Jocketty said it's reasonable to believe the Reds will limit Chapman to 150 innings this season. When he throws them is anybody's guess.

Regardless, there is a sense of a breakout around this kid. He's on the verge. When Chapman was routinely tossing 100-plus, he was also checking the radar-gun reading after every pitch, like a starlet gazing into a mirror. He was walking every other hitter, and owned a Lamborghini with MR. 106 on its vanity license plate. The priorities needed adjusting.

This year, Chapman rarely tops 100. He's almost always throwing the ball where it's intended to go. Chapman's line after 18 games: Eleven innings, eight appearances, four hits, two walks, 20 strikeouts, one unhittable strike, zero runs.

"I faced Randy Johnson late in his career,'' said Reds catcher Ryan Hanigan. "That's the easiest comparison. A big, tall lefty who throws fastball-slider. One every 20 years comes along like him.''

This is where it gets technical. We don't know Chapman. We know he has family in Cuba, including a 2-year-old daughter he has never seen. We know he would like very much to bring his family to the States. We also know not to ask about that, for fear that the slightest detail could compromise that effort.

We know that Chapman had an affinity for fast cars and fast food. His teammates say he's funny, without elaborating. "He laughs a lot,'' Jocketty said. When he speaks through an interpreter to media, Chapman is terse and brief. He doesn't laugh at all.

All we know is what we see on the mound. Here is what we see, through the eyes of Hanigan:

"Everyone knows he throws hard. The deception in his delivery is what makes him so effective.

"He's not smooth. That's a compliment. It's not easy to pick up his timing because he's got that little hitch and tuck, then that little pause before he drives at you. It's hard to time that. It's funky.

"Anybody that tries to swing at his fastball anywhere from mid-thigh up is going to have a tough time getting on top of the baseball, because of his velocity. He gets a lot of foul balls and misses.

"But really, it's pretty simple. We're going fastball-slider. We're going right at guys. We're going to avoid walks, because how often do you see anyone string together one, two, three hits off him?''

Hanigan notes Chapman's new maturity. "He's getting the ball and getting right back on the mound," Hanigan said. "He's not thinking about anything. If he walks two guys, like he did the other day for the first time this year, he says screw it and gets back on the mound. I see a lot of development in his ability to shake off failure.''

I asked Hanigan if he and Chapman are understanding one another, from a pitch-calling standpoint. "Always have,'' he said. "I call the slider when I think guys are going to jump [the fastball] and when guys have shorter swings. Guys with shorter swings have a chance. Sometimes I'll call a slider just to get them thinking about it.''

For the record, Chapman's slider checks in routinely at 88 miles an hour, which is somewhat unfair.

"We can do different things with his fastball this year,'' said Hanigan. "We can run it in on the hands. He also has a little two-seamer, that sinks. Sometimes it's got a little run and rise. Mostly, though, he's attacking. Some guys say his stuff is still straight. Not a lot of movement. That's easy for them to say. They're not hitting it.''

Ian Stewart certainly didn't. Last Sunday, the Cubs had loaded the bases with two outs in the seventh. Chicago trailed Cincinnati, 4-2. Chapman came in to face Stewart. He got ahead, a ball and two strikes. The fourth pitch came in entirely straight, right across Stewart's knees, hitting the inside black of the plate. Stewart watched it, because watching was all he could do.

Have you ever laughed spontaneously at an athletic feat, just because it was so ridiculously good? Just chuckled at the incredulity of it all? That pitch was like that. Or, as Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo put it, "Ninety-nine at the knees, man. That's fun.''

I asked Votto how he might have tried to hit that pitch. Votto, the NL MVP two years ago, is a mechanic at the plate. Talking hitting with Votto is like talking burgers with Ray Kroc.

"You have to beat his best pitch early,'' Votto said. "Avoid being in a 50-50 spot, where he can throw either the fastball or the slider. Chapman's not super pinpoint with his control, either. If he's a little erratic, that's an even bigger problem for the hitter.''

Said Scott Rolen, "You lift everything up a notch or two. Your entire at-bat revolves around, 'I can't get beat with velocity here.' I've got to be quick. I've got to be on time, or I have no chance. If I get beat with the slider, that's the way it goes. But I've got to be quick on the fastball.''

And maybe then, it still won't matter. As Reds outfielder Jay Bruce said, "Once in a long while, you do see an unhittable pitch.''

Chapman produced one. The only issue now is, how long before he does it again?