That's what the postseason might feel like for hitters who face flame-throwing Aroldis Chapman. Bullpens are key in October, so the Reds can breathe a sigh of relief
Aroldis Chapman stands in the dugout, his dark brown eyes gazing out, with childlike wonder, upon another strange ballpark in another strange city. The 22-year-old Reds lefthander has a sprinter's body, long-limbed and lean—he looks taller than his listed height of 6'4"—with huge hands and freakishly long fingers. When he grips the baseball, his index finger nearly touches his thumb; those digits help Chapman unleash 100-mph heat with all the effort of a pub crawler flicking darts. A thick gold chain hangs around Chapman's neck; since he escaped from Cuba and signed a six-year, $30 million contract, he has learned to spoil himself with flashy jewelry, fast cars (he has a Lamborghini) and fine food. "Steak," groans his interpreter, Thomas Veras. "Every day. Sometimes two steaks."
It has been 15 months since Chapman, then pitching for the Cuban national team, slipped out of the Domina Hotel in the Dutch city of Rotterdam and into the passenger side of a car, beginning the journey that led him to this week's Reds' NL Division Series matchup against the Phillies. "I never imagined in my dreams that I would be in the playoffs in my first year in the major leagues," Chapman says. He is soft-spoken and keeps to himself in the clubhouse, but make no mistake: He knows how nasty he is. Asked earlier this year which pitcher he might remind people of, he picked not a fellow Cuban but the game's last true lefthanded intimidator, Randy Johnson. The vanity plates on his Lamborghini read MPH 102. After one of Chapman's fastballs was clocked at 104 mph in his second major league outing, a reporter asked him what he was going to do with the license plate. "Now," Chapman laughed, "I have a problem." A few weeks later one of his heaters hit 105, the fastest pitch ever recorded in a game.
As the curtain goes up on another postseason, it's important to remember this: Fearless baby-faced relievers with skimpy big league résumés have a way of taking center stage. It has been eight years since a September call-up named Frankie Rodriguez (a.k.a. K-Rod) pitched the Angels to a championship. The final outs of the 2005 and the '06 World Series were both nailed down by rookie closers, the White Sox' Bobby Jenks and the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright. Two Octobers ago the Rays' David Price, called up to the Show barely a month earlier, shut down the Red Sox in the ALCS.
October 10, 2010
Now here is Chapman, a starter turned setup man who has been breathtaking since his arrival on Aug. 31: a 2.19 ERA in 14 appearances, with 18 strikeouts in 121/3 innings and untold oohs and aahs from fans and opponents staring at his radar-gun readings. Chapman will not start a game for the Reds during the postseason. He may not finish one, either—the ninth inning is the domain of veteran closer Francisco Cordero. But as a supremely talented, game-changing power pitcher who can get critical outs in the late innings, the Cuban Missile, as the swooning Reds faithful have come to call him, could be the ultimate October weapon.
Teams dream about handing the ball to front-of-the-rotation studs, but more often than not postseason games turn on the bullpens. Managers deploy battalions of relief pitchers, earlier and more often than in the regular season. "When you get to this time of year, starters are more tired and don't go as deep into games," says Cincinnati general manager Walt Jocketty. "The lineups are better. Hitters are more focused. They wear down pitchers more. So often it seems to come down to a handful of relievers. As Whitey Herzog used to say, 'Bullpens win championships.'"
In an era of three-round playoffs and deeper, more patient lineups, bullpens are even more pivotal. Nearly half the games over the past five postseasons (48.0%) were won by two runs or fewer. In last year's playoffs more than a third of the games (40.7%) were decided by one run—and overall relievers figured in the game's decision 44.4% of the time.
The Phillies may have the most formidable playoff rotation, but that will not matter if their shaky bullpen implodes. Philadelphia skipper Charlie Manuel will rely heavily on the erratic duo of Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge, a closer with a history of October meltdowns. The Giants' eighth-inning specialist Sergio Romo (10.2 strikeouts per nine innings) and closer Brian Wilson (a major-league-best 48 saves) are much more reliable. A no-name relief corps was a key to the Twins' AL Central title, but how will Matt Capps, Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain (combined career postseason appearances: nine) fare under the October lights? The Rays enter the postseason with serious question marks in their rotation, but they have the best late-inning duo in setup man Joaquin Benoit (11.1 K's/9) and closer Rafael Soriano (45 saves in 48 opportunities), as well as the dynamic right arm of 23-year-old Jeremy Hellickson, who was 3--0 with a 2.05 ERA as a starter and will work out of the bullpen.
But the postseason can be more about how relievers are used than who those relievers are. The most important task for managers is using their best arms to get the most important outs in a game. That goal can be undermined by strict adherence to the precept that a closer should be used in ninth-inning save situations only. To the dismay of statistical analysts, managers often fail to use their best reliever—the so-called relief ace—in tied or one-run games an inning or two earlier, when the outcome is truly hanging in the balance.
Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker will have the biggest bullpen dilemma this October. Among the postseason teams, the Reds ranked last in bullpen ERA (4.00) during the regular season. But in Chapman they have the most intriguing, and potentially most intimidating, reliever in the playoffs—a lights-out lefthander who is effective against righthanded hitters (.194 batting average against) and lefties (.167). But in the ninth inning Baker will stick with the 35-year-old Cordero, who in September had a 6.75 ERA. "We have a pretty good closer," he says. "It's quite a jump for a guy that just started relieving to end up closing. What do you say to your closer? 'Thanks for everything, see you later?' It doesn't work like that."
Chapman, though, has already proved that he can pitch back-to-back days and, as a former starter, can throw multiple innings. Says one NL executive, "To have such a devastating lefty who can blow people away out of the bullpen is huge in the playoffs. There will be a moment when [Chapman] is out there dominating and the ninth comes, so what do you do? A lot of managers will go to their closer just so there's no second-guessing. But in this case, there will be a lot of second-guessing. Chapman is their best guy out of the bullpen. He's probably the best guy out of anyone's bullpen."
The final outs are the hardest to come by in October—that's why managers want their most experienced man on the mound with the game on the line. But those around Chapman all say the same thing: Nothing flusters the kid. On Sept. 4, "with flashbulbs popping everywhere, everyone on their feet, all eyes on him," as Reds pitching coach Bryan Price says, Chapman, in a scoreless appearance, worked out of a jam against the Cardinals by throwing a 99-mph fastball to Albert Pujols, who bounced into a double play. On Sept. 24 Chapman made one of the most spectacular relief outings in recent memory: In 11/3 scoreless innings against the Padres, each of his 25 pitches was 100 mph or higher, including the one that hit 105.
Chapman keeps it simple. He throws two pitches: a fastball and a hard-breaking slider that can reach the low 90s. He doesn't read scouting reports or watch video. (Before he came to the U.S., he had never heard of Pujols.) "The other night, he came into a game with [Brewers All-Star first baseman] Prince Fielder at the plate," says Price. "He comes at him with three straight fastballs and gets a ground out. Trust me, he's never heard of Prince Fielder. The thing about the na√Øveté that I like is that the kid is not scared by anything."
The Reds had September and October in mind in July, when they made their prized prospect a reliever at Triple A Louisville. Chapman had struggled as a starter there as he fumbled with the grip on his changeup (a pitch he now rarely uses). Once he went to the bullpen, "it was like someone had turned on a light," says his pitching coach in Louisville, Ted Power. "His focus was much better, he was more locked in. Suddenly he was more determined, more aggressive."
Cincinnati fans may be clamoring for Chapman to supplant Cordero as the closer. But first, Chapman can prove how much of a relief ace he is this October. "I'll be ready," he says, "for whatever they ask me to do."