New York’s Cuban Missile Crisis: What Is Wrong With Aroldis Chapman?

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 13: Aroldis Chapman (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 13: Aroldis Chapman (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /
New York Yankees
NEW YORK, NY – AUGUST 13: Aroldis Chapman (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /

Yankee Closer Aroldis Chapman has already blown more saves this year than he did all last season… and we’re still in August. What’s wrong with the Bronx’s flamethrower?

Yankees fans have gone from being able to flip off the TV as soon as the game reached the top of the 9th, to now being forced to clench their sofa cushions and cover their eyes.

They can’t help but to brace themselves for a combination of a lack of control, baserunners, and home runs.

Last night, Aroldis Chapman offered us all three, blowing his fourth save of the season on a home run by Rafael Devers, dropping the Yankees to 5.5 games behind the AL East leading Red Sox.

Chapman’s struggles this season have been clear, making the man go from Mr. Reliable to a fan’s worst nightmare, however, the impetus for his struggles remain a little less obvious.

Dubbed the “Flamethrower” and “Cuban Missile”, Chapman made a name for himself in this league through his blazing speed, and that hasn’t gone anywhere. Even with a major step back in production, his fastball velocity has continued to hover around 100mph as it has his entire career. Even the pitch Devers hit out of the park last night was 102.8mph.

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But aside from that, we’re looking at a completely different pitcher than the one the Yankees made the highest paid reliever in MLB history last offseason.

Despite maintaining his high velocity, Chapman’s ability to control it has faltered, and worst of all, he seems to be aware of his regression. His percentage of pitches that are strikes (k%) continues to drop each season, while his percentage of first-pitch strikes (F-Strike%) has risen.

That should be raising red flags everywhere. While throwing fewer strikes to each batter, he has aimed for the zone on the first pitch that much more frequently. This allows us to infer that he has lost considerable confidence in his fastball as a pitch to shut down hitters, and has tried to compensate by becoming a bit more aggressive in his approach.

Chapman’s use of his slider over his fastball has risen 5% from last season, and his diminishing swing strike rate (SwStr%) gives us some insight why: his fastball may still be fast, but it’s not the same.

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Now, it is pretty darn hittable. Chapman’s contact percentage (contact%) has risen nearly 20% since 2014, a staunching figure. More intriguing though was the paralleled rise in opposite field contact (oppo%).

With hitters becoming more and more able to drive Chapman’s pitches the other way, opting to shift a defense will carry an increased likelihood of backfiring, as exemplified above.

Just overall, Chapman’s former dominance has gradually been disappearing.

His strikeouts are down, he is giving up more hits than ever before, and his performance this season has been reflective of that.

But what shocked me the most was a statistic constantly talked about from a league perspective, yet rarely discussed about a single player: pace.
As the game collectively moves towards being played at a faster rate, Chapman seems to be deviating from the pack and has actually significantly slowed himself down. I see two possible explanations for this.

Either, one, his struggles have precluded him from being able to establish a rhythm on the mound. Or–and nobody likes to hear this–maybe it’s father time.

Chapman is only 29 years old but most will not hesitate to bring up his high usage during the Cubs’ World Series run last season.

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Regardless, when signing a player to a massive 5-year $86 million contract, a team understands the risk for regression that may come in the latter portion of that long-term deal.

But not in year one.

All Statistics come compliments of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.