Recent elbow MRI yet another red flag for Aroldis Chapman

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(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

August is almost over and roster expansion is right around the corner, and at this point, it is completely clear the Yankees can not trust Aroldis Chapman in high-leverage situations. After giving Chapman the largest reliever contract in history over the winter, the Yankees have received 38.1 innings with a 4.23 ERA (3.08 FIP) in return, and have had to demote him out of the closer’s role. What a mess.

As you know, this isn’t simply a case of Chapman running into some bad luck with more bloops falling in and balls sneaking into the short porch for cheap Yankee Stadium homers. He looks basically nothing like the dominating Aroldis Chapman of the past six years. And it’s only getting worse. His swing-and-miss rate:

aroldis-chapman-swings-and-misses

Poor performance is one thing. Poor performance and injuries are another. Chapman missed roughly a month with shoulder inflammation earlier this year, and according to George King, Aroldis went for an MRI on his elbow Sunday. The MRI came back clean and Chapman was available to pitch Monday — “There was a little bit of discomfort. It was precautionary and they decided to do a test … It’s 100% fine,” he said to King — but still. Shoulder and elbow scares in year one of a five-year contract? Yikes.

Everyone is trying to figure out what’s wrong with Chapman and no one has the answer, not even the Yankees. They’re still searching. I don’t buy the “he’s getting hit harder because hitters are used to seeing 100 mph now” excuse for a second. How ridiculous is that? Luis Severino has no trouble throwing 98-99 mph heaters by hitters. Dellin Betances is still getting swings and misses with his fastball. I’ve heard a lot of silly baseball theories over the years. That one might be the silliest.

Last week Zach Kram, based on release point data and things like that, surmised Chapman might be pitching hurt. Maybe not hurt in the sense that he’s in pain and gutting through it. Hurt in that he’s not right physically even if there’s no real pain. It could be due to an underlying injury, or fatigue, or a World Series hangover, or general wear and tear. From Kram:

Throwing from a slightly lower arm slot, with a slightly more exaggerated elbow angle, is not per se an indicator of injury, and normally it could be attributed to a minor mechanical blip, the likes of which fellow Yankee—and new closer—Dellin Betances experienced earlier this summer. But combined with Chapman’s recent injury history, it represents a more serious sign of concern. In the book Complete Conditioning for Baseball, collegiate strength and conditioning coach Steve Tamborra writes, “There is no ideal angle between the arm and the head during the throwing motion, but pitchers tend to lower their angle when protecting a weak or injured shoulder.”

This is still just an observation, and it’s impossible to link it explicitly to Chapman’s struggles—again, his aggregate velocity and location are doing just fine, and both Chapman and Girardi contend that the lefty isn’t hurt. But it’s a new Chapman, and it’s a worse Chapman, so it’s reasonable to suppose that some connection exists.

Here’s the thing though: Chapman’s velocity and location are not doing just fine. There’s no way to measure location — Kram uses Chapman’s career high 54.3% zone rate as evidence his location is fine, which is dubious — but having watched him pitch all year, Chapman never hits his spot. He’s always been wild — that career 11.5% walk rate isn’t an accident — and this year it’s become more extreme. It seems like Aroldis has no real idea where the ball is going.

As for the velocity, the radar gun readings in general are fine. Chapman is averaging 100.1 mph with his fastball this season, which is down from 101.1 mph last year, but is right in line with the rest of his career. Now look at the fastball perceived velocity:

  • 2015: 100.8 mph (+0.7 mph from average)
  • 2016: 101.6 mph (+0.5 mph from average)
  • 2017: 100.4 mph (+0.3 mph from average)

Perceived velocity tells us how fast the pitch looks to the hitter when factoring in the pitcher’s extension and things like that. Chapman is a big guy, he’s listed at 6-foot-4 and 215 lbs., so he’s releasing the ball a little closer to the plate than the average hurler. For whatever reason though, his perceived velocity “gain” has been trending down.

In the grand scheme of things, losing 0.2 mph of perceived velocity from one year to the next might not be such a big deal, though the overall trend is disconcerting, and it’s one of those things that could be compounding Chapman’s issues. The lower release point and more exaggerated elbow angle (per Kram) combined with slightly lower velocity and shoulder and elbow woes is … unsettling. If not outright bad.

At this point, the hope is Chapman will get over whatever’s ailing him and contribute these final five weeks of the regular season and postseason. That’s the only way he can salvage what has been a pretty terrible first full season with the Yankees. And hopefully this recent elbow problem really is nothing, even if it might explain a whole lot.

DotF: Andujar and McKinney have big games in Scranton's win
Game 131: Let's Win Two