Chad Green and one of baseball’s most dominant fastballs

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees, thanks largely to young players like Aaron Judge and Luis Severino, have a chance to return to the postseason this year and a chance to win their first AL East title since 2012. Judge and Severino have been the headliners, though others like Gary Sanchez and Jordan Montgomery have been key contributors as well. The young kids are driving this bus.

Among those young players is 26-year-old right-hander Chad Green, who I suppose isn’t really that young by baseball standards, but is in his first full MLB season. He’s locked himself into a bullpen spot, and if not for the David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle trade, he’d be seeing much more high-leverage work. It’s a big time luxury to be able to use Green in the middle innings rather than saving him for the seventh or eighth.

So far this season Green has a 1.74 ERA (2.28 FIP) with 39.0% strikeouts and 7.0% walks in 46.2 innings, almost all out of the bullpen. (He did make one two-inning spot start.) He’s been as good as Dellin Betances was in 2014. Green relies heavily on his fastball like so many other relievers, though his fastball is not like most others. It’s unlike any other fastball, really. Check out the fastball swing-and-miss leaderboard. This is whiffs-per-swing, not whiffs-per-total fastballs thrown (min. 100 fastballs):

  1. Chad Green: 40.3%
  2. Justin Wilson: 38.7%
  3. Craig Kimbrel: 38.4%
  4. Dellin Betances: 37.3%
  5. Tyler Clippard: 35.8% (?!?)

Holy Yankees/ex-Yankees. Think they value the ability to generate swings and misses with the fastball? Of course they do. We’ve know that for a while now. The Yankees love their power arms. Anyway, the MLB average is 19.7% whiffs-per-swing on the fastball this year, and Green is the only pitcher in baseball to double that rate. The gap between him and Wilson, the guy he was traded for and the No. 2 pitcher on the list, is pretty significant.

The whiffs-per-swing rate is incredible and what makes it so interesting to me is the velocity. Green has very good velocity, though his fastball not an overpowering triple-digit heater like Betances’ or Kimbrel’s or Aroldis Chapman‘s. His fastball is averaging 95.7 mph this year and he’s topped out at 98.2 mph. Dellin’s average fastball is 98.4 mph this year. Kimbrel’s is 98.7 mph. Chapman’s is 100.1 mph. And yet, none get as many whiffs-per-swing as Green.

There is more to a fastball than velocity, of course. Location matters, as does spin rate. You want either a high spin rate or a low spin rate on a fastball. High spin equals swings and misses and low spin equals ground balls. When you’re in the middle, you get neither. Green’s fastball, as the whiffs-per-swing rate suggests, has one of the league’s highest spin rates. The 22nd highest among the 423 pitchers to throw 100+ fastballs this year.

  • Green’s fastball spin rate: 2,483 rpm
  • MLB average fastball spin rate: 2,258 rpm

One thing about Green we can’t quantify is the deception in his delivery, and I have no doubt that plays a role in his overall effectiveness and fastball dominance. He’s a big guy at 6-foot-3 and he lifts his leg up real high, and his arm action is pretty long in the back. There’s a lot going on before Green explodes forward and the hitter actually sees the ball. Good velocity plus good spin rate plus good deception equals a great fastball.

Also, the same way there’s more to a fastball than velocity, there’s more to a good fastball than swings and misses. If hitters are missing with 40% of their swings but squaring it up with the other 60%, how good is the fastball really? Not very. (That’s Clippard’s fastball, apparently.) According to expected wOBA (xwOBA), which is based on exit velocity and launch angle and things like that, hitters don’t do much damage even when they make contact with Green’s fastball. The fastball xwOBA leaderboard:

  1. Anthony Swarzak: .198 xwOBA
  2. Chad Green: .219 xwOBA
  3. Sean Doolittle: .219 xwOBA
  4. Seung-Hwan Oh: .227 xwOBA
  5. Tommy Kahnle: .228 xwOBA

Man, what in the world has gotten into Anthony Swarzak this year? Whatever got into Kahnle, I guess. Anyway, a .219 wOBA is “pitcher hitting” territory. The worst hitter with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, Alcides Escobar, has a .235 wOBA this year. Green’s fastball turns everyone into a worse version of Escobar, and boy does Escobar stink.

One thing I should note is that Green’s fastball didn’t suddenly get good this year. Most guys see their fastball tick up once they shift to relief, though that’s not necessarily what happened here. Green’s fastball showed similar traits last season, when he worked primarily as a starter:

  • 2016 average velocity: 95.4 mph (95.7 mph in 2017)
  • 2016 max velocity: 99.2 mph (98.2 mph in 2017)
  • 2016 whiffs-per-swing: 30.6% (40.3% in 2017)
  • 2016 spin rate: 2,471 rpm (2,483 in 2017)

Velocity and spin rate are similar — max velocity is down, weirdly enough — while the whiffs-per-swing rate was much lower last year, as a starter. It was still comfortably above-average, but not as good as this year. Also, last season’s Green’s fastball had a .346 xwOBA, which was almost exactly league average (.347 xwOBA). Not bad, not great, just … average.

I think the big improvements in whiffs-per-swing rate and xwOBA this year are entirely the result of the move into relief. The velocities and spin rates may be similar, but hitters aren’t seeing Green multiple times this year. He’s not turning a lineup over. He’s coming in for an inning or two at a time, airing it out, then leaving the game before the lineup turns over. There’s no second (and third) time through the order penalty.

Green throws his fastball roughly 70% of the time this season and I think he could even stand to throw it more, especially as a full-time reliever. He can’t thrown only fastballs, eventually hitters will catch on, but could he get away with, say, 80% fastballs? Maybe 85%? Green’s slider isn’t anything special. He dominates with his fastball. Either way, Green has found a home in the bullpen, where his elite fastball has made him into an overwhelming power reliever and a member of Joe Girardi‘s Circle of Trust™.

Sonny Gray and the move from Oakland Coliseum to Yankee Stadium

(@Yankees)
(@Yankees)

Later tonight right-hander Sonny Gray will make his first start with the Yankees after coming over from the Athletics prior to Monday’s trade deadline. He’ll face the same Indians team he held scoreless over six innings just three weeks ago. I’m sure Gray will feel some “first start with his new team” butterflies and all that, but one start is just one start. As long there are (many) more good starts than bad starts, the Yankees will be happy.

Gray is making the move from Oakland Coliseum to Yankee Stadium, which is going from one extreme on the ballpark spectrum to the other. Oakland Coliseum is pitcher friendly thanks to the spacious outfield, the tall outfield walls, and all that foul territory. Yankee Stadium is pretty much the exact opposite. Short porch, not much foul territory, so on and so forth. Gray’s moving from a big time pitcher’s park to a big time hitter’s park.

So far Gray has made just one career start at Yankee Stadium, back in 2015 when the held the Yankees to three runs in seven innings. If you’re using that to forecast how Gray will perform going forward, stop. It’s meaningless. It’s one start. One start against a lineup …

sonny-gray-lineup

… Gray will never face again. That one start tells us nothing useful. There’s not a pitcher alive who wouldn’t see their numbers get worse moving from Oakland Coliseum to Yankee Stadium. They are very different ballparks and very different run-scoring environments. You have to adjust your expectations accordingly knowing how hitter friendly Yankee Stadium can be.

Now, that all said, there are reasons to believe Gray is built to succeed in Yankee Stadium. First and foremost, Gray is a ground ball pitcher, and the next ground ball I see hit over the short porch will be the first. Among the 99 pitchers who have thrown at least 90 innings this year, Grays ranks seventh with a 56.7% ground ball rate. Since the start of the 2014 season, he’s fifth with a 54.6% ground ball rate. Ground balls are good.

Get that many ground balls over that long a period of time and it’s not a fluke. What makes Gray’s consistently above-average ground ball rate impressive is that he doesn’t do it with one pitch. Many great ground ball pitchers have that heavy sinker they use to pound the bottom of the zone. Gray gets ground balls with multiple pitches. Here are his 2017 numbers:

  • Four-Seam Fastball: 63.3% grounders (37.8% league average)
  • Two-Seam Fastball: 62.1% grounders (51.5% league average)
  • Slider: 51.4% grounders (44.8% league average)
  • Changeup: 45.5% grounders (49.5% league average)
  • Curveball: 32.1% grounders (47.7% league average)

The two fastballs and the slider have been comfortably above-average ground ball pitches. The changeup, his least used offering (6.5% in 2017), is a tick below-average. The curveball has been well-below-average at getting ground balls this season, though that’s an outlier. Gray’s curveball had a 46.5% ground ball rate last year. It was 52.3% the year before that and 53.5% the year before that.

Even if Gray’s curveball is permanently broken as a ground ball pitch — batters have put his curveball in play only 25 times this season, so I’m betting it’s sample size noise — he still takes three above-average ground ball pitches to the mound on any given day, plus a fourth that is average-ish. He’s not someone who, when he needs a ground ball, has to throw his two-seamer. Or has to throw his slider. He has more than one option.

Secondly, Gray is really good against left-handed batters. A righty who can’t keep lefties in check is going to have a really hard time in the Bronx. His numbers against lefties:

BF AVG/OBP/SLG wOBA K% BB% GB% HR/9 Hard%
2014 489 .219/.300/.339 .289 20.7% 9.6% 58.0% 0.76 25.2%
2015 425 .208/.275/.303 .260 21.9% 8.0% 56.3% 0.68 26.7%
2016 256 .280/.329/.427 .325 19.1% 6.3% 51.6% 0.91 28.6%
2017 191 .220/.277/.335 .269 23.0% 7.3% 57.4% 0.58 26.3%

Gray was injured and bad all around last season, against both righties and lefties. When healthy from 2014-15 and in 2017, he’s been very good against left-handed batters, especially at keeping the ball on the ground and limiting hard contact. (The MLB average is a 32.1% hard contact rate.) Preventing lefties from getting the ball airborne is imperative in Yankee Stadium.

As you’d expect, Gray uses his slider more against righties and his changeup more against lefties, otherwise his fastball and curveball usage is the same against all hitters. That curveball is the difference-maker. It’s a high-quality pitch Gray can throw for strikes or bury in the dirt for swings and misses, and he throws it at any time. Many starters are fastball-breaking ball against same-side hitters and fastball-changeup against guys on the other side of the plate. Gray is fastball-cuveball-slider against righties and fastball-curveball-changeup against lefties.

Another reason Gray won’t suffer too much from the move from the Oakland Coliseum to Yankee Stadium? He doesn’t rely on pop-ups. There’s sooo much foul territory in Oakland. Balls that land behind the dugouts in many ballparks are caught for outs at the Coliseum. Those cheap outs have allowed dudes like Tommy Milone and Jesse Chavez to function as viable starters for the A’s, but nowhere else. Here is Gray’s pop-up spray chart overlaid on Yankee Stadium, via Baseball Savant:

sonny-gray-pop-ups

That covers 2014-17, so that’s 641 innings worth of pop-ups there. You can count on one hand the number that were outs at Oakland Coliseum but would have been in the seats elsewhere. Will Gray lose some easy foul pop-up outs given the smaller foul territory at Yankee Stadium? Of course. But he wasn’t relying on them for success anyway. He’s a ground ball/strikeout guy. Not a pop-up guy.

One last thing to keep in mind — and this is not ballpark specific — is the Yankees are a substantially better defensive team than the Athletics. Remember how much the A’s kicked the ball around during the two series with the Yankees? The A’s might be the worst defensive team in baseball this season.

A’s DRS: -50 (30th among all MLB teams)
A’s UZR: -42.0 (30th)
A’s Defensive Efficiency: 0.706 (14th)

Yankees DRS: -5 (16th)
Yankees UZR: +4.9 (11th)
Yankees Defensive Efficiency: 0.711 (6th)

Gray’s ability to get ground balls with multiple pitches and use those pitches to neutralize left-handed batters are why it appears he is well-suited for Yankee Stadium despite being a short (5-foot-10) right-handed pitcher. He’s very unique in that regard. Not many pitchers that size can get ground balls. That the Yankees are a far superior defensive team to the A’s is icing on the cake. More of those grounders will be turned into outs.

As far as pitching well in New York and the AL East, I’m not concerned about Gray at all. He has a lot of weapons and he’s extremely competitive. The only concern I have with Gray is his health. As long as his arm stays in one piece, I think he’s going to be very effective for the Yankees, and I don’t think it’ll take long for him to become a fan favorite. Moving from Oakland Coliseum to Yankee Stadium will hurt his performance because it would hurt anyone’s performance. Gray has the tools to minimize the ballpark related damage, however.

Aaron Judge, Matt Holliday, and two very different slumps

(Presswire)
What is going on with this fist bump. (Presswire)

Last night, as the Yankees beat the Tigers for their seventh win in the last eight games, rookie masher Aaron Judge clubbed his MLB leading 34th home run, breaking a tie with Giancarlo Stanton. Judge is having a monster rookie season overall, hitting .303/.429/.639 (179 wRC+) with those 34 homers in 101 games, though he hasn’t been all that good lately. He’s hitting only .169/.333/.373 (79 wRC+) with a 34.7% strikeout rate since the All-Star break.

Also last night, Matt Holliday went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts, though he did draw an important walk that loaded the bases with no outs and led to the Yankees scoring four runs in the fourth. Holliday, like Judge, has struggled in the second half. He’s hitting .130/.164/.188 (-14 wRC+) with a 30.1% strikeout rate since the break. Yikes. Go back to June 12th and Holliday is hitting .133/.205/.248 (17 wRC+) in his last 28 games.

There’s no doubt both Judge and Holliday have struggled recently, and watching the games, my eyes tell me these are different types of slumps. Judge’s timing seems to be off ever so slightly. He’s flying open a bit and missing some pitches he should crush. His strikeout rate is up but he hasn’t expanded the zone too much. I mean, his walk rate since the All-Star break is 20.0%. That doesn’t happen when a hitter starts swinging at everything out of the zone. Here is his chase rate:

aaron-judge-chase-rate

This year Judge’s worst 15-game rolling average was a 33.9% chase rate two weeks ago. The MLB average is a 30.8%. Judge peaked at a not-so-high 33.9% chase rate and has brought it down since. His season average is a 26.0% chase rate, which is excellent. There are 164 hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title this year and Judge has the 29th lowest chase rate despite being 6-foot-7 and having so much strike zone to cover.

Also, the quality of Judge’s contact has been pretty good during this slump. In the first half of the season 62.0% of Judge’s batted balls were either a line drive or a fly ball, and his average exit velocity was an MLB best 96.2 mph. Since the All-Star break, more than two-thirds of Judge’s batted balls (67.7%, to be exact) are either a line drive or a fly ball, and his average exit velocity is 94.7 mph, again the highest in MLB.

There are two big differences between first half Aaron Judge and second half Aaron Judge. One, he is striking out more often (29.8% vs. 34.7%) and that’s because his swings and misses on pitches in the zone have increased. In the first half he had an 82.8% contact rate on pitches in the zone. Since the All-Star break it’s 75.8%. The increased strikeouts are the result of swinging and missing more in the strike zone, not chasing out of the zone.

And two, not as many of those well-struck line drives and fly balls are falling in for base hits. I’m not saying Judge has hit into bad luck or anything like that. I’m just stating a fact. Judge’s line drives and fly balls are resulting in more outs than they did earlier this season. Here on the numbers on his line drives and fly balls:

  • First Half: .655 AVG and .530 BABIP (.896 xwOBA)
  • Second Half: .489 AVG and .303 BABIP (.777 xwOBA)
  • 2017 MLB Average: .469 AVG and .408 BABIP (.549 xwOBA)

(BABIP is lower than AVG because home runs don’t count against BABIP. They’re not a ball in play. The defense can’t make a play on homers.)

xwOBA is the new Statcast hotness expected wOBA, which is based on launch angle and exit velocity and things like that. Judge has been getting the ball airborne since the All-Star break — again, 62.0% line drives and fly balls in the first half and 67.7% in the second half — yet the hits aren’t falling in as often. That’s baseball. We aren’t talking about a huge sample here, remember. Judge has put 34 balls in play since the All-Star break.

All of this is a long way of saying Judge is just slightly off at the plate. He hasn’t expanded the zone too much in the second half and when he does make contact, he’s still hitting the ball hard and he’s still hitting it in the air. The biggest issue has been the misses on pitches in the zone. Something’s off mechanically. You can blame the Home Run Derby if you want. That seems pretty lazy to me. (Judge’s slump started before the All-Star break.) Whatever it is, Judge is pretty great at making adjustments, and I think it’s only a matter of time until he gets straightened out.

As for Holliday, the eye test tells me he simply isn’t hitting the ball very hard these days. He isn’t hitting it hard and he isn’t getting it off the ground. A graph is worth a thousand words:

matt-holliday-contact

Yeah. That’s not good. It’s not just less hard contact. It’s less hard contact and more balls on the ground. Holliday’s ugly 28-game stretch started on June 12th, the first game of the West Coast trip in Anaheim. From Opening Day through June 11th: .375 xwOBA on all batted balls. Since June 12th: .276 xwOBA. That’s going from Anthony Rizzo (.378 wOBA) to Billy Hamilton (.276 wOBA).

So why has Holliday basically stopped hitting the ball hard? Two theories. One, he’s 37 and older hitters sometimes just stop hitting forever. We saw it with Alfonso Soriano three years ago, Alex Rodriguez two years ago, and Mark Teixeira one year ago. Or two, Holliday is still sick. Remember when he first came down with this mystery illness? It was out on that West Coast trip that started on June 12th. He first sat out a game in Oakland, in the second series on the trip, but who’s to say he hadn’t already been feeling it for a few days before that?

We’ve seen some older players go through miserable stretches in which they looked done — like done done — only to rebound later in the season. Raul Ibanez was pretty bad for most of the 2012 regular season before he started socking clutch dingers in September and October. Carlos Beltran looked completely washed in April and May in 2015 before turning it around and hitting like prime Beltran the rest of the season. Who’s to say Holliday can’t do the same?

With Judge, I see a hitter who is off a bit mechanically and missing hittable pitches. He hasn’t chased out of the zone too much, and when he puts the ball in play, it’s well-struck. With Holliday, I see a guy who flat out can’t hit the ball hard right now, and has a tough time hitting it in the air. That isn’t to say he’s broken forever. It doesn’t look very good right now though. These are two slumping hitters at different points of their careers slumping in different ways. One seems a tick off. The other makes you wonder if he’s done for good.

The Yankees have won seven of their last eight games while getting basically nothing from their three best first half hitters — Judge and Holliday have slumped, and Starlin Castro is on the disabled list — and that’s pretty impressive. The roster depth has picked those guys up. For the Yankees to win the AL East and make noise in the postseason though, they need Judge and Holliday (and Castro) to produce, so getting them to straighten things out is pretty damn important. I think Judge will figure it out soon enough. Holliday? I’m not so sure.

Detailing Didi’s Dingers

(Getty)
(Getty)

There are few players in baseball who make it as easy to root for them as Didi Gregorius does. Rare is the time when he doesn’t have a smile on his face; his post-Aaron Judge home run antics with Ronald Torreyes are (almost) just as fun as the prodigious homers; his post-victory tweets are must-see material after a Yankee win. To top that all off, he’s become a great player on the field, having a career year after he just had one last year. Didi is on pace to post career highs in pretty much everything at the plate and has maintained great defense at short, even after missing the first month of the season.

A big part of Didi’s offensive emergence in the last two seasons has been the home run. Last year, he hit 20. This year, he’s already at 16 and all three projection systems at his FanGraphs page see him hitting seven more this year, which would leave him with 23, a new career high. This, like the rest of his game since arriving in the Bronx, really, is a justification for the trade that brought him here. He’s a lefty swinger who showed brief flashes of power in the minors and majors, which seems like a perfect fit for Yankee Stadium. For all the reasons listed above–both on-field and off–Didi’s proven that right.

For the last two years, Didi has had an average home run distance of 373 feet. This year, that is the fourth shortest homer distance among players with at least 190 batted ball events. Last year, that mark was in the bottom 10 of the league with the same qualifier. Using HitTracker, 14 of Didi’s home runs between 2016 and 2017 have been labeled as just enough or lucky. Didi’s ISO at home the last two years is .199, compared to .166 Those signs seem to point to a guy taking advantage of a short porch in his home field. However if we dive a little deeper, we see that isn’t quite the case.

Of the seven just enough/lucky homers of 2017, only two of them have taken place at Yankee Stadium. He had, similarly, seven just enough/lucky homers in 2016. Again, just two of them took place in Yankee Stadium. Since this power surge started last year, Didi has 36 home runs split evenly between home games and away games, 18 apiece. While there’s a bit of a power boost at home–as evidenced by the ISO difference–it’s only partially fueled by the home runs.

Whatever Didi has been doing the last two years is working. He’s emerged as a top shortstop in the American League and that has made the trade to bring him here look more and more like a great steal with each passing day. A player like him is an absolute blessing to have on the team and I look forward to rooting for him for the rest of his time in pinstripes, which is hopefully a long, long time.

Why Isn’t Clint Frazier Walking?

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The emergence of Clint Frazier as one of the Yankees’ best outfielders this year is a microcosm of the Yankees’ 2017 in general. We expected steps forward for the Yankees, but not necessarily in terms of winning games; rather, we expected them to forward the development of young players at the Major League level — like Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, and Luis Severino — while fostering the same thing in minor leaguers like Gleyber Torres and, of course, Frazier. And for Frazier, we expected him to be with the big club, but not until late in this year at the earliest. Instead, somewhat like his team and organization itself, he jumped those expectations and arrived earlier than the schedule originally intended.

Following Tuesday night’s action against the Reds, Frazier is hitting .277/.284/.569 with a .347 wOBA (117 wRC+). Of his 18 hits, 11 have gone for extra bases. As Katie pointed out on Twitter, that’s just two fewer XBH than Jacoby Ellsbury has in 137 fewer at bats. The good ol’ eye test also tells us that Clint stings the hell out of the ball, thanks to his incredibly quick hands that generate great bat speed; the numbers back that up, too. Among players with at least 40 batted ball events, Frazier ranks 28th in the majors, with an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH. The only wrinkle in Clint’s game, it seems, has been a lack of walks (one in 67 plate appearances). It’s not as if that’s gotten in the way of his production, but it’s still curious.

Aside from his 30-game stretch at AAA last year, split between the Yankees and Cleveland’s organization, Frazier has always tallied respectable walk rates in the minors. His 2013 stint in rookie ball — and the aforementioned 2016 AAA stint — is the only time he failed to put up a double digit walk rate; even then, it was 8.7%. We could definitely chalk it up to armchair psychological factors: rookie jitters, wanting to impress, the feeling of needing to hit instead of walk to earn a spot on the team. Clint’s not necessarily going up there hacking, though. He’s seeing 3.96 pitches per plate appearance and, again with the eye test, does seem to have a plan when he’s up at the plate. There are numbers, aside from P/PA, to back this up as well.

If we look over Frazier’s swing data from FanGraphs, the first thing we notice is a low out-of-zone swing rate of 21.7%. The league average is usually around 30ish, so that’s great. In terms of pitches in the zone, he’s swinging at 71.5% of those pitches, compared to the average of around 67%. A low O-Swing% and a high Z-Swing% would seem to point to a lot of walks, but that’s not the case here. Perhaps, then, the answer can be found in the fact that Frazier sees more pitches in the zone — 54.4% — than the league average of around 45%. Given that number and his high in-zone swing rate, it’s a bit easier to see why Frazier isn’t taking his walks. Take a look at his heat map, also from FanGraphs:

clint-frazier-heat-map

 

Look at all that red in the zone, especially in the middle portion. Pitchers are pounding him there and he’s taking advantage by swinging. Additionally, pitchers are throwing lots of fastballs to Clint. Per Brooks, 196 of the 252 pitches he’s seen have been fastballs. Lots of fastballs. Lots of in the zone pitches. A hitter with remarkably quick hands. This isn’t too hard to figure out.

As the league adjusts to Frazier, I image he’s going to see more pitches out of the zone and more pitches with some wrinkles to them. Given he’s done so in the minors and does seem to have a good approach at the plate, I think we’ll see him laying off more pitches and taking his walks. Until then, let’s enjoy his bat and rejoice that he’s taken the “singles are for the weak” approach to hitting.

Checking on Aroldis Chapman’s fastball spin rate

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

Friday night the Yankees had a win ripped away when Aroldis Chapman failed to retire even one of the five batters he faced, and blew his third save in 12 opportunities. A few of the nine saves he did nail down were a bit dicey as well. Chapman rebounded with scoreless innings Saturday and Sunday, though so far this season, he has not been the overwhelming force the Yankees thought they signed.

The single biggest difference between Chapman this year and the Chapman of the past has been a decline in swings and misses. Chapman threw 56 total pitches in his three appearances in Boston and generated one (1) swing and miss. He’s gotten eleven swings and misses in his last eight appearances and 148 pitches, or 7.4%. His career swing and miss rate is 17.3%. This year it’s 12.5%. The MLB average is 10.4%. Something has gone awry here.

The first thing we all thing about with Chapman is fastball velocity, and so far this year his velocity has been fine. His fastball is averaging 100.0 mph on the nose and he’s topped out at 103.3 mph. Last year he averaged 101.1 mph and the year before it was 100.4 mph. And yet, look at the rate of misses he’s generating per swing with his fastball. This is whiffs-per-swing, not whiffs-per-total pitches:

  • 2015: 41.0% (18.5% league average)
  • 2016: 32.8% (18.8% league average)
  • 2017: 25.1% (19.7% league average)

That’s not great. The league average keeps creeping up each year while Chapman’s whiffs-per-swing rate with his fastball is dropping noticeably. He’s down nearly 40% from 2015. Chapman isn’t missing bats like he once did and he knows it. He doesn’t know why though. “Actually, that’s a good question. I’m going to go back and try to see footage and why because I honestly don’t know why,” he said to Brendan Kuty over the weekend when asked about the lack of whiffs.

Since Chapman’s swing and misses are down significantly, I figured it would be worthwhile to check out his fastball spin rate. For fastballs, a high spin rate correlates well to swing and misses and a low spin rate correlates well to ground balls. You don’t really want to be average. You want to be high or low. Here, with an assist from Baseball Savant, is Chapman’s fastball spin rate by month since Statcast became a thing back in 2015:

aroldis-chapman-fastball-spin-rate-2015-17

Let’s start with the obvious: Chapman’s spin far has been well-above-average since Opening Day 2015. His worst spin rate month, June 2015, was still nearly 10% better than the league average. Chapman has a very high fastball spin rate and he usually generates a ton of swings and misses. That’s not a coincidence.

Now, compared to last year, Chapman’s fastball spin rate is definitely down. It declined every month from September 2016 through June 2017 before ticking back up this month. A spin rate decline is bad! At the same time, his fastball spin rate has declined back to where it was for much of 2015, when hitters missed with more than 40% of the swings they took against Chapman’s fastball. Hmmm.

Even with the gradual decline this year, I don’t see a big red flag with Chapman’s fastball spin rate. I’d be really worried if it dropped lower than it had been at any point the last two seasons and change. His fastball spin rate is down from last year and right in line with 2015, and Chapman was great in 2015. He’s within range here. That’s a good thing. You want Chapman to be Chapman, right? Right.

So, with his spin rate looking okay, we’re still left wondering why Chapman’s swing and misses are down this year. Joe Girardi chalked it up to everyone throwing hard now and hitters being more comfortable against big velocity, which I suppose could be true, but Luis Severino hasn’t had any trouble getting hitters to swing through his upper-90s heat. Dellin Betances is still getting a ton of whiffs with his fastball. That doesn’t really pass the sniff test.

The way I see it, there are four possible explanations for Chapman’s relative lack of swings and misses this year. One, he’s in permanent decline. That’s always possible. Humans aren’t meant to throw this hard for this long. Two, it’s just a slump. Sometimes ground ball pitchers can’t get ground balls and sometimes strikeout pitchers can’t get strikeouts. It happens. Three, Chapman is still not all the way back from his shoulder injury. It took Andrew Miller about a month to get back to normal following his forearm issue in 2015, remember.

And four, Chapman is dealing with a World Series hangover. He threw a lot of intense innings last postseason — 15.2 innings across 13 appearances, to be exact — and because the Cubs went to Game Seven of the World Series, Chapman had a shorter offseason recover. Game Seven was November 2nd and pitchers and catchers reported on February 14th. That’s not much of a break at all.

I think (hope) Chapman is going through a World Series hangover this year. He’s wouldn’t be the only one. Basically the entire Cubs rotation is dealing with it. If it is a World Series hangover, hopefully Chapman gets a second wind soon, or is 100% good to go next year at the latest. This is year one of a five-year contract, after all. Getting this version of Chapman in year one is kinda scary.

Chapman’s swings and misses are undeniably down this year, though his fastball spin rate is within its usual range, so that’s not a huge issue. Something is off though. I don’t know what. Maybe it’s a slump, maybe it’s a World Series hangover, or maybe he really is in permanent decline. Considering Chapman is only 29 and is super athletic and well built, as long as he’s healthy, I think he’ll be fine. Eventually. I don’t know when, exactly.

Cause for Concern

(Adam Glanzman/Getty)
(Adam Glanzman/Getty)

Ever since 2013, expectations for the Yankees have been ratcheted down in preseason discussion. Their roster construction from then on limited their outlook to wildcard contenders rather than division favorites, as they’d been for the 15-20 years before then, excepting 2008 (a brief digression: The ’08 Yankees won 89 games despite getting 30 starts from the combination of Darrel Rasner and Sidney Ponson; that’s incredible).

While spectacular–or even good–results were hard to count on, one thing was pretty sure: the Yankees would have a good bullpen. It helps when your relief corps is led by Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman over the last 20 or so years, but after that, whether it was Joe Girardi pushing the right buttons, the team cycling through and replacing options quickly and efficiently, some combination of those things, or bullpen fairy dust, the Yankees always did well in relief. This year, things have not followed that pattern.

Before the All Star Break, Betances and Tyler Clippard had well-publicized meltdowns. It seemed just about every reliever was taking his turn in coughing up winnable games for the Bombers during their futile June and early July. Things came to a head on Friday night in Boston when Chapman blew a save in grand fashion, walking in the winning run after experiencing some combination of bad luck and bad performance, a bit of a microcosm of his season.

From certain angles, things look good for Chapman. He hasn’t allowed a home run all year. His K/9 is in line with his career norm. He’s got a 1.66 FIP. Then there’s the weird stuff. His ERA is sky high (for him) at 3.74. His strikeout percentage is down to 34.3 (which is still good!), way off from the 42.1% mark he’s had for his career; he hasn’t been under 40% since 2011. His strand rate–normally around 80%–is at 67.7%. His BABIP is .415, which seems insane for a guy who throws that hard (and has a career BABIP of .290).

That strand rate seems odd to me, so I checked out his splits with runners on and it turns out his K% is “only” 30%. It hasn’t been that low since 2011. Batters are hitting .277 against him when they’ve never hit over .186 in those situations. He also seems to be allowing much more hard contact and much less soft contact in those situations. That and the BABIP suggest a lot of flukiness in the runs he’s given up–excluding, of course, that awful walk to Andrew Benintendi on Friday night.

The underlying data, though, suggest some reasons to be concerned. Let’s start with velocity, which is an odd place to start considering how hard Chapman throws. This year, he’s hucking fastballs at a ridiculous 100.08 MPH on average; that’s absurd. Human beings shouldn’t be able to do that. What’s crazy is that it’s actually down a full MPH from the 101.08 mark he averaged in 2016. There are explanations–playoff hangover, time on the DL this year–but any time you see a drop like that, it’s a bit iffy. The tables also show that Chapman is getting slightly less horizontal movement on his slider this year than he was last year; Friday, he threw only fastballs in his outing, which seemed odd. More odd was that of 23 pitches, Chapman got just one swing and miss.

2017 has seen big drops in whiff/swing rate on Chapman’s pitches over where they were in 2016 and that is scary for any pitcher, especially one who’s going to be in big leverage spots. This helps explain the above trouble with runners on, too; if guys aren’t whiffing, they’re making more contact and they’re gonna get more hits and they’re gonna score more runs, etc. Indeed, Chapman’s contact rates are up, and have been trending in the wrong direction for a few years now. The only ‘comfort’ is that the jumps this year are so extreme that they should even out towards his career norms at some point (right?).

The first year of Chapman’s five year deal has been fraught with a lot of things, including frustration that the deal is even a thing. Now, there’s been a mix of injury, worse-than-normal performance, and a little bit of negative flukiness. There’s nothing we can do as fans but sit and wait for an adjustment. It’s in the hands of Chapman and the staff to make that adjustment. If there isn’t one to be made, though, and this is a sign of things to come, this may be a long, long five years.