Sorting out the 35 players the Yankees still have in big league camp

Bird and Judge. (Presswire)
Bird and Judge. (Presswire)

Opening Day is now only six days away, and at this point the Yankees still have nearly a full 40-man roster worth of players in big league camp. They have 35 players in camp and the World Baseball Classic is part of the reason. Some players, like Donovan Solano, have been in camp without actually being in camp these last few weeks. The Yankees and every other team needed the extra bodies while players were away at the WBC.

All throughout this week the Yankees will cut down their roster as they prepare for Opening Day on Sunday. It’s late in camp, so not only will the big league players start playing a full nine innings and back-to-back days, the minor leagues need to do that too. There’s only so much playing time to go around, and at this point of the spring, it’s time for clubs to emphasize their MLB roster players.

Earlier today the Yankees reassigned Solano, Wilkin Castillo, and Ruben Tejada to minor league camp, meaning there are now 35 players remaining in the big league Spring Training. Let’s take stock of those 35 players and figure out where they fit into the Opening Day roster equation. Some will definitely make it, some definitely won’t, and a whole bunch of guys are on the bubble. Let’s get to it.

Definitely Making The Team (19)

Might as well start here since this is our easiest and largest roster group. These are the players we know will be on the Opening Day roster in some capacity.

Any doubt about Bird making the Opening Day roster was erased when he was named the starting first baseman last week. It was plenty fair to wonder whether he’d need some time to Triple-A to regain his strength and/or timing after missing the entire 2016 season with shoulder surgery, but he’s crushing the ball this spring. No doubts about him now. Everyone else is pretty straightforward, right? Right.

Very Likely To Make The Team (3)

This group includes three players who are not a lock to make the Opening Day roster, but are in prime position to make the club out of Spring Training. The three players: Aaron Judge, Bryan Mitchell, and Luis Severino. Judge has had a strong camp to date. I’m not sure what else the Yankees could want to see from him, though I still don’t think the right field job is 100% his right now. Hicks has played well this spring. (Like he does every spring. Career .303/.365/.521 hitter in Spring Training!)

Mitchell and Severino are both competing for a rotation spot, though I think they’re on the roster either way, starter or reliever. Mitchell won a bullpen spot in camp last year and he hasn’t really done anything to not deserve a roster spot since. I still think Severino is the odds on favorite to get one of the open rotation spots. I’m also not convinced he’ll go to Triple-A should he not get a starting spot. The chances of Severino making the Opening Day roster in some capacity sure seem pretty darn high to me. He’s not a lock, but the odds are in his favor.

Injured (2)

Baseball can be cruel. The Yankees lost both Didi Gregorius and Tyler Austin to injury this spring, and while neither suffered a severe long-term injury, they are going to miss the first several weeks of the regular season. Austin fouled a pitch off his foot and broke a bone. He could return to game action in mid-April. Gregorius strained his shoulder making a throw and could be out until May. Yuck. Both Austin and Didi are disabled list bound to begin the regular season.

In The Mix For A Roster Spot (7)

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

Most players in this group will be shuttle pitchers. Chad Green is competing with Severino and Mitchell (and Warren, I guess) for the two open rotation spots, and I feel the Yankees are much more willing to send him to Triple-A rather than stash him in the bullpen. Jordan Montgomery has impressed in camp, so much so that Joe Girardi is talking about him as a possible Opening Day roster option. Can’t say I expected to have him in this group at the outset of Spring Training.

Aside from Green and Montgomery, the other three pitchers in this group are all relievers: Ben Heller, Jonathan Holder, and Chasen Shreve. We will inevitably see those guys in the Bronx at some point this season, though I’d say it’s less than 50/50 they’re on the Opening Day roster. Heller probably has the best chance to win a job out of camp. He’s had a fine spring and is, in my opinion, the best bullpen prospect in the organization.

Rob Refsnyder, who has been mentioned as a trade candidate at times this spring, didn’t have much of a chance to make the Opening Day roster at coming into the spring. Then Austin and Gregorius got hurt which, if nothing else, opened the door for Refsnyder a little bit. His inability to play shortstop hurts him, obviously. The Yankees would have to be comfortable using Castro at shortstop.

An unexpected Opening Day roster candidate is Tyler Wade, who has played well this spring and could get a look at shortstop while Gregorius is sidelined. The question is whether the Yankees want to tie up a long-term 40-man roster spot — the veteran non-roster infielders in camp can be dropped off the 40-man roster as soon as Gregorius returns, but Wade will be on the 40-man for good — so Wade can fill-in for a month. I have him in this group for a reason though. I think it’s possible the Yankees go with him at short while Didi is out.

Oh Geez, They Might Actually Make The Team (3)

It happens every year, doesn’t it? Some random player you forgot the Yankees acquired shows up to camp, performs well, and before you know it, he’s on the Opening Day roster. Kirby Yates did it last year. Chris Martin the year before. Cody Eppley a few years before that. You never see it coming with these guys. Here are this year’s candidates, listed alphabetically:

  • Ernesto Frieri: The Yankees signed him to a minor league deal two weeks ago, which suggests they were impressed by the way he threw with Colombia during the WBC.
  • J.R. Graham: Graham recently had a three-run disaster outing, but eight of his ten Grapefruit League appearances have been scoreless. Ten strikeouts and two walks in 9.1 innings too.
  • Pete Kozma: Kozma’s chances of making the Opening Day roster improved with the news of the Gregorius injury as well as the Solano and Tejada demotions. He’s a candidate to help fill in either at shortstop or as the utility infielder.

With Gregorius hurt and two open bullpen spots, I’d put the chances of at least one of these five players making the Opening Day roster at: annoyingly high. My money is on Frieri making it. He’s looked pretty darn during the World Baseball Classic and with the Yankees, plus his experience as a Proven Closer™ will work in his favor.

Esmil Rog ... I mean Ernesto Frieri. (Presswire)
Esmil Rog … I mean Ernesto Frieri. (Presswire)

Long Shot To Make The Team (1)

The Yankees reassigned their very best prospects to minor league camp last week, which took some of the excitement out of the remaining Grapefruit League games. It was that time of the spring though. The kids have to go get ready for their seasons. The at-bats aren’t there any more in the big league camp. The regulars are going to play and play a lot this week.

The final player still in big league camp is catcher Kyle Higashioka. He is No. 3 on the catcher depth chart, which means he is heading to Triple-A Scranton until someone gets hurts or rosters expand in September, whichever comes first. Higashioka’s only chance to make the big league roster out of Spring Training involved and injury to Sanchez or Romine, and, thankfully, the Yankees have stayed healthy behind the plate.

Predictions by Position

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

After today, the next time you read a post from me, the Yankees will be three hours away from their first pitch of the season against the Tampa Bay Rays (while we’re on it, how silly is it that even in a dome, the Yankees have an off day after their Opening Day? Isn’t the point of the dome to avoid that? Ugh.). That’s pretty damn cool, huh? It also means you’re in for a flurry of prediction posts, so allow me to be near the top of the list. When September ends, we can all look back at this and laugh at how absurdly wrong I was.

Catcher

Gary Sanchez will struggle at the plate to start the year and a certain segment of fans–the talk radio set–will become frustrated, though his defense is mostly fine. By early June, though, Sanchez will find his stroke and finish the year with about 20 homers and a caught stealing percentage near the top of the league.

Austin Romine will remain the backup all year, turning in a very typical backup season. But, for him, it’s a coup as it lands him a two-year contract after the season to stay on as Sanchez’s reserve.

Carter. (Presswire)
Carter. (Presswire)

First Base

I don’t know exactly what the combination will be or how it will break down to a man, but Greg Bird and Chris Carter will combine for 40 homers.

Shortstop and Second Base

I’m combing these thanks to the Didi Gregorius injury. Ruben Tejada will start the year at short. By mid-April, though, his bat will not be worth the defensive contribution and he’ll be let go. Starlin Castro will slide over to short and “everyone” will get their wish as Rob Refsnyder will be called up to play second, the team willing to live with his defense since his offense will be needed more. He’ll have a hot first week, then cool down just in time for Didi to return and send Castro back to second.

Didi will take a slight step back offensively this year, as will Castro. However, they’ll be able to buoy it with solid defense, becoming one of the top double play combinations in the league.

(Al Bello/Getty Images)
(Al Bello/Getty Images)

Third Base

Chase Headley continues his ‘bounce back’ that started after his terrible beginning to 2016. He ends the year around a 100 wRC+, but his defense begins to show a little bit of wear before he heads into the last year of his contract.

Outfield

Brett Gardner bounces back offensively. The power doesn’t come back totally, but he reaches double digits in homers again and regains some of his base-stealing prowess. Jacoby Ellsbury hovers around where he was last year and his steals stay flat as he’s not apt to run in front of Sanchez or Matt Holliday, whoever occupies the three spot.

Aaron Judge struggles through the first month and is sent down to Scranton and Aaron Hicks takes over in right for a bit. Judge is eventually recalled and put in a platoon to start, but earns his way back into the starting role, promising better things for 2018.

(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)

Designated Hitter

Holliday shows flashes of his Colorado self, but is generally more like the player he was in St. Louis last year. He surprises, though, with a fair amount of opposite field homers and winds up leading the team in that category.

Starting Rotation

Michael Pineda comes out of the gates like a bat out of hell. He pushes his way into the All Star Game, but falters down the stretch, reminding us more of 2016 than the early part of 2017.

CC Sabathia pitches like a number two for half his starts and a number five for the other half. Masahiro Tanaka again competes for the Cy Young Award, putting up an even better case this year than last year.

Adam loves it. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Bullpen

Adam Warren becomes the new Dellin Betances. No, he won’t be as dominant as Dellin, but he’ll move into the multi-inning, high-leverage spot, allowing Betances to join Tyler Clippard and Aroldis Chapman as a more traditional one-inning reliever when Warren is fresh.

Team

What will all this add up to? Somehow, someway, I’m thinking…84 wins. That sounds right, no? What wild, crazy, or boring predictions do you have? If we’re gonna laugh at me in September, let’s laugh at you, too.

Play ball.

Chapman Returns [2017 Season Preview]

(Reinhold Matay | USA TODAY Sports)
(Reinhold Matay | USA TODAY Sports)

On the off-chance that you missed it, the Yankees gave Aroldis Chapman the largest contract ever handed out to a reliever back in December, re-solidifying the back of the bullpen that they had gutted (for the best of reasons) a handful of months prior. There’s something poetic about the fact that the team dealt its closer for a player that would become its best prospect, only to have those two on the same roster less than a year later. It makes a great trade look even better, regardless of the fact that re-signing Chapman shouldn’t influence one’s thoughts on the deal. But I digress.

An argument can be made that Chapman is the best reliever in baseball, which may well be stating the obvious. He finished 4th in the Majors in fWAR and 9th in RA9-WAR despite not throwing a pitch until May 9 (due to his suspension for domestic violence), ranking among the top-five in K%, K-BB%, ERA-, and FIP-. And this is nothing new for Chapman, either, as the southpaw leads all relievers in fWAR and RA9-WAR over the last five years. It’s telling that his 13.97 K/9 and 40.5 K% are his lowest marks since he took over for Francisco Cordero as the Reds closer following the 2011 season.

How does he do it?

Consistency Is Key

Chapman has not had anything short of a brilliant season since becoming a closer, with the only real variations being degrees of excellence. In the last five seasons he hasn’t struck out fewer than 40.5% of batters, nor has he allowed an ERA higher than 2.54 – and his averages in that stretch are 44.2% and 1.84, respectively. And this past season, when he posted that measly 40.5% strikeout rate, he offset it by posting a career-low walk rate of 8.1% (the first above-average mark of his career). I’ll take that trade-off.

It isn’t just consistency with his statistics, either. Take a look at his velocity:

chapman-velo

All of his offerings have remained steady since 2010 – his first full-season in the Majors, and they actually ticked up a bit last season. In fact, he showcased the second-best fastball velocity of his career in 2016 per Brooks Baseball, clocking in at 101.08 MPH. His slider and change-up velocity have been similarly metronomic, which is a great sign.

The movement on his pitches is consistent, as well, even if there are a few sections that stand out a bit more:

 

chapman-horizontal-movement chapman-vertical-movement

It is worth noting that he barely utilizes his change-up (less than 3% of his pitches were change-ups last year, per Brooks Baseball), so it makes some sense that it would be something of an outlier. He has tinkered with different grips, too.

Protecting His Elbow

Pitchers that throw hard and pitchers that throw a high percentage of sliders seem to be more prone to elbow injuries, if only anecdotally, and Chapman does both. Or, perhaps more accurately, he used to throw a high percentage of sliders.

chapman-pitch-selection

In 2014, nearly a quarter of Chapman’s pitches were sliders – and that appears to be the outlier in his time as a closer. Around 15% of his offerings were sliders last year, which placed him 72nd among the 130 relievers that threw at least 50 IP. And, to be fair, his slider usage ranked him 50th among 138 in 2014, so our perception of him as a slider-happy pitcher may be a bit of cognitive dissonance due to the wipe-out nature of the pitch.

That premium velocity has almost undoubtedly taken its toll, but focusing on fastballs could play a roll in Chapman remaining healthy. Whether that is a conscious decision or a matter of him sticking with what works is another question entirely.

What About The Playoffs?

Chapman came perilously close to adding his name to the list of curses that had plagued the Cubs franchise for over a century when he blew the save in Game 7 of the World Series, allowing a game-tying two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning. It was his third blown save of a postseason in which he posted an uncharacteristically high 3.45 ERA and 1.09 WHIP (and, no, the fact that those numbers would be good for most relievers isn’t lost on me).

The Cubs won the World Series, so all was forgiven. Does that mean that we should forget about Chapman’s intermittent struggles? Yes. Yes it does.

Between the regular season and playoffs, Chapman nearly matched his career-high in IP, doing so despite his shortened season. He pitched 13 times in 27 days in the playoffs, including three times in four days leading into Game 7. Despite this, his velocity was as steady as ever:

chapman-playoff-velo

The Cubs utilized Chapman exactly how they should have, and he may have been worn down somewhat in the process. That may give the Yankees a reason to be gentle with him early in the season, but it does not give much of a reason to be concerned about his abilities going forward.


The projection systems largely forecast the status quo for Chapman, albeit with what would be his highest ERA since 2013 (2.33 for Steamer, 2.34 for ZiPS, and 2.45 for PECOTA). That represents the safe route, factoring in a full season in a hitter’s park in a division full of potent offenses. Nevertheless, I expect Chapman to continue to be an elite closer in 2017.

Recent reliever trades show the Yankees hit the jackpot with the Chapman and Miller deals

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

In the early days of Spring Training, we’ve gotten a nice little peek at some of the best young players the Yankees have in their much ballyhooed farm system. Aaron Judge socked what will probably go down as the longest home run of the spring, Gleyber Torres doubled to left and right fields the next day, and Clint Frazier has been wearing out the opposite field with extra-base hits. It’s been fun!

Judge was one of New York’s three first round picks back in 2013, and, as you know, Torres and Frazier both came over at last year’s trade deadline. So did outfielder Billy McKinney, who hit a home run Sunday, as well as Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen. We didn’t get to see Justus Sheffield make his spring debut Tuesday because the game wasn’t televised, but he was another trade deadline pickup as well.

Last summer the Yankees were uniquely positioned heading into the trade deadline and Brian Cashman & Co. took advantage in a big way. They turned Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, two relievers (great relievers, but relievers nonetheless), into three top 100 prospects, plus several others. The reliever trade market had really taken off in previous months and both the Cubs and Indians were pretty desperate despite sitting in first place. They had baseball’s two longest World Series droughts and wanted to get over the hump. Sure enough, the trades helped both get to the World Series.

Whenever we see trades, especially blockbuster trades that go beyond anything we expected, our first inclination is to think the market has changed. The Yankees got massive hauls for Chapman and Miller, which means every great reliever is going to require a massive Torres/Frazier caliber package going forward. It hasn’t worked out that way. Two other great relievers have been traded since those deals:

  • Pirates trade Mark Melancon to the Nationals for reliever Felipe Rivera and minor leaguer Taylor Hearn, whom Baseball America ranked as the 14th best prospect in Pittsburgh’s system in their 2017 Prospect Handbook.
  • Royals trade Wade Davis to the Cubs for Jorge Soler, a 25-year-old former top prospect who is still trying to find his way at the big league level. He came with four years of team control.

The Melancon trade was made one week after the Chapman trade and one day after the Miller trade. The Davis trade went down over the winter. Melancon was a rental like Chapman, and while he’s not as good as Chapman, he’s not that much worse either. And yet, the Pirates turned him into a good reliever and an okay prospect. The Yankees turned rental Chapman into arguably the best prospect in baseball in Torres, plus three others.

The Davis trade really drives home how well the Yankees did with the Miller and Chapman trades. From 2014-15, Davis was the best reliever on the planet, throwing 139.1 innings with a 0.97 ERA (1.72 FIP). He also excelled in the postseason (one earned run in 25 innings), closed out a World Series, and has an affordable contract ($10M in 2017). Somehow the Yankees got more for rental Chapman than the Royals did for a full year of Davis.

We can go back even further to show how much the Chapman and Miller trade look like outliers. Last offseason the Padres acquired four prospects for Craig Kimbrel, including two who landed on Baseball America’s top 100 prospect list soon after the trade: Javier Guerra (No. 52) and Manuel Margot (No. 56). Kimbrel had three seasons left on his contract at the time of the trade. Well, two seasons and a club option. There’s an escape there in case things go wrong.

When the Yankees traded Miller, he had two and a half years remaining on his contract. They traded him for four prospects, including two who appeared on Baseball America’s midseason top 100 list a few weeks earlier: Frazier (No. 21) and Sheffield (No. 69). Would you rather have the Nos. 21 and 69 prospects, or the No. 52 and 56 prospects? I’d take Nos. 21 and 69. Prospect rankings are not linear. There’s not a significant difference between Nos. 52, 56, and 69. The difference between Nos. 21 and 52 is pretty huge though.

(For what it’s worth, the prospect valuations at Point of Pittsburgh indicate Frazier and Sheffield were worth a combined $78.5M in surplus value at the time of the trade. Guerra and Margot combined for $44.8M. Top 20-ish position player prospects like Frazier are insanely valuable.)

The Phillies didn’t got a single top 100 prospect in the Ken Giles trade, and he came with five years of team control. They just got a bunch of players with performance and/or health issues. Two years of Jake McGee was traded for a designated hitter (Corey Dickerson) who hasn’t hit outside Coors Field. Three years of Justin Wilson fetched two okay but not great pitching prospects. Four and a half years of Sam Dyson was given away for two non-prospects. Giles, McGee, Wilson, and Dyson have all been among the game’s top relievers the last few seasons, and look at those trades packages.

Point is, compared to some other top reliever trades, specifically the Melancon and Davis deals, the Chapman and Miller hauls look like a minor miracle. It was a perfect storm for the Yankees. They had an elite reliever on a contract that wasn’t burdensome, and the team that wanted him was not only very desperate to get over the hump and win their first World Series in a lifetime, they also had the tippy top prospects to trade. And then it all happened again.

I don’t want to call the Miller and Chapman trades once in a lifetime events, that’s a wee bit over the top, but given everything that happened leading up to and since the deals, it sure looks like everything came together at exactly the right time for the Yankees. They had the right players to offer very motivated buyers. And maybe it won’t work out and all the prospects will bust. Baseball can be a jerk like that. Right now, at this very moment, the Miller and Chapman deals look like franchise-altering trades. You dream of your favorite team making trades like this.

Hal Steinbrenner desperately wants you to like Aroldis Chapman

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Eleven days from now, pitchers and catchers will report to Tampa and the Yankees will open Spring Training. Among those who will show up for work that day is Aroldis Chapman, the team’s new old closer. The Yankees signed Chapman to a five-year deal worth $86M back in December. It includes an opt-out after year three.

Yesterday, at the quarterly owners’ meetings, Hal Steinbrenner spoke to Bob Nightengale about Chapman’s return to New York, and, well, look:

“Quite frankly it was manageable the minute he got here last year,’’ Steinbrenner said at the quarterly owners’ meetings Thursday. “He was great. Look, he admitted he messed up. He paid the penalty. Sooner or later, we forget, right? That’s the way we’re supposed to be in life. He did everything right, and said everything right, when he was with us.”

To be fair, Steinbrenner later told David Lennon he meant to say “forgive,” not “forget,” which is only slightly better. Anyway, Hal’s agenda became pretty clear after he acknowledged the Yankees re-signed Chapman in part because he puts butts in the seats.

“They love him,’’ Steinbrenner said. “There are so few baseball players that I feel can really get fans to buy a ticket and brings their kids to their game, and he’s one of them.’’

Please like my temperamental $17M a year closer. That’s what this all sounds like. Forget about the ugly stuff and look at those 105 mph fastballs wowie!

The thing is, there is no forgetting, and it’s not really up to the fans to forgive. Last winter’s alleged domestic violence incident stays with Chapman the same way performance-enhancing drugs stayed with Alex Rodriguez. It’s always there with you, subconsciously. You never really forget. It’s silly to pretend otherwise. (Also, domestic violence is roughly a bazillion times worse than PEDs, but I digress.)

Steinbrenner committed an awful lot of money to Chapman and he wants fans to like him. I get it. But dude, don’t tell people they should forgive him or worse, forget about it. That’s one of those things that, even if you believe it, say it in your head and not out loud, you know? This is a sensitive subject. Telling people to forget it ain’t cool. As with anything in life, telling people how to feel isn’t a great idea.

The Yankees have a chance to be really exciting this coming season because Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge are going to sock dingers, because Didi Gregorius is going to flash leather at shortstop, and because Masahiro Tanaka is an artist on the mound. Chapman will be part of that excitement too. Fans are under no obligation to forgive him or forget about his history though, whether Hal likes it or not.

The Third Wheel

(Christian Petersen/Getty)
(Christian Petersen/Getty)

That whole “New Year, New Me,” meme that we always see as the number turns on the calendar is not going to apply to the New York Yankees in 2017. Some of the names and faces may be different, but the big picture looks a whole lot like the one from last year. Questions about veteran bats like Mark Teixeira‘s, Alex Rodriguez‘s, and Carlos Beltran‘s have given way to questions about young players’ bats, like Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Tyler Austin, and the returning Greg Bird. The rotation, as it seems to have been for a while, is far from secure. Leading the similarities, however, is a bullpen headed by a “Big Three,” though this year’s trio will be missing the best of the bunch in Andrew Miller. Replacing him, as he did at the trade deadline last year, is right hander Tyler Clippard.

Clippard pitched well in his 25.1 innings for the Yankees last year, striking out 24.3% of the batters he faced (9.24 K/9) and posting a 2.49 ERA (177 ERA+; 59 ERA-), though that is somewhat belied by a 4.05 FIP (99 FIP-), owed to a high walk rate of 10.3% (3.91 BB/9). In what is likely to be his first full season as a Yankee (provided he doesn’t get traded), Clippard is going to play an important role as gatekeeper to the superior Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman.

Given that the rotation isn’t likely to give much length, something I discussed last month, it’s possible that a lot of games are going to hinge on Clippard performing well in the sixth or seventh inning, holding onto tight leads to turn them over to Betances and Chapman. To mix metaphors, the success of the Yankees’ three-headed-monster may rely on its third wheel, represented by Clippard.

Unless the Yankees improve their rotation before the start of the season, though, they risk the team’s biggest strength being mostly mitigated from the start. While it’s obviously better to have a solid game-ending trio than to not have one, the importance of said trio is lessened when the rotation can’t provide quality or length and the lineup can’t thump its ways through thickets of poor starting to the meadows of high-scoring leads. This isn’t really a thing, but the team’s questionable starting pitching is a case of a weakness potentially turning a strength into something, well, less strong.

To cut back on some of the falling sky here, Clippard is still a good enough pitcher that I’m not too worried about him blowing leads before they’re put into more capable hands. I am worried, though, that he’ll be pressed into early service too often and that, as the season wears on, fatigue may set in. The Yankees need an innings eat to help make sure this doesn’t happen.

Aroldis Chapman could be even more effective by being less predictable with his fastball

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)
(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

By any objective measure, Aroldis Chapman is one of the best relievers in baseball and most dominant single-inning forces in baseball history. Chapman has struck out 42.6% of the batters he’s faced in the big leagues, including 44.2% over the last five seasons, the highest rate in history by nearly two percentage points. Craig Kimbrel (40.7%) and Kenley Jansen (39.8%) are the only pitchers within nine percentage points of Chapman.

As good as he is, Chapman is not without his flaws as a pitcher. No player is perfect, after all. Chapman does walk a few too many hitters (career 11.6 BB%), and yeah, he’s made it known he prefers to work the ninth inning and only the ninth inning. Chapman can also be a bit predictable on the mound, especially when he falls behind in the count. (And since he walks so many batters, he’s behind in the count more often than the average pitcher.)

I first noticed this during Chapman’s short stint with the Yankees last year, but he was here and gone so quick — Chapman was on the active roster only 76 days between his suspension and the trade — that I never got around to looking into it. Since he’s back for at least three and possibly as many as five years, it’s time for a deeper dive. Here is Chapman’s pitch selection over the last three years:

Fastball Slider Changeup
Count Even 71.6% 22.2% 5.4%
Pitcher Ahead 68.8% 19.5% 10.5%
Batter Ahead 84.8% 11.9% 2.0%

There are two obvious caveats here. One, every pitcher throws more fastballs when they’re behind in the count. Last season pitchers threw a fastball 64.4% of the time when they were behind in the count. It was 56.2% when the count was even and 48.4% when ahead in the count. And two, not every pitcher has Chapman’s fastball. No other pitcher does. He’s one of a kind. Life is good when you throw 100 mph on the regular.

Chapman, when he falls behind in the count and needs to even things back up, will lean on his high-octane fastball and understandably so. It’s the most dominant fastball in baseball history. There’s no point in keeping it in your back pocket. Aroldis is leaning on that pitch when behind in the count more and more with each passing year too. It was 80.5% fastballs three years ago, 84.6% two years ago, and 89.1% last year.

Again, Chapman’s fastball is historically great, so throwing more of them seems like a good idea. Look at his numbers when he’s been behind in the count the last three years though:

Count Even: .199/.216/.269 (40 OPS+)
Pitcher Ahead: .068/.071/.083 (-40 OPS+)
Batter Ahead: .263/.526/.391/ (93 OPS+)

When Chapman gets ahead in the count, forget it. Game over. Opponents have a .154 OPS (OPS!) against him when he’s gotten ahead in the count since 2014. Crazy. When the count is even, Chapman is still dominant. The hitter might as well be down 0-2.

But, when Chapman falls behind in the count, he’s damn near average. Keep in mind a 93 OPS+ in those situations still isn’t great for the hitter, but relative to Chapman’s standards, it feels like a miracle. Hitting .263 against a guy throwing that hard is impressive, and I can’t help but wonder whether Chapman’s predictability with the fastball plays into that. Sure, he throws extremely hard, but if hitters know it’s coming, their life gets a little easier.

The best way to look at this is by isolating Chapman’s fastball. Here’s how hitters have performed against his fastball in the various count states over the last three years:

AVG ISO Whiff% Foul%
Count Even .210 .060 15.7% 20.5%
Pitcher Ahead .059 .005 25.0% 24.7%
Batter Ahead .389 .185 13.9% 19.4%

I literally lol’d at the .005 ISO against Chapman’s fastball when he’s ahead in the count. Aroldis has allowed one extra-base hit against the heater when he had the count advantage over the last three seasons. One. It was a Garrett Jones double on an 0-2 fastball in August 2014. (I went back through MLB.tv to see if there was any defensive funny business, but no, it was a booming double off the top of the wall on a mistake fastball down the middle. So it goes.)

Anyway, hitters have had more success against Chapman’s fastball when he’s behind in the count. A lot more success. They’ve hit for more average and power, and swung and missed a heck of a lot less. (A 13.9% whiff rate on a fastball is still insanely good, I should note.) I thought maybe this would explain the foul balls too — Aroldis does seem to give up a lot of fouls, doesn’t he? — but apparently not. Either way, Chapman’s fastball is not nearly as effective when he’s behind in the count, yet that’s the pitch he’s throwing nine times out of ten in those spots.

Based on this, it’s fair to wonder whether Chapman would benefit from using his slider and changeup a bit more often when behind in the count. Not necessarily when he’s down 3-0 or anything like that, but in 1-0, 2-0, or 2-1 counts, when a ball doesn’t put a man on base? Why not? The goal is to put something else in the back of the hitter’s mind and change the scouting report. That’s why Chapman’s fastball is so good when he’s ahead in the count. He throws the most sliders and changeups in those spots and the fastball plays up. Right now, hitters can sit fastball when he’s behind.

This is nitpicking to the nth degree, of course. Chapman is historically great even while throwing all those fastballs when behind in the count, so he doesn’t have to change anything to remain effective. This is more a look at a way Chapman can be even better, which is pretty crazy to think about. Mixing in a handful of sliders and changeups when behind in the count, just a few to stop hitters from sitting heater, could make a pretty significant difference.