Yankees place Aroldis Chapman on 10-day DL with shoulder inflammation

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

So it turns out there was something physically wrong with Aroldis Chapman these last few days. Earlier this morning the Yankees announced they have placed their closer on the 10-day disabled list with left rotator cuff inflammation. Marly Rivera says Chapman had an MRI yesterday morning, which showed no structural damage.

The plan, according to Brian Cashman, is to shut Chapman down for two weeks, then reevaluate things. Chapman first told the Yankees he was experiencing discomfort Friday, after his rough outing against the Astros. He is six weeks into a five-year contract worth $86.5M, so you can be sure the Yankees are going to play it safe here. They’re not going to push him hard and risk a more serious injury.

Fortunately the Yankees have a top notch reliever to replace Chapman in the ninth inning in Dellin Betances. I know Dellin struggled a bit late last season, but as long as he’s healthy, I am 100% confident in him closing games. Tyler Clippard will presumably take over the eighth inning and Adam Warren the seventh. That’s usually how Joe Girardi rolls.

Of course, having a great closer replacement doesn’t mean losing Chapman won’t hurt. The Yankees are now short a high-end reliever and their bullpen will suffer because of it. Bullpen depth was an undeniable strength for the Yankees in the early going this season. That takes a hit now. Hopefully they can weather the storm until Chapman returns.

Starting with his outing in Boston two weeks ago, Chapman hasn’t looked quite right the last few times out, especially so in his last two appearances. His velocity was fine — Chapman has averaged 99.6 mph and topped out at 101.4 mph this month — but his command was non-existent and nothing seemed to be coming easy. The shoulder issue would explain that.

It’s worth noting Chapman has a history of relatively minor shoulder injuries. He missed a little more than a month with shoulder inflammation at midseason in 2011, and he also missed a few games with shoulder soreness in 2012, 2014, and 2015. None of those required a trip to the disabled list. A history of shoulder problems, even minor ones, doesn’t exactly make me feel any better.

The Yankees called up Chad Green from Triple-A Scranton to fill Chapman’s roster spot. He’ll presumably take over as the long man, allowing Warren to slide into a more traditional setup role. I have to think Jonathan Holder will see some increased responsibility with Chapman out as well. He might share seventh inning duty with Warren. We’ll see.

Yankeemetrics: Bronx Bombers invade Wrigley (May 5-7)

Air Gardy. (Presswire)
Air Gardy. (Presswire)

It Ain’t Over ‘Til Its Over
The Comeback Kings struck again as the Yankees pulled off yet another stunning late-game come-from-behind victory on Friday afternoon against the Cubs.

Trailing 2-0 in the top of the ninth with two men on base and two outs, Brett Gardner drilled a 2-2 slider into the right field bleachers to give the Yankees the lead; Aroldis Chapman got the final three outs to secure the most improbable win.

How unlikely was this rally? The last time the Cubs lost a game in this scenario – protecting a two-or-more-run lead in the ninth – was nearly three years ago, on May 21, 2014 at Wrigley Field … against the Yankees.

Or maybe it wasn’t so unlikely, given the refuse-to-lose mojo of the 2017 Yankees. Entering Saturday’s slate, they were one of just three teams this season with multiple wins when trailing by at least two runs entering the ninth inning (Padres and Angels were the others).

Before Gardner went deep, he was a pathetic 3-for-20 (.150) with zero extra-base hits after the sixth inning, and hitless in five at-bats in the ninth inning this season.

Gardner’s home run was not just shocking, it was one for the record books. Only six other times since 1930 has a Yankee hit a go-ahead homer in the ninth inning with two outs and trailing by at least two runs. That list includes: Mark Teixeira (2016), Alex Rodriguez (2010), Don Mattingly (1985), Chris Chambliss (1976), Bobby Murcer (1969) and Bobby Richardson (1962).

A-Rod‘s three-run homer in the top of the ninth on Sept. 17, 2010 in Baltimore is the only other instance in the last quarter-century that a Yankee pulled off that feat when down to their final strike, like Gardner.

And, finally, this was the third time in the last 75 years that the Yankees were one out away from being shut out, and then hit a go-ahead home run. Incredibly, the hero in the two previous games was the same guy – Bobby Murcer – who erased a 1-0 deficit on June 14, 1980 in Oakland and a 2-0 deficit on August 5, 1969 against the Angels with ninth-inning, game-changing homers.

Hot hot Hicksy. (EPA)
Hot hot Hicksy. (EPA)

No comeback needed
One night after perhaps the most dramatic win of the season, the Yankees authored one of their least dramatic wins of the season, taking a 5-0 lead in the top of the first inning en route to an 11-6 victory on Saturday. The win gave them their fourth straight series victory, something they never did last year.

Sure, the Yankees and Cubs don’t match up often, but it’s still fun to note that the last time the Yankees scored 11-or-more runs against the Cubs was in Game 4 of the 1932 World Series, a 13-6 series-clinching win at Wrigley Field. The 3-4 hitters in that lineup were Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig; for Ruth, it was the last World Series game of his Hall-of-Fame career (h/t Mark Simon, friend of Yankeemetrics).

The offensive explosion on Saturday was led by the top of the order as Aaron Hicks and Starlin Castro combined to go 7-for-9 with five runs and six RBIs. Castro was 3-of-4, notching his AL-best 15th multi-hit game of the season. In the last 40 years, only two other Yankees produced that many multi-hit games within the team’s first 28 contests: Derek Jeter (2012) and Alfonso Soriano (2002, 2003).

Hicks’ performance was the statistical highlight of the night, as he went 4-of-5, including a homer, while driving in three runs and scoring three runs. The last Yankee center fielder to put up those numbers in any game – at least four hits, a home run, three RBIs, three runs – was Mickey Mantle on Aug. 6, 1961 against the Twins.

Yes, miracles do happen. (Getty)
Yes, miracles do happen. (Getty)

It’s over, finally
After way too many innings, way too many hours, way too many pitches, way too many strikeouts … the Yankees finished off the sweep of the Cubs on Sunday night (actually Monday morning).

It marked their first sweep of the defending World Series champs since July 14-16, 2006 against the White Sox, and the first time they’ve done that on the road since July 29-31, 2003 in Anaheim against the Angels.

The 18-inning affair was the longest game in Interleague history, longest game ever on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball (which began in 1990), and the longest in the majors this season.

It is the sixth time in franchise history the Yankees won a game of at least 18 innings and the first time since September 11, 1988 vs. the Tigers. The only other time they won a game this long on the road was a 22-inning marathon on June 24, 1962 in Detroit.

With the game going 18 innings, you’d think there would be a few more records set … and you would be correct.

  • The Yankee batters struck out 22 times, breaking the previous single-game franchise record of 17. And the Yankee pitchers struck out 26 Cubs, also obliterating the previous single-game franchise record of 19. Hooray!
  • The 26 strikeouts by Yankee pitchers matched a major-league record, set by the 1971 A’s vs. the Angels and the 2004 Angels vs. the Brewers.
  • This is the first game in MLB history where both teams each whiffed at least 21 times.
  • The 48 combined strikeouts by both teams is also a new single-game major-league record.
  • Yankees are the first team in major-league history to have four players (Castro, Didi Gregorius, Austin Romine, Chase Headley) go 0-for-7 or worse at the plate. Yes, they still won the game.

So how did we get there?

Luis Severino delivered an absolute gem, allowing one run in seven stellar innings. Twenty of his 21 outs came either groundballs (11) or strikeouts (9), and the one out he got in the air was a liner by Cubs starter Jon Lester. His final pitching line (4 hits, 1 walk, 9 strikeouts, 1 run, 7 innings) gives us our #FunFact Yankeemetric of the Week:

Only one other visiting pitcher as young Severino (23 years, 76 days) struck out at least nine batters, gave up no more than one run and allowed five or fewer baserunners in a game at Wrigley Field: Reds right-hander Jim Maloney, who delivered two such outings on August 21, 1962 and July 23, 1963.

Aaron Judge broke out of his mini-slump and gave the Yankees a 2-1 lead in the seventh with a tie-breaking RBI triple. It was the first go-ahead triple by any Yankee in nearly four years, when Travis Hafner hit one on April 27, 2013 to break a 4-4 tie in the seventh against the Blue Jays. Of course it was Pronk, just as we all predicted.

Aroldis Chapman came on in the ninth to protect a three-run lead, but eventually blew the save when he hit Anthony Rizzo with the bases loaded to even the score at 4-4. Chapman is the only Yankee pitcher since at least 1930 to give up the game-tying run in the ninth inning via a bases-loaded hit by pitch.

Finally, Castro reached on a fielder’s choice groundout, scoring Aaron Hicks from third. So the guy who went 0-for-8 was the hero of the night with the game-winning RBI.

About last night: Aroldis Chapman’s tough ninth inning

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

Last night’s win over the Red Sox, as satisfying as it was, did not come easily in the ninth inning. Aroldis Chapman needed 33 pitches to get the final three outs and gosh, did he labor. Two walks, one booming double, one long foul ball, one run, and only two swings and misses. It was hardly vintage Chapman, but it was enough to close out the win.

Here, via Brooks Baseball, is Chapman’s velocity graph for the game. This is the velocity of each pitch as the outing progressed:

aroldis-chapman-velocity

For the first 25 pitches or so, Chapman’s fastball was consistently 98-100 mph. It wasn’t until the very end of the outing, as his pitch count approached 30 — his previous season high was 22 pitches — that his fastball dipped all the way down to 96. Trackman clocked his average fastball — he threw 25 of them — at 98.9 mph for the night.

“I feel fine. Thank God, I feel fine,” said Chapman through Marlon Abreu, the Yankees’ interpreter, to Brendan Kuty following the game. “I would not blame not throwing for a couple of days, or blame the weather at all. It’s just sometimes you’re not as sharp. That’s it.”

Given who he is (a closer in year one of a five-year, $86M contract) and what he’s known for (historic fastball velocity), seeing Chapman finish the outing at 96-98 mph rather than his usual 100-102 mph was at best unnerving and at worst panic-inducing. The fact it was the Red Sox and Fenway Park and the tying run was on base didn’t help matters.

That all said, Chapman’s outing to me looked more like a guy who simply didn’t have it and was struggling with the weather than someone who was hurt. I’ve seen plenty of pitchers pitch hurt over the years, and they didn’t look like that. I know Aroldis said not to blame the weather, but that strikes me more as a closer not making excuses than anything. It was cold and it was wet, and we’ve seen Chapman struggle in those conditions before. He did last year in Game Seven of the World Series. Remember the rain game against the Rangers last year?

Here is another velocity graph, again via Brooks Baseball. This is Chapman’s average velocity by month throughout his MLB career. Like most pitchers, Chapman doesn’t really hit his stride and start airing it out until the weather heats up:

aroldis-chapman-velocity-by-month

Keep in mind Chapman did not pitch for the Yankees last April due to his suspension. That first dot last season, the low one, that’s his final Spring Training outing against the Marlins at Marlins Park. Chapman spent April pitching in Extended Spring Training games before rejoining the Yankees in May, when he was essentially in midseason form.

Anyway, as you can see in the graph, April is traditionally Chapman’s worst month in terms of velocity. And again, that applies to nearly every pitcher. It applies to Dellin Betances. His average 98.9 mph fastball last night was down for midseason Chapman. It was right in line with his past Aprils, if not better, however.

This is what I saw last night. One, a pitcher who came out of the bullpen without good command. It happens. Two, a pitcher who had a hard time with the less than ideal weather conditions. And three, a pitcher who was running out of gas by the end of his outing. Chapman’s usual April velocity was there for the first 25 pitches or so. It wasn’t until later in the outing, after 30-ish high-stress pitches, that he dipped down to 96-98 mph.

Because he’s an important part of the team and because he’s very early in his massive contract, of course we’re all going to keep an key on Chapman in his next few outings, including the Yankees. Every pitcher loses velocity as their career progresses and Chapman will be no different. At some point sitting 100-102 mph will become sitting 98-100 mph, then sitting 95-97 mph. It’ll happen at some point. Father Time remains undefeated.

I think last night’s outing was just one of those games, however. One of those games where Chapman didn’t have it and needed to grind. Those outings happen to everyone, even pitchers as good as him. It was his first game like that this year. If this becomes a pattern, it’ll be a red flag. For now, I consider it to be just one of those days.

Yankees finalize Opening Day roster; Holder, Mitchell, and Shreve make the bullpen

Holder. (Presswire)
Holder. (Presswire)

Earlier this morning, Joe Girardi informally announced the Yankees’ 25-man Opening Day roster. Aaron Judge will be the right fielder and Luis Severino will be the fourth starter, and the decision to option out Rob Refsnyder means Pete Kozma will be the utility infielder. Also, Girardi told Bryan Hoch that Bryan Mitchell, Jonathan Holder, and Chasen Shreve will be in the bullpen. Got all that?

The Yankees still need to open a 40-man roster spot for Kozma, though they have a few days to figure that out. The Opening Day roster itself doesn’t have to be finalized with the league until 12pm ET on Sunday, an hour before first pitch. Here’s the unofficial official roster:

CATCHERS (2)
Austin Romine
Gary Sanchez

INFIELDERS (6)
Chris Carter
Starlin Castro
Greg Bird
Chase Headley
Pete Kozma
Ronald Torreyes

OUTFIELDERS (4)
Jacoby Ellsbury
Brett Gardner
Aaron Hicks
Aaron Judge

DESIGNATED HITTER (1)
Matt Holliday

STARTING PITCHERS (4)
Michael Pineda
CC Sabathia
Luis Severino
Masahiro Tanaka

RELIEF PITCHERS (8)
Dellin Betances
Aroldis Chapman
Tyler Clippard
Jonathan Holder
Tommy Layne
Bryan Mitchell
Chasen Shreve
Adam Warren

DISABLED LIST (2)
Tyler Austin (foot)
Didi Gregorius (shoulder)

The Yankees will carry eight relievers for the time being. The team has three off-days in the first ten days of the regular season, allowing them to skip their fifth starter the first two times through the rotation. They’ll do exactly that, then figure out the fifth starter later. They don’t need one until April 16th.

Rotation candidates Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Jordan Montgomery did not make the Opening Day roster, though it’s only a matter of time until we see those guys in the big leagues. The Yankees will need a fifth starter soon enough, and given his performance last year, I don’t think it’s a given Severino sticks in the rotation all season. Montgomery opened some eyes this spring and could be the first starter called up. We’ll see.

The Yankees open the regular season this Sunday, with a 1pm ET game against the Rays at Tropicana Field. They’ll start the season with a six-game road trip through Tampa and Baltimore before coming home. The home opener is Monday, April 10th. They’ll play the Rays again.

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.