The Yankees beat the Tigers last night and the ninth inning was over in the blink of an eye. Aroldis Chapman needed only seven pitches to get a pop-up to first, a grounder to second, and a strikeout to nail down his first save of the new season. The only number that seemed to matter: 97.0 mph. That was Chapman’s average fastball for the night.
“Obviously, he was really efficient,” Aaron Boone said to Dan Martin following the game. “It looked like there was good life on his fastball. I wasn’t overly concerned with it (but) it was good to see him come in and start to push it up a little bit and look like his stuff was crisp.”
Chapman’s trademark velocity was noticeably down in Spring Training, sitting mostly 94-95 mph on the television radar gun. He averaged 95.0 mph in his first regular season appearance last Thursday and topped out at 97.8 mph. In a vacuum, that’s very good velocity. For Chapman, it’s definitely down.
“It’s something we’ll keep an eye on. We’ll see as we get into the season and it gets warmer,” pitching coach Larry Rothschild told Dan Martin and George King over the weekend. Chapman said he’s healthy and feels great physically, which is good even though it’s hard to trust athletes when they talk about their health (they always say they’re healthy).
Chapman turned 31 in February and velocity loss is part of life for a pitcher. His average fastball velocity was lower last year than the year before, and that year was lower than the year before it. Remember those 105 mph fastballs everyone fell in love with? Chapman hasn’t thrown a pitch that hard since August 2016. That historic velocity was never going to last and, really, it’s pretty amazing it lasted as long as it did.
It’s easy (and understandable) to freak out about reduced velocity these days and there’s no doubt a 104 or 105 mph fastball is more effective than a 96 or 97 mph fastball. At 104-105 mph, Chapman is a dominator. At 96-97 mph, the outs don’t come quite as easy. The good news is we’ve already seen some improvement in his two appearances …
- March 28th: 95.0 mph average and 97.8 mph max
- April 1st: 97.0 mph average and 98.3 mph max (on a very cold night)
… and Chapman has shown us he can make adjustments. Last year he incorporated his slider more than ever before and that happened even before it was clear his velocity was down and staying down. He came out of the gate throwing more sliders, which tells us the plan going into the season was more sliders. It just so happened to coincide with the first significant velocity loss of his career.
While I enjoy a good velocity freakout as much as anyone (actually, I don’t), we don’t know whether Chapman’s reduced velocity is actually a problem yet. He’s only made two appearances and both went fine (admittedly against terrible teams), and his velocity ticked up the second time out. It could be that Chapman needs a few weeks to reach his maximum velocity and begin touching 100 mph again.
“What makes Aroldis so unique and so special (is) his kinetic chain is so freakish,” Boone said last week. “I think once that gets really dialed in, I think the velocity will follow. Now, is it 103s and 102s? I don’t know. I would expect him to slowly start to tick back that way.”
Right now, four games and two Chapman appearances into the new season, I consider his velocity something to watch more than something to worry about. Will he be the overwhelming dominator he was in his prime at 97-98 mph instead of 104-105 mph? No, probably not, but that doesn’t mean Chapman can’t be very effective either. He was a deserving All-Star last year despite the velocity drop.
We need more information, basically. Let’s see whether the velocity gradually increases in the coming weeks and let’s see how effective Chapman remains without the triple-digit heater. If the velocity gain we saw last night stops or even reverses, and he starts getting knocked around the park and/or walking everyone, then it’ll be time to worry. Right now, it’s still not clear whether the reduced velocity hurts him. All we know is his velocity is down. We can’t dismiss the velocity loss. We also can’t make any definitive conclusions yet either.
The important thing is health. As long as Chapman’s healthy — and he does look healthy — he has a chance to increase his velocity as the season progresses and the weather warms up, and he has a chance to make adjustments too. You can’t do either of those things when you’re hurt. Chapman’s healthy and we’ve already seen some velocity uptick. Chances are those 104s and 105s are never coming back given normal age-related velocity loss. Chapman can still have success at 97-98 mph, which is down for him and excellent for everyone else.