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Aroldis Chapman and the Wonky Launchpad

Aroldis Chapman is referred to as the Cuban Missile, because Chapman is from Cuba, and we used to associate Cuba with missiles, and missiles are fast, and Chapman throws really fast, and we are horrible. It would at least make a little more sense if we just referred to Chapman’s fastballs as Cuban missiles, but even there, fastballs don’t travel nearly as fast as missiles do. Regardless, Chapman has posted crazy numbers this season, in large part thanks to his missiles. Lately his missiles have been missing some speed, and ending up at the wrong coordinates. I think I’m done now with the missile thing.

A few days ago, Chapman blew a save against the Astros, which is a double whammy. His fastball averaged just over 96 miles per hour and his slider averaged just over 84, down from the usual 98 and 88. That’s troubling, but it’s not so bad so long as it’s just a blip instead of a pattern. Monday night, Chapman hinted at this becoming a pattern. Chapman faced five Pirates and walked three of them, with just seven strikes out of 22 pitches. His fastball averaged just over 95 miles per hour, and his slider just over 84. Aroldis Chapman raised some eyebrows, because he wasn’t pitching like himself.

Now, ordinarily, when we see something like this take place — when a pitcher loses velocity, location, or both — we engage in speculation, trying to uncover further evidence that he’s hurt. Rarely are we certain that something is physically wrong, but we usually assume that something is physically wrong, maybe more often than we ought to. In this case, we don’t have to speculate. We know that something is physically wrong because the Reds have declared as much. From Dusty Baker:

“Yeah, because his velocity was down,” Reds manager Dusty Baker said. “He didn’t have any pain. He might be a little tired. We might have to rest him for a while here. He was analyzed by a doctor. The doctor said his shoulder is fatigued. We’ve got to take care of him.”

Aroldis Chapman is supposedly fighting through some shoulder fatigue, which would explain the problems. This is what it can look like when Aroldis Chapman pitches through shoulder fatigue. From Texas Leaguers:

While we’re looking at images, let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is a guy who has people all concerned. In the .gif below, you see a relief pitcher making people worried.

That’s a 96-mile-per-hour fastball thrown to Pedro Alvarez shortly before Alvarez struck out swinging. Usually you don’t get worried when you see a pitcher throwing 96. Usually you get the opposite of worried. But obviously, everything is relative, and Chapman’s the rare sort for whom 94-96 mile-per-hour fastballs are cause for concern.

So what we know is that Chapman’s shoulder is at least kind of tired. It stands to reason that the Reds will probably give him some rest, because, take a look at the standings. The Reds are nine and a half games up on second place in the NL Central, and while they’re chasing the Nationals for the NL’s best record, locking up the division is far more important and the Reds all but have the division completely locked up. If Chapman just needs some rest, and if after the rest Chapman is fine, then this all hardly matters one bit. It would be wise of a team in the Reds’ position to rest star players before the playoffs anyway.

But of course we can’t know that. Everything’s fine when Chapman is more or less healthy. When he’s not, we wonder when he will be again. We don’t know how thoroughly he was examined and there might be something more going on than fatigue. If it’s fatigue, we don’t know how quickly Chapman can become un-fatigued. Chapman right now is walking through one of those eerie dark forests from old Disney movies, and the path might lead out any moment now, or not for a long time.

What might be considered good news is that Chapman has bounced back from reduced velocity before. On May 27, he averaged under 95 with his fastball; on June 1, he averaged over 99. He hit some struggles in the middle of June, and at the beginning of July he was throwing 100. It’s not like this is the first time that Chapman’s ever had trouble reaching his ceiling pitch speed.

But trouble is trouble, and I don’t think anyone would be too terribly shocked if this became a bigger deal, for two reasons. For one, people associate Dusty Baker with arm problems and overuse, rightly or wrongly. For two, it’s still almost impossible to believe that a human body could sustainably throw like Aroldis Chapman throws. A lot of people are just waiting for Chapman to come apart and so news of a hiccup could be just the beginning.

This is not the time to panic. For the time being, Chapman can rest his shoulder, and the Reds can remain happily in first place because it would take a devastating miracle for them to give it up. Sean Marshall, Jose Arredondo, Sam LeCure, and Jonathan Broxton are pretty good relievers. This seems to be manageable. One can become more concerned if Chapman isn’t more like Chapman in a couple of weeks. There’s no such thing as a single player on whom the fate of a whole playoff race rests, and if there were it wouldn’t be a reliever, but Chapman is as important a reliever as any reliever in baseball. A team that makes the playoffs wants to be with all of its stars at or around 100 percent, and Aroldis Chapman is one of the Reds’ brightest stars. With Chapman unavailable or with Chapman at reduced effectiveness, the Reds could still go far. They’d like their odds better if Chapman were back to throwing his usual missiles. Welp, there’s that missile thing again.