Aroldis Chapman, Without His Command

Seeing as this is an article about Aroldis Chapman, I might be letting down my audience if I didn’t at least briefly discuss the most recent pitch Aroldis Chapman threw, considering what that most recent pitch was. The last pitch Aroldis Chapman threw in a game was a fastball, for a swinging strike — which, on its own, given our subject, is entirely unremarkable. The pitch went 103.3 mph, which is less remarkable for our subject than any other pitcher in baseball, but is fast even for Chapman’s standards. Most remarkable of all, the pitch moved like this:

To quickly play the role of Party Pooper, I have to point out that the way a catcher receives a pitch can sometimes play a trick on our eyes, deceiving us into believing a pitch had more movement than it actually did, and I think that’s at least somewhat at play here with Willson Contreras‘ stabbing motion, in concert with the pitch’s natural arm-side tail, creating an exaggerated illusion of how much this pitch actually broke.

That’s not to say the pitch wasn’t exceptional, even for Chapman. Despite my poo-pooing just a second ago, you might be able to make the case this is the most exceptional fastball Chapman’s ever thrown. The Cubs’ closer threw 15 fastballs in his save during Saturday’s 5-2 win over the Giants, and the 14 fastballs preceding the one depicted above averaged 4.6 inches of horizontal break. Chapman’s fastball, for the entire season, averaged 4.8 inches of horizontal break. This particular fastball, that final fastball, broke 9.3 inches to the arm side. It moved about twice as much as the average Chapman fastball.

Using BaseballSavant, I compiled a spreadsheet of every fastball Chapman’s thrown in his career — 5,161 pitches. I sorted them by horizontal movement. This one ranked 63rd. That’s not as sexy a result as first or second or even 10th, but it’s still in the 99th percentile. Also: at 103.3 mph, only two of the 62 fastballs with more horizontal break were also thrown as hard. Also also: those two pitches were both in the dirt. This one went for a swinging strike to end a playoff game. That’s how you make the argument this was the most exceptional fastball Aroldis Chapman has ever thrown.

For fun, I wanted to create an image. This image shows every fastball thrown by a left-handed pitcher in 2016, plotting velocity against horizontal movement, with all of Chapman’s pitches removed except the one in question. I find humor in this:

chapman

You see the little blob of pitches around 100, all featuring something between 0-5 inches of horizontal break? That’s Felipe Rivero and James Paxton. Slightly to the right of that is where Chapman would live, were the rest of his pitches to be included in this plot. Slightly to the right of that, and then up an entire block, is where this pitch lives.

So we’ve covered the velocity and the movement of that crazy Aroldis Chapman pitch, but I also want to address the command that led up to that pitch, inspired by a comment made by John Smoltz during the broadcast of this game. See, what makes the Chapman pitch above stand out even more is the location. He more or less hit his spot, which is remarkable, given where Chapman had been before it.

First, here’s that Smoltz comment:

“Nobody can be happy facing this kind of triple-digits, but the only thing you can hope is his command is not on…”

Translation: Chapman’s stuff alone is gonna beat you nine times out of 10, but you’ve got a shot if he isn’t hitting the glove. Totally reasonable statement. Let’s see how true it was in Game 2.

Pitch No. 1

1

  • Pitch? Fastball
  • Commanded? No, missed high and arm side
  • Result? Foul ball, 0-1

Pitch No. 2

2

  • Pitch? Fastball
  • Commanded? No, missed high and arm side
  • Result? Foul ball, 0-2

Here we have back-to-back fastballs by Chapman, wanted low and away by Contreras and missed high and inside, into Brandon Crawford‘s barrel, by Chapman. Crawford is late on both pitches. These are almost precisely the kind of misses most pitchers dread. The kind of mistakes that lead to damage. Chapman’s ahead 0-2.

Pitch No. 3

3

  • Pitch? Fastball
  • Commanded? No, missed high and arm side
  • Result? Foul ball, 0-2

Another potential mistake pitch. Another foul ball.

Pitch No. 4

4

  • Pitch? Fastball
  • Commanded? Mostly. Contreras finally called for a pitch high, and Chapman actually went below the target, but not by much, and he had the horizontal location right. Pretty good pitch.
  • Result? Called strike, strikeout

Pitch No. 5

5

  • Pitch? Fastball
  • Commanded? No, missed high and way arm side
  • Result? Ball, 1-0

Pitch No. 6

6

  • Pitch? Fastball
  • Commanded? No, missed high and arm side
  • Result? Foul, 1-1

Smoltz: “The thought of a hitter to try to pick one out and get lucky and get a hit early, I still, in this situation, would make him throw me a strike. Easier said than done, but you’ve got to find a way to get on base.”

Pitch No. 7

7

  • Pitch? Fastball
  • Commanded? No, missed way high and over the plate
  • Result? Swinging strike, 1-2

Smoltz: “See that’s the problem. Those are two pitches that he swung at out of the zone—”

Bob Costas: “But when you know you’ve got to pull the trigger so soon—”

Smoltz: “I know, that’s what makes it so tough.”

As a brief interlude, this pitch, aside from the final one .gif’d in the beginning of this article, is my favorite pitch of this inning. Here’s why:

We spend so much time talking about how crazy it is that Chapman can throw these pitches and how crazy it is that batters can hit these pitches, but I don’t think we spend enough time talking about how crazy it is that a person has to catch all of these. Look at where Contreras’ glove started, and look where it wound up, and consider that this pitch traveled roughly 60 feet at 102 miles per hour, and that Contreras still caught it. Mind-boggling.

Pitch No. 8

8

  • Pitch? Fastball
  • Commanded? No, missed high and over the plate
  • Result? Foul ball, 1-2

Pitch No. 9

9

  • Pitch? Fastball
  • Commanded? Yes. Contreras finally sets a second high target, and Chapman elevates even a little more than that, but it’s about as close as one can reasonably expect a pitcher to hit their target.
  • Result? Foul ball, 1-2

Gotta give credit to Angel Pagan for stringing together a good at-bat here, fouling off these Chapman heaters to stay alive. On the other hand, he probably hasn’t seen a strike yet, and he’s down 1-2.

Pitch No. 10

10

  • Pitch? Fastball
  • Commanded? Close enough. Contreras wanted it knee-high and outside and it wound up belt-high and on the black, but still a good location.
  • Result? Foul ball, 0-1

Pitch No. 11

11

  • Pitch? Changeup
  • Commanded? lol
  • Result? Ball, 2-2

After 10 consecutive fastballs to begin the inning, Contreras calls for the change, and Chapman throws it 58 feet. Back to fastballs.

Pitch No. 12

12

  • Pitch? Fastball
  • Commanded? Not really, missed high and over the plate
  • Result? In play, out(s)

Another pitch wanted low and away, another pitch missed into the hitter’s barrel. Pagan hit it well on a line to center, and Dexter Fowler bailed out Chapman with nice diving catch.

Pitch No. 13

13

  • Pitch? Fastball
  • Commanded? No, missed high
  • Result? Ball, 1-0

You might be beginning to wonder, or have already wondered, whether these are even targets set by Contreras at all, or whether they actually do want these pitches high. I considered it myself about halfway through this exercise, wondering if this might’ve all been a futile effort. I’m confident that’s not the case, however. For one, we’ve seen Contreras set two high targets already, so there’s clearly a distinction. Two, Contreras has thrown more pitches low since coming to the Cubs than he did with the Yankees, inferring more low targets. And three, watch the .gif on Pitch No. 7 again. Chapman is the last pitcher a catcher wants to have to react to by not having the glove be the target. Contreras has really wanted these pitches low. Chapman’s just not hitting the spots.

Pitch No. 14

14

  • Pitch? Fastball
  • Commanded? No, missed high and arm side
  • Result? Called strike, 1-1

Pitch No. 15

15

  • Pitch? Fastball
  • Commanded? Mostly. He pretty much piped it down the middle when Contreras really wanted it down and in, but it wasn’t far off the target.
  • Result? Foul ball, 1-2

Pitch No. 16

16

  • Pitch? Fastball
  • Commanded? No, missed high and arm side. But we all know why.
  • Result? Swinging strike, strikeout, game over

* * *

Best I can tell, Chapman hit his spot three, maybe four times this inning. Contreras routinely wanted fastballs down, and Chapman routinely delivered fastballs up, often missing into the batter’s swing path. He threw three pitches that were clearly over the plate. He had a 1-2-3 inning with two strikeouts.

I’m not breaking any news here by telling you Aroldis Chapman’s velocity alone is enough to get by. But it’s a fun way of seeing that principle in action. John Smoltz said, “The only thing you can hope is his command is not on.” That’s not wrong. It’s also not exactly right.



Print This Post



August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.


Comments Are Loading Now!