It’s fair to wonder how anyone could ever make contact against Aroldis Chapman.  This was the final pitch of Game 2 of the NLDS:

 

 You could lose hours of your life just watching that pitch over and over. As per Baseball Savant via Fangraphs’ August Fagerstrom, that pitch had 9.3 inches of armside action at 103 MPH. That’s basically a slider from a right-handed pitcher, except 20 MPH faster and thrown by a lefty!

 

 

That pitch was decidedly unhittable; it’s Chapman at his best. Anyone who can make a baseball do such unspeakable things should have a career ERA no higher than 0.00. Yet somehow he has given up more than 200 hits in his major league career – 19 of them have been home runs! This seems like it should be impossible.

Three of the 398 baserunners and one of the 94 runs (88 earned) he has allowed were on the night of April 26, 2017 against the Red Sox. Having one player reach base against Chapman is a Herculean task, and three of them must be a divine act, so let’s investigate how this unfathomable inning unfolded.

 

It was a chilly, drizzly spring evening at Fenway Park. The Yankees and Red Sox had been rained out the day before and the weather wasn’t much improved. This is pertinent because it may have impacted Chapman’s grip and comfort level, or perhaps it was just a sign from above that this would not be his best night. The Yankees were leading 3-0 as Chapman began the bottom of the ninth. (All charts courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net.)

First batter: Andrew Benintendi, L
Pitches thrown: Six fastballs
Result: Walk

When Chapman comes into a game you expect to see him pumping triple digit fastballs. He ranged from 97.9 to 99.6. For any other pitcher in baseball they would say he has his “good stuff,” but not him.

 

While Benintendi did walk, Chapman’s location was hardly terrible. Pitch one should certainly have been called a strike and pitch two was borderline. Perhaps on a different day this is a strikeout, but on the night in question the leadoff batter had reached.

 

Second batter: Mookie Betts, R
Pitches thrown: Five fastballs, one slider
Result: Double, Benintendi to third

Mookie Betts crushes a 2-2 fastball to left-center for a double. Betts was the AL MVP runner-up last year and this is why. Forget any of his statistics. If he can hit a screaming line drive off Chapman’s 99 MPH fastball they should retire his number immediately. Someone named Jose Martinez also doubled off Chapman earlier this year. They should retire his number too.

 

Chapman was working around the strike zone, mostly trying to pitch Betts up and away. Pitch three was his first slider of the inning. Sliders are not supposed to end up in that spot, a half inch above the zone and on the outer half. The damage pitch was in the middle of the zone and up – exactly where you would expect a damage pitch to be.

 

Third batter: Chris Young, R (pinch-hitting)
Pitches thrown: Two fastballs
Result: Groundout to third base, Benintendi scores, Betts holds at second

Imagine being in Chris Young’s shoes: It’s a damp, dismal night and you’re not in the lineup. Your teammates haven’t scored a run through the first eight innings. You’ve had nothing to cheer about for more than three hours. You’re cold and tired on the bench, just waiting to take a hot shower and go to bed. All of a sudden, with two runners on base and no one out, the manager tells you to grab a bat. Cursing under your breath, you stand up, stretch, take a few practice swings, and step into the box against Aroldis Freaking Chapman.

The first pitch is 100 MPH. Called strike one. “Let’s get this over with,” you think to yourself. You grudgingly step back into the box. Chapman winds and deals. It’s the fastest pitch you’ve probably ever seen, almost 101 MPH. You swing desperately, just praying for contact. Somehow, the bat strikes the ball! The third baseman runs it down in the hole between third and short. You run hard most of the way to first before being thrown out. A run scores. You pray that your teammates will never know the intense relief you feel as they slap you on the back and offer congratulatory fist bumps. Gratefully, you return to your comfy spot on the bench.

Look at that second pitch! It’s perfectly placed on the inside corner! Let’s retire Chris Young’s number while we’re at it.

 

Fourth batter: Hanley Ramirez, R
Pitches thrown: Seven fastballs
Result: Walk, Betts to third on wild pitch

Chapman’s fastball is arguably the single greatest pitch in baseball. By this point he had now thrown 21 pitches and 20 of them were fastballs. The results were three baserunners and one out with and a run scored. His velocity appears to be dropping slightly with his pitch count rising.

 

Only one of the seven pitches was in the strike zone, indicating his control had abandoned him. In case you can’t see it, pitch four is off the chart. At the top of the graph you’ll notice a green dot below the word “Outside.” No wonder Betts advanced to third.

 

Fifth batter: Jackie Bradley, L
Pitches thrown: One fastball, three sliders
Result: Strikeout

This is the first batter for which Chapman really changes speeds. His slider comes in slightly slower than a MLB-average fastball. Why did he go to the breaking pitch? Perhaps after the Ramirez walk he wanted to try a different type of grip. He had been standing out in the mist for probably 20 minutes at this point and might have been struggling to keep his fingers dry. Or maybe the scouting report on Bradley just called for sliders.

 

There’s further evidence here that Chapman was struggling with location. The first two sliders and the fastball were in the middle of the plate with the winning run at bat. Bradley had three hittable pitches, swinging at only one and hitting it foul. He did choose to swing at a slider way above the strike zone for strike three. Poor plate discipline by Bradley contributed to this strikeout at least as much as the quality of Chapman’s pitching.

 

Sixth batter: Josh Rutledge, R
Pitches thrown: Four fastballs, four sliders
Result: Strikeout

These were pitches 26-33 of the inning, which is an awful lot for a one-inning reliever. His velocity was down considerably with his first fastball reaching “only” 96 MPH. Not visible in this chart is that Chapman was taking a long time between pitches and pacing around the mound. The announcers noted he “looked uncomfortable,” for whatever that’s worth. To use other broadcaster cliches, he appeared to “dig deep,” “reach back for something extra,” and “find something left in the tank” as the velocity on his fastball and slider both increased throughout this at bat. (Could we still use cliches if this wasn’t the final batter?)

 

Of the four sliders he threw only the second one was in the strike zone. Rutledge fouled off four pitches, which had to frustrate a tiring Chapman (or did it cause him to “dig deeper?”). One of the foul balls was a blast to deep left that landed in the upper deck roughly ten feet to the left of the seats above the Green Monster. Had Rutledge swung a microscopic fraction of a second earlier, that would have won the game for Boston. Shortly thereafter he swung through a 98 MPH heater for the final out.

 

For the game, Chapman averaged 98.9 MPH on his fastball (his second lowest velocity of the season) and 86.6 MPH on the slider (his lowest of the year). He also throws a changeup which he decided not to use in this game for reasons unknown. Aroldis Chapman is a freak of nature. He’s been clocked north of 105 MPH. Every pitcher has bad days, but Chapman still hit 100 MPH without his best stuff. When a pitcher can throw that hard, he can still get out of an inning without too much damage, even when he’s not as good as advertised.

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