The Epic Pinstriped Flame-Out of Aroldis Chapman
by Cary Greene
January 11, 2022
It would be generally fair to state that most Yankees fans want nothing to do with Aroldis Chapman going forward. Teams haven’t exactly lined up to ink him to a free agent contract this offseason either, so it may also be fair to assume most MLB teams feel similarly. His pinstriped decline this past season was pretty epic, but he certainly punctuated fan sentiments by quitting on this teammates just prior to start of the playoffs this past season. Understandably, the Yankees appear to be done with him and the only thing that remains is to wait and see if some other team winds up picking him up and what the deal might look like.
Will he get more than a one-year contract? Recent rumors connect Chapman to the Padres and possibly an unknown team that I speculate could be the Marlins. Most teams are starved for pitching and if he’s still capable of closing, or even if he can still pitch effectively as a set-up-man in lower leverage innings, chances are he will find work somewhere. His journey in pinstripes however most certainly appears to be over.
He Began 2022 as the Closer
When the 2022 season began last April, the Yankees' de facto closer was Aroldis Chapman and he began the season very effectively, in fact from April 8th to May 9th, over his first 12-games, “Chappy” posted a 0.00 ERA while racking up 7 saves with 11 strikeouts while issuing a concerning eight free-passes and holding opposing batters to a .111 batting-average. Over this span, Chapman threw 63-percent of his pitches for strikes and 21-percent of the batters he fanned went down looking.
Then the Wheels Fell off the Bus
Then he hit one of those “rough-patches” he has been increasingly prone to and for a short while, from May 11th to July 22nd, he had a 11.70 ERA, with only 13-strikeouts while permitting 10-walks in 13-games. During this time, he was dealing with a minor Achilles issue and he also missed 39-Days.
Opposing batters posted a 1.117 OPS against him over this time frame and they were batting .317 against the once fearsome fireballer - suffice it to say the red warning flags were raised. Opposing hitters were literally teeing off against him and Yankees fans everywhere wondered, was Chapman beginning to implode?
During this time, Chapman not only lost the trust of Yankees manager Aaron Boone and by the end of May, sinkerballer Clay Holmes took over as the Yankees closer.
Upon Returning He was Demoted
From July 26th to August 19th, Chapman had a span of 11-games over 10.1-innings - in which he had been demoted to a lower leverage role - with 11-strikeouts and 5-walks while posting a 2.61 ERA and holding opposing batters to a 464 OPS and a .152-average, all while not allowing any home runs. It became clear that Chapman was no longer the pressure pitcher he was several seasons prior, but Aaron Boone was putting him into middle to later-innings situations and in the small sample size, he seemed to be responding favorably, but then he was placed on the Injured List with a leg injury.
His Last Hurrah in Pinstripes was Brief
Finally able to return in mid September, Chapman pitched sparingly, appearing in seven games down the stretch, logging a 3.18 ERA over 5.2-innings of lower-leverage usage. During the brief return, he held batters to a .444-OPS and a .111-Average without allowing a home run. Still, his command was faltering badly as he allowed six-walks and a strong eight-strikeouts.
On the Season
On the season, Chapman finished with a polarizing 4.46 ERA, a 26.9 strikeout-percentage and a 17.5 walk-percentage while posting a negative 0.2 fWAR. He also had a .301 wOBA that, all things considered, was respectable enough - though fifty to one-hundred points higher than his “vintage Chapman” type seasons from 2015 to 2019.
What Went Wrong?
StatCast dispels the notion that opposing batters hit Chapman hard last season, but he posted a Hard-Hit-Percentage of 34.5%, which was below the League-Average of 35.8%. Chapman surrendered six home-runs on his four-seamer and five on his slider over the past two-seasons and these results are incredibly elevated when compared to past seasons. It’s fairly safe to say that Chapman’s best pitches these days are very hittable, so I’d be inclined to agree with projections, Chapman is probably not well suited to closing duties going forward.
Furthermore, what really stands out though is Chapman’s ghastly performance in high-leverage situations vs his above average lower leverage results. In low-leverage situations, opposing batters posted an underwhelming .247 wOBA against Chapman last season. Considering that League-Average was a .316, Chapman fared well here. In medium-leverage situations though, batters recorded a .327 wOBA and in high-leverage ones, they destroyed him to the tune of a .409 wOBA. The fact that he was demoted had nothing to do with Aaron Boone acting irrationally. Chapman cracked like an egg in high-pressure situations and that’s not a good look for a well-paid closer.
Value Outlook Going Forward
Chapman’s overall performance was ultimately not good though, in fact FanGraphs rated his value as being worth negative $1.8-million fDollars, which means if he were a free agent, he would have been a sunk cost. Considering that the Yankees paid him $18-million last year, the team basically threw about $20-million out the window.
In fact, over the course of the three-year, $48-million extension that Brian Cashman offered him in 2020, Chapman’s performance was only worth $5-million. Considering that he topped it all off by literally refusing to attend practice if he wasn’t guaranteed a spot on the postseason roster, Chapman’s legacy will forever be viewed in a negative light.
The Declining Fastball
Soon to be 35-years-old, Chapman wound up going 4-4 with only nine saves in 43 appearances which was by far a career-worst season. The 13-year MLB veteran ranks 24th all-time in saves and third among active pitchers, trailing Craig Kimbrel (394) now with the Phillies and Kenley Jansen (391) who was signed recently by the Red Sox. Chapman’s problems culminated last season mainly due to his steadily declining four-seam-fastball that averaged 100.9 mph back in 2014 but is now a “pedestrian” 97.5-mph.
The Heat Maps Show He “Teed-Up” His Best Pitches
Unfortunately, he’s lost the ability to blow his fastball by MLB hitters these days. Therefore, they sit on his slider and other offerings and if they’re over the plate, they have very predictable success but if they’re not, then the walks begin to pile up. Notice his heat maps, per Statcast below, which illustrate how he locates his two best pitches. He catches way too much of the heart of the plate on both the four-seamer and the slider.
*Heat maps per StatCast
Couldn’t Locate his Secondary Offerings
Now notice the locations of his secondary offerings, his splitter couldn’t be wilder -
*Heat Map per StatCast
While his sinker is also basically just a waisted pitch if thrown in any count-
*Heat Map per StatCast
Batters Sat on His Fastball and Slider
Since Chapman can’t dominate the zone with his primary offerings and considering that his secondary offerings can’t be thrown for a strike in any count, Chapman often fell behind hitters last year. That drove his pitch count up and allowed batters to get into “hitter’s counts” and start looking for primary pitches. If Chapman threw them, damage occurred and since he can’t command his secondary pitches, when he went back to them, lots of walks happened.
Chapman Working to Reestablish Himself
At the end of the day, Steamers is projecting Chapman to post a 0.1 f-WAR in 2023, with a 3.32 ERA over 53-innings with 31% Strikeout-Rate and a 12.4% Walk-Rate. They also project a 73.8% Left-On-Base percentage and for him to have a BABIP of .248. Noticeably, they also project Chapman’s days as a closer are over. Champman begs to differ and he’s embarked on an offseason mission to reestablish himself in 2023. Here he is working with pitching guru Hector Berrios.
According to Truman Capote, “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor” and it does seem that Chapman, who has tasted plenty of success during his big-league career, still has plenty of innings left in the tank. Here he is during a mound-session in Miami recently in front of an unnamed team.
It will be interesting to see what his future holds.