February 24, 2013

GOOD CHAPMAN/BAD CHAPMAN:

The Enigma of Mr. 105 : In which we ponder the sometimes crazy, occasionally confounding, reliably complicated life of Aroldis Chapman, the fastest pitcher on earth. (Craig Fehrman, 3/1/2013, Cincinnati Magazine)

Keith Law, a baseball analyst at ESPN, attended a September game where Chapman muscled his way up the velocity ladder--102, 103, 104, and, finally, 105 miles per hour, a new major-league record. By the end, even the opponent's fans were cheering him. "I remember sitting there, thinking, I could spend 30 more years in the game and never see a guy throw this hard," Law says.

Before Law went to ESPN, he worked in the Blue Jays front office. Once, he asked an older scout to name the best pitching prospect he'd ever seen. "Without really hesitating," Law recalls, "he said, 'Brien Taylor.' " Taylor was baseball's top draft pick in 1991, and he remains an almost mythical figure for talent evaluators, in part because he ruined his pitching arm in a brawl. Yet Taylor is the first comparison Law reaches for in explaining what makes Chapman so special.

"I'd almost emphasize the looseness more than the velocity," Law says of Chapman's arm. In other words, it's not just that Chapman throws 100 MPH--it's that he throws 100 MPH and looks like he's playing catch. That easy delivery comes from Chapman's rare athleticism; one gets the sense that, had he stuck with boxing, Chapman would have made a terrific light heavyweight (or a terrific wide receiver, or a terrific shooting guard). Law calls Chapman's fastball "electric" and praises his "wipeout slider." "And I've always thought his changeup is better than he gets credit for," he says.

In 2012, Chapman combined those skills with a new one: accuracy. People forget that Chapman's 105 MPH pitch was actually a ball, but last year, aided by that easy motion, he traded in a little velocity for precision control. It led to a season so remarkable fans can rotate and analyze it, like a diamond. At one point, Chapman's catchers recorded 15 straight put-outs--that means nothing but pop ups, foul outs, dribblers, and strikeouts. And speaking of strikeouts, according to ESPN, Chapman got 50 of them on pitches of 100-plus MPH. The rest of baseball managed only 52, combined.

Somehow, watching Chapman was even more impressive than his numbers. I reviewed every one of his saves (38) and blown saves (5) from 2012, and the weird thing is, you can't tell a difference. Not in his appearance, at least. Chapman's no longer the guy who threw a tantrum against Japan and drove his Louisville defenders nuts. He's remade himself, becoming not so much unflappable as simply detached. Take a game last June, against the Astros: Chapman secured the save in an astounding 3 minutes, 54 seconds. He needed 13 pitches to strike out the side. Yet his demeanor never changed, and throughout the season there was rarely any separation between "good" Chapman and "bad" Chapman, at least in the aesthetics.

Where you could find evidence of the good and the bad was in the numbers. He went on long streaks where every opponent looked like the Astros, but he also went on streaks where he completely fell apart. Oddly, those streaks never overlapped. In 2012, Chapman toggled between amazing and awful like a light switch. In fact, his season can be divided into four tidy sections: From Opening Day through June 6 (let's call it Streak A), he threw 29 dominant innings: no runs, nine walks, 52 strikeouts. But from June 7 through June 24 (Streak B), Chapman struggled: 6.1 innings, eight runs, four losses. The double somersault? Chapman meant it to mark the end of that swoon, and it did: from June 26 to September 4 he threw 30.2 innings with one run, 6 walks, and 56 strikeouts (Streak C). But the end of the season saw him slip again: more runs, more walks, even a long period where the Reds shut him down (Streak D).

This analysis may seem unfair; after all, no pitcher has ever kept up Streak A or Streak C levels for an entire season. But given what is known about Chapman's makeup--that he can get rattled, distracted, derailed--it seems important to note that his season was forcefully shaped by momentum. I noticed this while reviewing his outings as well. During Streaks B and D, Chapman's pacing and control eroded. In a game with the Detroit Tigers in June, he hit a batter with the bases loaded then walked a fringe player on four pitches--all while Miguel Cabrera (who went on to win the American League MVP) waited on deck; in a late-season appearance against the Pittsburgh Pirates, he threw 10 balls in his first 11 pitches.

Of course, baseball's a funny game, and a bad outing, especially for a reliever, can stem from something as simple as a grounder scooting past Zach Cozart's glove. So I asked Harry Pavlidis, a PITCHf/x expert with the website Baseball Prospectus, to analyze Chapman's streaks. PITCHf/x is just as high tech as it sounds: a two-camera system that lets people like Pavlidis track the movement and effectiveness of every single pitch--and dig deep into the performance of every single player.

"Selective endpoints are a classic danger in analysis," Pavlidis says. "Still, some things did pop up." When Chapman was at his best, during Streaks A and C, hitters would swing and miss at his fastball 40 percent of the time. "That's insane," Pavlidis says, "just crazy." During Streaks B and D, however, that percentage fell into the 20s (though for relievers that's still considered good).

This pattern repeated with other arcane measures--Chapman's ability to get groundballs with his fastball, the outcome of his two-strike sliders--and always switched with the various streaks. According to multiple forms of evidence, then, Chapman became a markedly different player during the two types of streak. "And that," Pavlidis admits, "is really curious."

Posted by at February 24, 2013 6:36 PM
  

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