Aroldis Chapman’s Got a New Style

It still seems like something of a mystery, how Bartolo Colon gets away with doing what he does. I mean, yeah, he throws a lot of fastballs, but they’re different types of fastballs. He’s also got impeccable command, and he understands the art of pitching to the point where he’s literally out there using the wind to his advantage. That all makes sense. But it’s still hard to fathom that a 43-year-old who pipes an 89-mph heater right down the middle on seemingly every pitch is now on year five of a career resurgence after effectively being out of the league at age 33.

Aroldis Chapman? Aroldis Chapman’s easy. Wanna know how Aroldis Chapman does what he does? Well, you see, he throws a baseball 103 mph. That’s it! Throw a baseball 103 mph one time and I can almost guarantee you that you will pitch in the big leagues. Chapman can do that, and he can do other stuff, too.

On the surface, there’s almost nothing similar about these guys. Colon’s 43 and he throws right-handed. Chapman’s 28 and he throws left-handed. Colon’s a starter, short and stocky. Chapman, a reliever, tall and lanky. From 2010 to -15, Colon struck out 17% of his batters and walked just 4%. Chapman over that same time struck out 43% and walked 12%. Polar opposites, these two.

The one thing at which Chapman has ever been below average is the walks; when he got in trouble, it’s because he wasn’t putting the ball over the plate. Putting the ball over the plate just so happens to be Colon’s biggest strength. It also just so happens to be the area where Chapman’s changed this year — he’s turned himself into a flamethrowing Bartolo Colon.

You know how extreme Colon is. Dating back to 2012, he’s got baseball highest rate of in-zone pitches at nearly 60%, with the league average sitting a hair below 50%. Chapman’s typically checked in somewhere below that, in the 40s. Things are different now. I pulled a couple leaderboards to find zone rate and walk rate for every pitcher who’s recorded at least 20 innings in both 2015 and 2016. It’s a big list, running 317 names long. Aroldis Chapman ranks No. 1 in two key categories:

Changes in Zone% and BB%, 2015-16
Name 15_Zone% 16_Zone% DIF_Zone% 15_BB% 16_BB% DIF_BB%
Aroldis Chapman 45.5% 58.9% 13.4% 11.9% 4.6% -7.3%
Addison Reed 47.7% 59.2% 11.5% 7.9% 5.9% -2.0%
Zach Duke 37.9% 47.8% 9.9% 12.6% 9.4% -3.2%
Shawn Kelley 47.8% 56.1% 8.3% 7.3% 4.9% -2.4%
Alexi Ogando 44.7% 52.4% 7.7% 10.1% 15.5% 5.4%
Wade Miley 40.7% 48.0% 7.3% 7.7% 7.0% -0.7%
James Paxton 45.3% 52.3% 7.0% 9.8% 6.9% -2.9%
Carlos Rodon 44.9% 51.6% 6.7% 11.7% 7.9% -3.8%
Chris Capuano 41.2% 47.7% 6.5% 11.2% 14.2% 3.0%
Matt Albers 43.3% 48.9% 5.6% 6.0% 8.5% 2.5%
Minimum 20 innings pitched each year (pool of 317)

I’ve bolded the columns of import. Chapman thus far has the year’s single largest increase in zone rate, as well as the single largest decrease in walk rate. The only pitchers who have put a higher percentage of their pitches over the plate — again, minimum 20 innings — are Colon and Addison Reed. Last year, Chapman had a higher walk rate than Tim Lincecum. Now, he’s got the same walk rate as Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, and… Colon.

But here’s what makes it really great. Colon puts all his pitches over the plate, and when he has and the batter’s swung, the pitch has resulted in contact 93% of the time. For Reed, it’s an in-zone contact rate of 82%. For Pat Neshek and David Phelps — the next two leaders in zone rate after Chapman — they’ve gotten contact on in-zone swings around 80% of the time, too. For Chapman? For Chapman, it’s not even 70%. Hard to hit 103 no matter where it is.

Chapman’s not like the other in-zone extremists. Chapman’s how you get a plot like this:

ChapmanZone

Colon’s an outlier in his own right, but Chapman’s the even more extreme — and impressive — outlier. Whether it was something he simply decided to do this year, or something he’s just now able to do this year, Chapman’s putting the ball over the plate as often as anyone, and what’s happening is exactly what you’d expect.

And not just putting it over the plate. He’s piping it down the middle. Using BaseballSavant’s zone distinctions, more than 7% of all pitches thrown by Chapman this year have been directly down the middle of the plate, putting him in the upper-10% of all pitchers. Specifically, Chapman’s at 7.4%. Colon’s at 7.3%. Here’s what’s happened when Chapman’s gone middle-middle this year:

Aroldis Chapman

That’s a little difficult to see. It’s 27 pitches, 20 of which are four-seam fastballs, five of which are sliders, and two of which are changeups. There’s 11 foul balls, eight called strikes, and three swinging strikes — 22 of 27 middle-middle pitches went for strikes. Another was a flyout. Four of these pitches produced a hit. Two singles by Adrian Beltre, another by Joe Mauer, and a dong by Kurt Suzuki.

Anyone’s gonna give up that Suzuki now and then. More often, though, things are gonna go the way of this Adam Jones at-bat:

No messing around in that at-bat. Against one of the freest swingers in baseball, Chapman went right at him four times, with four pitches inside the Gameday strike zone. Chapman wasn’t even throwing his hardest stuff here, but that first pitch is vintage Chapman, elevated and tough to hit at 97, impossible at 101. The second heater goes right down the middle — that’s the one we’re seeing more of this year. Jones gets a slider over the plate 0-2 but only fouls it off. Hitters always have to be ready for the hard stuff against Chapman, so even the breaking and offspeed pitches over the plate come with deception. And then on pitch number four, he goes right back out over the middle and ramps it up a couple ticks to 99 to end the game.

After years of running double-digit walk rates, Aroldis Chapman is putting pitches over the plate at Bartolo-esque levels, and while he’s given away some strikeouts, he’s still top five in the league and he’s cut his walk rate in half and then some. Chapman looks like a new kind of pitcher, and frankly, this version makes quite a bit of sense. He’s got some of the most unhittable raw stuff the game has ever seen, whether it’s over the plate or not. So why not put it over the plate?





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.

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TKDCmember
6 years ago

I agree there is probably something here, but I think you should at least acknowledge that this is 22 IP in 2016 for Chapman. That’s a pretty small sample.