Aroldis Chapman’s Nosedive Is Dragging the Yankees Down

Aroldis Chapman set off some fireworks at Yankee Stadium on July 4, though Mets fans almost certainly enjoyed them more than Yankees fans. For the seventh time in his last 14 outings, Chapman was scored upon, and for the second outing in a row, he served up a game-tying home run that led to a crushing defeat. The 33-year-old fireballer is in the midst of an ill-timed career-worst stretch, one that has dealt the Yankees’ playoff hopes a significant blow.

In the opener of a Subway Series doubleheader necessitated by Friday night’s rainout, Chapman entered in the seventh inning to protect a 5-4 lead. Under normal circumstances, that would have been a no-brainer move, but the decision raised some eyebrows not only given the closer’s recent struggles but the fact that setup man Chad Green had thrown just two pitches to retire Dominic Smith, the only batter he faced, to end the sixth.

Chapman got ahead of Alonso 1-2 via a three-fastball sequence: a 96.7 mph called strike on the outside edge of the plate, a 98.4 mph ball even further outside, and then a 96.9 mph swinging strike above the zone. When he switched to a slider (a pitch that Alonso has feasted upon this year, slugging .681 when he connects) and hung it in the lower middle of the zone (where Alonso has a .796 xSLG), the slugger crushed it, launching it 406 feet into the visitors’ bullpen:

The blown save was Chapman’s fourth in his last nine opportunities, and he couldn’t recover; he hit Michael Conforto in the back with an 0-2 fastball, then lost an eight-pitch battle to Jeff McNeil, walking him. Lucas Luetge arrived and poured gasoline on the fire by allowing four hits and five runs. The stunned Yankees fell in defeat, 10-5.

“I don’t think that was the right spot for that,” said manager Aaron Boone afterwards when asked about Chapman’s decision to throw Alonso a slider. While he refused to dismiss the possibility that Chapman might be demoted from the closer role given his recent struggles, Boone explained that he’d called upon the struggling southpaw so that he could preserve Green for the nightcap, having used Jonathan Loaisiga, his other top high-leverage reliever, for 2.1 innings and 41 pitches prior to bringing in Green. Though Green would throw three perfect innings and be credited with the win in the second game, in the moment the manager had to endure blistering criticism for a move that led to the Yankees’ seventh defeat in eight games, and their 16th in 26 games, dropping them to an even 41-41. “Another awful loss. There’s no other way to put it,” as Boone said.

Compounding the awkwardness of the occasion, between games of the doubleheader, Major League Baseball announced its full All-Star Game rosters. Chapman, despite his recent collapse, was selected for the seventh time, and his third as a Yankee.

Chapman was downright unhittable through the first two months of the season, but he utterly fell apart in June. Twice within the span of three weeks, he matched his career high by allowing four runs in a single outing; on June 10 against the Twins, he served up two homers in a game for just the third time in his career (and first since 2016) while failing to retire a single batter in turning a 5-3 lead into a 7-5 loss, and last Wednesday against the Angels — the night of Shohei Ohtani’s implosion — he walked the bases loaded and then allowed a game-tying grand slam, getting just one out along the way. From June 10 onward, he’s made nine appearances but pitched just 5.2 innings while allowing 14 hits and nine walks, striking out just six. His ERA in that span is 22.41, his FIP 15.51. Good grief.

One can’t help but notice that the timeline of Chapman’s recent undoing has vaguely coincided with Major League Baseball’s crackdown on the application of foreign substances for the purposes of improving grip and adding extra spin. According to researcher Max Bay, the majority of pitchers have seen statistically significant spin rate declines in recent weeks. Chapman fits that description to a degree, particularly relative to the league; his four-seam spin rates ranked in the 93rd to 99th percentile from 2015-20 but have slipped to the 86th percentile this season. Correlation doesn’t prove causation, however, and as I’ll show, the evidence towards that decrease explaining his sudden difficulties isn’t particularly compelling.

After throwing just 11.2 innings last year in a season where he missed 21 games due to a bout of COVID-19, Chapman exhibited dominant form through the opening weeks of 2021. Through May 21, he went 11-for-11 in save opportunities while allowing just one run in 18 innings — an extra-innings run on May 8, by definition unearned. In that span, batters managed just five hits and seven walks for an .089/.188/.143 line and a 55.4% strikeout rate. His dominance during that stretch was abetted by an uptick in fastball velocity and his integration of a split-fingered fastball into his arsenal. Where he averaged 98.0 mph with his four-seamer in 2019 and 97.8 last year according to Statcast, he was up to 98.9 during this stretch, with his sinker — a pitch he throws about 9% of the time to righties but just 2% to lefties — humming at an average of 100.9 mph, up half a click from 2020. As for the splitter, where he introduced it during his final two outings of last season, he’s now incorporated it primarily as another weapon against righties, as if his two fastballs and slider weren’t enough.

Chapman’s May 21 outing against the White Sox was an adventure, the first of several unsettling ones. Entering a tied game in the top of the ninth, he issued a leadoff walk to Yérmin Mercedes, then made an error fielding a sacrifice bunt attempt by Leury García. He escaped the jam by inducing Andrew Vaughn to hit into an around-the-horn triple play, and the Yankees earned a walk-off win in the bottom half of the inning with three straight singles. Two days later, Vaughn exacted some revenge by hitting a game-tying solo homer off Chapman, his first blown save of the season as well as his first earned run allowed. Again, the Yankees picked him up with a rally that ended in a walk-off.

Chapman began June with three scoreless outings, two against the Rays and one against the Red Sox. While that lowered his season ERA to 0.39, he walked two batters in a game for the first time this year on June 2, and over the four-week span from May 8 to June 8 walked eight batters in 12 innings, a 17% rate. Then the real hiccups began. After his June 10 meltdown, he suffered an extra-innings loss two nights later against the Phillies, a game where the Yankees had rallied from down 7-2 to tie the score in the ninth; again, he compounded the automatic runner on second base issue by making an error (this time a throwing error) on a sacrifice bunt by Travis Jankowski, and it cost him dearly when Gio Urshela couldn’t throw home quickly enough after Jean Segura’s hot smash to third base.

After taking losses in back-to-back outings, Chapman rebounded to collect saves on back-to-back nights against the Blue Jays on June 15 and 16, but he walked a tightrope in the latter game. After getting into a two-on, no-out jam by allowing a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. double and a Teoscar Hernández single, Chapman struck out Randal Grichuk, then made a good defensive play on a Santiago Espinal comebacker, throwing home to Gary Sánchez, whose strong peg to Urshela nabbed Guerrero in retreat. Chapman then induced Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to line to center field.

In his next outing on June 19 against the A’s in the Bronx, Chapman came in to protect a three-run lead, and gave up a walk and two singles to plate a run and bring the tying run to the plate in the form of Matt Chapman, whom he struck out on three pitches, the last of them a 103.4 mph sinker, his fastest pitch since July 2, 2018. A day later, protecting a one-run lead, he walked Jed Lowrie and Tony Kemp on a total of nine pitches to start the ninth, then was checked out by the team trainer due to a fingernail problem. Two pitches later, he escaped by inducing another 5-4-3 triple play, this one a game-ender, the Yankees’ third in a 31-day span; in doing so, he became just the seventh pitcher since 1916 — as far back as Baseball Reference’s data on such matters goes — to have two triple plays turned behind him in one season, and the most recent since Martín Pérez in 2019 (Chris Short in 1964, Bill Faul in 1965, Bruce Howard in 1968, Mark Buehrle in 2006, and Zach Davies in 2016 are the others).

On June 23, Chapman blew a save against the Royals. Protecting a one-run lead, he alternated a pair of strikeouts with singles by Michael A. Taylor and Whit Merrifield. After a lengthy meeting on the mound in which Boone agreed that Chapman should “pitch carefully” to Carlos Santana, the manager reversed course upon reaching the dugout, ordering an intentional walk. The move backfired; Chapman walked Sebastian Rivero on four pitches — all in the dirt — to force in the tying run. The pitcher screamed and doubled over in exasperation on the mound, and on his next pitch, Ryan O’Hearn checked his swing and hit a slow roller to third base, too slow for DJ LeMahieu to beat him with the throw.

Champan continued to express his anger, throwing his glove upon returning to the dugout. The Yankees pulled that game out in the bottom of the inning via a solo homer by Sánchez and a pair of singles sandwiched around a wild pitch. Afterwards, Boone met with his closer, and before the next day’s game took the blame, saying, “It’s all good. He was understandably upset. He wanted to pitch to Santana and — even in hindsight, not just because it didn’t work out — I think the right move was probably to go ahead and let him pitch to him.”

Because the Yankees didn’t have another save situation for a week as they sandwiched a pair of lopsided wins around four straight losses to the Red Sox and Angels, Chapman may have been rusty when he entered last Wednesday’s game to protect an 8-4 lead. Again, he struggled with his command, walking leadoff hitter Taylor Ward, and then one out later walking Max Stassi and Anthony Rendon as well; he couldn’t get either to chase pitches outside the zone. Jared Walsh, who had already homered earlier in the game, spat on a high slider, and then punished another one that Chapman left in the zone, hitting it 401 feet to center field for a grand slam.

That was Chapman’s last outing before Sunday. He’s had some bad luck here and there, he’s made some dubious pitch selections, he’s suffered from the occasional bad decision by Boone, but his numbers are what they are. At this point, through 28.2 innings, his 4.71 ERA, 4.20 FIP, 16% walk rate, and 1.57 homers per nine all represent career highs. His splits are even more gruesome:

Aroldis Chapman 2021 by Month, Traditional Stats
April 8.0 69.0% 10.3% 0.00 -0.72 .077 .172 .154 .158
May 12.0 40.9% 13.6% 0.75 2.74 .111 .233 .222 .203
June/July 8.2 21.2% 21.2% 14.54 10.77 .385 .529 .744 .525
Through games of July 4.

That is one ugly stretch. Note that even when he was pitching well in May, Chapman was giving up a lot of hard contact on the rare occasions that batters connected:

Aroldis Chapman 2021 by Month, Statcast Stats
Split BBE EV Barrel% Hard Hit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
April 6 86.5 33.3% 33.3% .077 .064 .154 .132 .158 .145
May 20 88.2 15.0% 40.0% .111 .177 .222 .324 .203 .274
June/July 29 84.7 17.2% 41.4% .385 .282 .744 .651 .525 .456
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Through games of July 4.

Chapman’s overall 18.2% barrel rate is more than triple his Statcast-era career rate of 5%, while his overall 40% hard-hit rate is 10 percentage points above his career mark. The 10 barrels he’s allowed thus far matches his total from 2018-20, and this season is just past the halfway point. Hitters have cut down their rate of chasing his pitches outside the strike zone, are swinging less and making more frequent contact, and getting ahead of him in the count:

Aroldis Chapman Swing Rates
Split O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Con% Z-Con% Con% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
April/May 28.2% 70.2% 49.8% 40.0% 68.9% 61.0% 51.5% 64.4% 19.5%
June/July 23.7% 62.0% 39.4% 55.6% 79.6% 71.1% 40.9% 50.0% 11.4%
Through games of July 4.

Here’s a breakdown of Chapman’s performance by pitch type:

Aroldis Chapman 2021 by Month, Pitch Types
Month Pitch % AB H AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA Velo Spin
April 4-Seam 59.7% 11 2 .182 .152 .364 .311 .327 .300 98.9 2453
May 4-Seam 57.9% 17 3 .176 .192 .353 .435 .259 .313 98.7 2465
June/July 4-Seam 53.9% 19 10 .526 .412 .947 .901 .648 .596 98.6 2393
April Sinker 8.5% 7 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 .000 .000 100.9 2458
May Sinker 8.5% 9 0 .000 .061 .000 .064 .000 .056 100.9 2441
June/July Sinker 4.1% 3 0 .000 .021 .000 .023 .000 .024 101.5 2394
April Slider 22.5% 4 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 .000 .000 85.9 2400
May Slider 25.0% 6 1 .167 .295 .333 .468 .370 .446 85.4 2402
June/July Slider 36.3% 13 4 .308 .196 .769 .577 .481 .366 85.2 2288
April Split-Finger 9.3% 4 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 .000 .000 89.7 911
May Split-Finger 8.5% 4 0 .000 .191 .000 .218 .000 .179 89.1 1004
June/July Split-Finger 6.2% 4 1 .250 .139 .250 .169 .221 .135 88.7 824
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Through games of July 4.

On this basis, Chapman’s velocity hasn’t varied by much, except that his sinker gained 0.6 mph since May. His average spin rates for all four pitches dropped from May to June/July, with the fastball doing so by 72 rpm, the sinker by 47 rpm, the slider by 114 rpm, and the splitter by 180 rpm.

Using June 15, the date of MLB’s formal announcement of its new guidelines regarding foreign substances, including the threat of automatic 10-game suspension, as a cutoff, researcher Max Bay and The Athletic’s Eno Sarris found that the standard deviation of a pitcher for his four-seam fastball from appearance to appearance is 115 rpm, and that a two-SD drop of 230 rpm is “spider tack level.” Chapman’s fastball averaged 2,447 rpm, 98.7 mph, and 24.8 rpm/mph before June 15, and 2,396 rpm, 98.8 mph, and 24.3 rpm/mph after. In light of Bay and Sarris’ research, that 49 rpm drop doesn’t appear to be particularly remarkable, and neither does his 0.5 rpm/mph drop given that the league-wide standard deviation for the pitch is 1.1 rpm/mph.

So while Chapman’s spin rate is down, I don’t think that adequately explains his sudden deterioration in performance. Via Baseball Savant, and focusing on his four-seamer and slider, it appears that both his average release point and his horizontal and movement have changed from April/May to June/July:

Aroldis Chapman Release Point and Pitch Movement
Split Pitch Release X Release Z Movement X Movement Z
April/May 4-Seam 0.66 6.14 0.34 1.56
June/July 4-Seam 0.61 6.04 0.39 1.51
Dif 4-Seam -0.05 -0.10 0.04 -0.06
April/May Slider 0.55 6.22 -1.06 0.13
June/July Slider 0.50 6.16 -1.02 0.26
Dif Slider -0.04 -0.07 0.04 0.13
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Through games of July 4. All measurements in feet.

At first the differences don’t look like much, but remember that one inch is 0.083 feet. Since the end of May, Chapman’s average release point on his fastball has moved more than half an inch horizontally and has dropped more than a full inch lower vertically; he’s getting a bit more horizontal movement and a bit less vertical movement, which going by the results hasn’t worked out for him. Likewise, his slider release point have changed, though not quite as drastically, and he’s getting about an inch and a half more vertical movement on the pitch, which again hasn’t turned into good news.

In terms of year-to-year changes, it’s instructive to compare the game-to-game variation of Chapman’s 2019 vertical release point on his fastball (I’m skipping over the small sample of 2020 data) to that of this year:

Chapman’s average vertical release point on the heater in 2019 was about two inches higher than this year, and with a smaller standard deviation from appearance to appearance — in other words, he was more consistent with his release point. We see a similar effect when it comes to the horizontal axis:

Chapman Fastball Comparison, 2019 vs. 2021
Season Release X SD X Release Z SD Z Velo Spin
2019 0.55 0.09 6.26 0.07 98.0 2484
2021 0.64 0.11 6.10 0.09 98.7 2435
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

All of which is to say that Chapman’s woes probably owe more to his mechanics than to a drop in spin rate, though his delivery issues could affect his spin. Here it’s worth noting that his fingernail problem may also be a factor; cited as far back as May 11, the issue seems to have returned on June 20, at which point The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler reported that the pitcher “said he broke the fingernail on his middle finger a bit ago and it hasn’t fully grown in/healed, whatever you want to call it. Said it mostly has affected the release on his fastball.”

I do wonder if fatigue is a factor as well. Though Chapman threw fewer innings in June than in April or May, he actually faced more hitters and threw more pitches. He faced 29 batters and threw 129 pitches in April, and then 44 batters and 164 pitches in May, rising to 49 batters and 178 pitches in June, numbers that don’t include his July 4 debacle. Prior to June, he hadn’t faced more than 49 hitters in a month since July 2017.

One way or another, Chapman isn’t getting the job done, and it’s cost the Yankees dearly at a time when their offense and starting pitching have been struggling as well. Expected to be the American League’s top team at the outset of the season, their Playoff Odds have dwindled from 91.3% to 37.6%, and at 42-41, they’re running fourth in the AL East, 10 1/2 games out of first place and 5 1/2 back in the Wild Card race. Nobody’s going to weep for the Yankees (or for Chapman), who always play the villains and must always contend with the ghost of George Steinbrenner when it comes to bad stretches of baseball, with tabloids calling for figurative bloodshed — fire somebody, anybody! — or exile to baseball Siberia. Boone, Chapman, and company have to arrest this free fall or endure a growing chorus of voices calling for change in the Bronx — new closer, new manager, new lineup. It won’t be pretty.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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2 years ago

Perhaps Boone will decide to use Chapman in a low leverage spot next time instead of bringing him in with a one run lead in the first game of a double header. Chad Green could have saved that game.

2 years ago
Reply to  villapalomares

Boone is getting more hate than deserved, but he has shown a lack of feel for bullpen decisions lately