My Five Favorite 2014 Aroldis Chapman Facts

I noted in my FanGraphs Player of the Year voting explanation that I very badly wanted to find a place for Aroldis Chapman. Ultimately I couldn’t do it, not with Chapman being a reliever and with other guys not being relievers, but I wanted to give Chapman some support for a season that was almost impossibly outstanding and extraordinary. Aroldis Chapman is coming off one of my favorite single seasons ever, and with everything in the books, none of the numbers are changing. Because I couldn’t give Chapman a vote, I decided I wanted to give him one last front-page post.

I know the headline sucks and I know lists seem lazy, but I don’t know a better way to capture what I want to be captured. I want to touch on my five favorite Chapman facts, and this is the simplest way to keep them organized. These are not the five best 2014 Aroldis Chapman facts, recovered after hours of mining — probably, there are things he did that have so far escaped my attention. These are just my five favorite facts, out of the facts I’m aware of. There are some good ones that didn’t qualify. Against left-handed batters, Chapman last season posted a negative FIP. He allowed a .121 batting average and a .172 slugging percentage, while National League pitchers batted .125 and slugged .156. Chapman was great! Here now are five better facts, that I haven’t bothered to order. It’s like trying to pick a favorite child, except none of these facts will spill grape juice on the carpet.

Aroldis Chapman allowed 63% contact within the strike zone

That could probably use some context. Across major-league baseball, the average was 88% contact within the strike zone. Meanwhile, the average was 63% contact outside of the strike zone. That number should look familiar to you. When Aroldis Chapman threw strikes, he allowed as much contact as the average pitcher allowed throwing balls. So Chapman’s strikes were another pitcher’s putaway pitches. Hiroki Kuroda allowed 63% contact outside of the strike zone. Kelvin Herrera allowed 63% contact outside of the strike zone. Trevor Bauer, Alex Wood, and Adam Wainwright allowed 63% contact outside of the strike zone. Aroldis Chapman allowed 63% contact within the strike zone. It’s not like there was much mystery with Chapman, either. Against him, you have no choice but to gear up for some kind of high-velocity hittable fastball. This is the best hitters could do.

Aroldis Chapman threw harder than ever

The highest single-season average fastball velocities on record, setting a minimum of one pitch:

Chapman’s the first guy on the FanGraphs leaderboards to achieve a triple-digit average, and while he came close in 2010, just last season he averaged 98.3. So Chapman threw incredibly hard, and then this season, he threw incredibly harder, by an average of a full two ticks. In 2013, Chapman threw 215 pitches at least 100 miles per hour, per Baseball Savant. In 2014, that ballooned to 395, despite throwing fewer pitches overall. In three games last year, Chapman’s fastball averaged at least 102. In his slowest average game, he still would’ve had baseball’s second-best fastball.

Chapman didn’t reach a new level in terms of upper velocity ceiling. He topped out around the same place as he’s always topped out. What happened was that Chapman lifted the bottom, making his slowest fastballs more consistently faster. Velocity is one of those things that is supposed to fade as a pitcher gets older. Certainly, you’d expect a guy like Chapman to show some wear and tear. But he just bucked all expectations, presumably thanks to better training and better conditioning. You didn’t see as much of those dead-arm phases through which Chapman has passed, meaning his one vulnerability no longer existed.

Aroldis Chapman’s slider was more effective than his fastball

On a per-pitch basis, I mean. And actually, this isn’t so nuts — this is somewhat commonly observed. But you think Chapman, you think heat. You think swings and misses and 103. In a year in which Chapman’s fastball was more explosive than ever, he also dealt a terrifying breaking ball, which he threw more often than he ever had before. Per 100 pitches, Chapman’s fastball was 1.7 runs better than average. Per 100 pitches, his slider was 3.1 runs better than average. This despite increasing his slider rate by ten percentage points.

You can learn about pitching by learning about Chapman. I mean, you’ll never learn how to pitch like Aroldis Chapman, but you can learn about how pitches can depend on one another. A good fastball keeps hitters off a slider. A good slider keeps hitters off a fastball. A slider and fastball, together, will be better than if you were to separate them. Because of a pitch like this:


You can do something like this:


Against Chapman, you have to expect 100. So it’s just about the hardest thing in the world to stop yourself and stay on a slider, unless you’re guessing and you guess right. Not surprisingly, Chapman’s slider was hardly ever put in play. When it was, most of the time it was hit on the ground. Chapman’s forever going to be fastball-first, but his velocity alone allows him to turn an almost ordinary breaking ball into something out of a nightmare.

Aroldis Chapman threw one changeup that a hitter touched

Out of a total of 63 Aroldis Chapman changeups. Now, most of the time, Chapman threw his changeup for a ball. And, after an exciting initial stage, Chapman threw fewer and fewer changeups as the year wore on. So what actually happened was that hitters swung at Chapman changeups just 19 times. But now go back to the fact. One hitter, with one swing, made contact with a Chapman changeup. There were 19 swing attempts, meaning there were 18 whiffs. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small sample. When a small sample so decidedly confirms your suspicions, it’s of use, and I mean, what would you think would happen if Aroldis Chapman suddenly started throwing a changeup?

Here’s the one miracle:


Contact! Good contact, and an out. Here’s something more representative:


It’s the same principle as the one that applies to the slider: if you’re gearing up for 100, I don’t know what you’re supposed to do against 88-90. And unlike with the slider, Chapman’s changeup should look a lot like his fastball out of his hand, with somewhat similar spin and movement, so that’s even more cruel. The biggest problem was that Chapman didn’t have great changeup command, and because changeups are frequently out of the zone, batters learned to lay off. But, see, Chapman doesn’t even need a changeup, so it’s not like he suffered even one bit when he put the pitch away in his pocket. Having the fastball and the slider is enough. The changeup was a crime. We’re talking about a contact rate of 5%. The next-best in baseball, out of even infrequent pitches: 26%, against Logan Ondrusek’s splitter. I’m not sure if Chapman’s changeup will ever come back, but I know I’ll never forget the summer fling. That was a lot of fun, for everyone involved but the hitters.

Aroldis Chapman led the majors in strikeout rate by ten percentage points

It’s not just that Chapman led baseball. It’s not just that Chapman struck out more than half the batters he faced. It’s about the margin of victory. The top of the strikeout-rate leaderboard:

You know Masahiro Tanaka? I bet you think Masahiro Tanaka struck out a lot of batters. And he did — he was a very high-strikeout starter. Chapman struck hitters out literally twice as often as Tanaka did. Every category ends up with a winner, but winners aren’t supposed to win by this much. Nelson Cruz finished first in home runs, by three. Jose Altuve finished first in batting average, by six points. Andrew McCutchen finished first in wRC+, by one point. Clayton Kershaw‘s ERA- was five points better than Chris Sale’s. Chapman’s strikeout rate beat Miller’s strikeout rate by about a quarter of Miller’s strikeout rate. Chapman lapped the competition in a three-lap race.

This is why I fell so madly in love with the season that Aroldis Chapman had. Every year brings incredible player seasons. Not every year brings a player season so genuinely and literally outstanding. Chapman did from 60 feet what a lot of pitchers might not be able to do from 50, and all it required was for him to be a complete and utter freak of nature. Or, no, on second thought — something about him doesn’t quite seem so natural.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

Open Question: Would Chapman have more value as a starter or would the dip in quality not make up for the amount of innings he would pitch?

Lee Trocinskimember
7 years ago
Reply to  Izzy

I’m fully on the Chapman as a starter train, especially with his new changeup. Let’s say he really tones it down and “only” averages 95 on the fastball. You are talking about David Price, a 4-6 WAR pitcher, much more than Chapman’s 3 WAR this year as a lights-out reliever.

Justin Perline
7 years ago
Reply to  Izzy

That’s been debated often among fans and coaches alike. It is a moot point though, because the coaches have made their mind up and affixed Chapman to the pen. Chapman himself stated that he liked being the closer anyway.

Lee Trocinskimember
7 years ago
Reply to  Izzy

For some actual math, let’s say he’s projected to be 2 R/9 better than a league average reliever for 70 IP in relief. That’s about 15 runs, add in some leverage and a few runs for replacement level, and you get 2.5 WAR. Let’s say he’s 1.5 R/9 better than a league average starter in 180 IP. That’s 30 runs, so he’s already ahead of his relief projection, and there are still the 15 or so runs for replacement level, making him about a 5 WAR starter.

Obviously, his arm may give out if he goes too hard as a starter, but I’m pretty sure he can ease up and still have plenty to get hitters out 3 times through the order.

7 years ago
Reply to  Lee Trocinski

IIRC, the reds tried him as a starter a few years back, and his shoulder couldn’t handle the high volume of pitches.

7 years ago
Reply to  Josh

It wasn’t really a physical issue, per se’. He started his entire career until he got to Cincy. It was a number of things, including:

1. The Reds are a traditional team that very much values having a dominant, “proven”, closer, inflating their view of his value in that role relative to what many sabermetrician types would say.

2. Psychologically, they felt he was a better fit in relief. Bryan Price was on the “Chapman as starter” bandwagon early on, but after getting to know Chapman more, he changed his tune. Chapman’s own declaration that he wanted to stay a closer was the icing on this cake. Chapman is a flashy guy who likes being in the spotlight 2-3x a week instead of just once.

3. Stuff-wise, the Reds weren’t convinced he could stay dominant the third time through the lineup. His control is just decent and it falters when he tires. He doesn’t really command his slider and certainly not his changeup. And his fastball is pretty straight; at 95-96, it gets way, way more hittable.

4. While not a huge barrier, the Reds ended up not needing him in the rotation. They had 5 decent options to run out there already while the bullpen was shallow. Moving him to the rotation could be perceived as fixing a problem that was broken while creating a new problem.

Most of us Reds fans would still have liked to see Chapman get 20+ starts. And had he been developed as a starter the whole way, perhaps he could have been one of the great ones. But at least around the Reds front office, that ship has long sailed.

7 years ago
Reply to  Josh

Great info, RMR.

There’s also been a few high-profile failures when young high-leverage relievers have attempted to transition (back) to the rotation. Daniel Bard and Neftali Feliz

Ruki Motomiya
7 years ago
Reply to  Izzy

Something to consider is Chapman walks a lot of guys. except for his crazy 2012, and that might get worse if your strikeout rate drops because your fastball and slider lose velocity as a starter, plus having to go longer. In addition, Chapman relies a lot on two specific pitches, which works fine when your pitches are amazing as Chapman’s…but if he’s a starter, those pitches won’t be as amazing, and that could then become a more prominent issue, though if his change-up continues to grow it wouldn’t be a problem.

Honestly, I think that Chapman would be worse as a starter than most people think, plus you have to factor in the chance that he doesn’t do well as a starter (Essentially at least one wasted season) or goes the way of Daniel Bard. Considering Chapman is already very valuable in the ‘Pen and how much we’ve seen bullpens can matter in the postseason, I’m not sure it is worth it to try and switch Chapman off.