Myth and Legend, Meet Cincinnati

Last Saturday, Peter Gammons sent out an eye-opening tweet, about the newest Cincinnati Red, Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman:

One of the best scouts texted from Louisville that Chapman was 98-105 w/ 91 mph slider and “best velo I’ve ever seen” Friday night. Hi, Cinci

When I woke up Saturday morning and read it, I assumed Gammons had hit “5” instead of “1” or “2”, as his tweets are routinely rife with typos. But then, as J.J. Cooper wrote in a fun piece at Baseball America, the story caught on. Apparently Ed Price had beat Gammons to the punch with the 105 mph radar gun reading — which, to be fair, could have come from the same scout — and Cooper reported Baseball America heard a 104 mph reading from a different scout in attendance. The specific number, it doesn’t really matter (it’s not, I would guess, 105). However, we will learn where his velocity tops out at soon, as Chapman has been called up to join the Reds (and, presumably, their postseason roster) on the eve of September. We will all be able to see where his pitches register on the Pitch F/X scale, and soon, we’ll know if he is indeed the hardest thrower in (recent) Major League history.

As fun a narrative as the mythical radar gun reading is, lest we forget that actual important baseball is on the horizon. The Reds’ postseason odds have never been higher than they are today; as Chapman makes his way from Louisville to Cincy, BP has Cincy’s playoff odds at 95.52%. This is nice and consistent with the delicate developmental approach the Reds have taken with their prized lefty: while he was converted to relief on June 23, the team waited until the last possible day to release Chapman to the wolves. Now, barring a team-wide collapse, Chapman will be eased into competitive big league baseball up until October. For the Reds to be able to develop Chapman at their own pace, and create such a gap between themselves and the Cardinals is exactly how Walt Jocketty would have written it.

We’ll see how Dusty Baker reacts to his newest addition, but it’s clear he doesn’t have the same bias against young pitchers that he does with young hitters. While it will take some time for Chapman to up-end Arthur Rhodes as the favored lefty in the bullpen, I do think it’s possible that by October, Baker will have warmed to Chapman as his preferred platoon set-up man (opposite Nick Masset) — especially if Chapman continues and builds upon his recent success.

It’s been 23 days and eight relief appearances since Chapman last gave up a run. In fact, since July 4, Chapman has allowed just three earned runs in 23.1 innings. In this stretch, he’s allowed just 11 hits and 10 walks while striking out 38 batters. And, we’ve seen further improvement recently with Chapman’s control: just four walks in his last 18.2 innings. After a good 13-start debut in the rotation (4.11 ERA, 10.42 K/9, 5.48 BB/9, 0.82 HR/9), Chapman thrived in the bullpen, and now leaves behind the Louisville Bats with a 3.39 FIP to show for his five months of minor league work.

From a stuff angle, obviously the fastball is Chapman’s first weapon of choice. To quote the already linked BA article, “That kind of velocity almost breaks the 20-80 scouting scale.” When paired with his newfound control, the pitch immediately enters the discussion of the Majors’ best fastball. It is, without question, the craziest arm speed I’ve ever seen. He combines it with a slider, which as Gammons noted, sits in the low 90s, and can flash plus-plus in relief. However, the pitch can betray him at times. In Spring Training, I liked his change-up weapon to right-handed hitters better than the slider — though ultimately the pitch bears more importance in his future as a starter than his September and October as a reliever. For two months, it will be all about the fastball.

In late March, amidst the buzz of his Spring Training success, we asked you to project the 2010 performance of Aroldis Chapman. We received 504 entries, and as a reminder, here were the FIP components of your projection: 116.55 innings, 8.36 K/9, 3.88 BB/9, 1.11 HR/9. All this adding up to a FIP in the 4.36 region. But much has changed since then, and now we know his 2010 will be about 20-30 innings split between the regular season and playoffs. Now that you know about Chapman, as a reliever, I’d love to hear some revised predictions in the comments.

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12 years ago

I could see him being like Joba in 2007 – none of the hitters know him and with an electric fastball and slider I would guess a FIP under 2 with 12 k/9. I don’t see how any lefties would be able to hit him if he throws 101 with a 92 mph plus-plus slider