The Yankees season ended with Aroldis Chapman on the mound with a stunned look on his face. In the six months prior, the 31-year-old lefty earned his sixth All-Star appearance and withstood the aging process for another year to give the Bombers a solid closing act.
The Aging Process
On the mound, Chapman will forever be tied to his velocity. He burst onto the scene in Cincinnati as a fireballer and promptly set records for recorded pitch speed.
Now, the left-hander has to contend with a decline in velocity, just as every pitcher above 30 typically experiences. At the beginning of his five-year contract in New York, Chapman was mostly a one-pitch pitcher, going to his fastball at extreme percentages because it was that effective.
To combat his decreasing velo and thus less-effective heater, he’s turned to his slider and thus become a true two-pitch pitcher instead of waking fastball (he features plenty of two-seamers, but it’s still a blazing fastball). As you can see below, those trends mirror each other.
|FB Velo (mph)||100.4||100.1||98.9||98.4|
That fastball percentage was still second among qualified relievers in 2018 yet just a five percent drop has him 20th. That being said, his average fastball velocity is still second highest in the game.
Despite the decrease in velocity, the fastball is still an effective pitch, albeit less so. By Fangraphs pitch values, it went from 18.8 wFB in 2016 to 5.7 wFB in 2019, though it went up in 2019 from 5.3 in 2018.
Still, Chapman hasn’t just turned to his slider in desperation; It’s a legitimate pitch now. He adjusted the slider in 2018 and it now gets more horizontal and vertical movement than it did when he first came to New York. Furthermore, the Cuban hurler is willing to throw it in any count. The pitch has often steadied him when he loses control of his fastball, preventing his aberrant outings from getting out of control as they would have in the past.
With an improved slider but a fastball creeping towards the mid-90s, how will Chapman age? The Yankees will have to answer that question when considering his opt-out or a potential extension.
Looking at the basic numbers, Chapman had his best full year in pinstripes. He threw more innings (57 over his Bronx high of 51 1/3 in 2018) and stayed healthy, avoiding the IL. His ERA went down for the second consecutive season and hit 2.21 with an FIP (2.28) and DRA (2.57) more or less in line.
Chapman’s otherworldly strikeout rate fell from 2018 but he also improved his walk rate to reasonable levels, a worthy tradeoff. However, that meant a significant dropoff in K-BB rate (29.7 to 25.5 percent), which dropped him from fourth among qualified relievers to 20th.
The southpaw again kept batters in the ballpark despite elevated home run rates throughout the league. That and a dominant first half led to him earning his second straight All-Star appearance, and he got to close the game itself in Cleveland.
The annual “What’s Wrong with Chapman” month came in July, when he blew three saves and gave up runs in five of nine outings. Over 8 2/3 innings, he gave up nine runs (eight earned) and walked 11 while striking out 12.
He quickly shook that off, not allowing a single run in August. The Yankees basically gave him September off as he threw just 70 pitches over five games, setting him up fresh for October.
Chapman, of course, won the Mariano Rivera for the AL’s top reliever despite not being the best reliever in his own bullpen. Was he dominant? Sure, but it feels like he got the award more on reputation than performance, as was the case with Josh Hader in the National League. He wasn’t the AL’s best reliever, though he had a representative season in the Bronx.
For the first four outings of Chapman’s postseason, the Yankees’ closer had a mostly uneventful go of it. He shut down the Twins easily in ALDS Game 1 and was hit hard in ALDS Game 3 but escaped without a run to close the series.
In ALCS Game 2, he pitched a scoreless ninth inning but was forced to throw 26 pitches by a pesky Houston lineup. He’d respond with a 1-2-3 inning to close Game 5.
Game 6 seemed more of the same. He threw 11 straight strikes to start the outing and got two outs before getting ahead of George Springer. However, he then lost control of the strike zone, tossed six straight balls and found himself behind Jose Altuve.
He could have walked Altuve — Jake Marisnick was on deck — but he got a slider over the plate and likely wanted Altuve to chase his No. 2 offering on 2-1. The pitch that had oft steadied him in his age-31 season also proven his undoing. He left it hanging and that was that. Season over.
Chapman has the opportunity opt out of the final two years of the contract he signed in the 2016-17 offseason. Though the deal carries a $17.2 million luxury tax hit per season, the frontloaded pact has just $30 million remaining. While he had full no-trade protection for the past three seasons, he can only prevent trades to West Coast teams in the final two seasons. The veteran lefty should be able to best that cash outlay and add a more complete no-trade deal in free agency, even with a potential qualifying offer attached.
Brian Cashman “politely ducked” a question about negotiations with Chapman at his end-of-year press conference, but it stands to reason that the Yankees and Chapman’s reps could work towards an extension. While New York might not want to be on the hook for Chapman’s age-34 season in 2022, adding a year to the deal appears the likeliest outcome.
My amateur guess would be they reach a deal to turn his contract into three years and $48 million and full no-trade protection. If the Yankees are concerned about the luxury tax and want to add Gerrit Cole, they might be better off letting him opt out and leave. Still, they seem intent on maintaining an elite bullpen, and losing Chapman would jeopardize that without further additions to the pen.