After an up and down regular season in 2017, Aroldis Chapman has returned to form as arguably the most unhittable closer in baseball. With his blazing fastball and a much-improved slider, Chapman has been a beast for the Yankees through the first month of the season.
Chapman is off to an outstanding start, posting a 1.38 ERA, 0.85 WHIP and 24 strikeouts with an incredible K’s per 9 rate of 16.6. He’s perfect closing out games with six saves and he’s been a consistent presence in a Yankees bullpen that got off to a slow start but has really picked things up over the past couple weeks.
A season ago Chapman was anything but consistent for the Yanks for a large chunk of the season. His numbers weren’t terrible, but he lost his job as closer for a short stint in August and his velocity went down which caused concern that his career workload was finally getting to him.
However, in September Chapman and pitching coach Larry Rothschild made a change in how he was gripping his fastball and he started to pitch more to the top of the strike zone. The elite velocity on his fastball also returned and he’s been dominating hitters like he always has ever since.
One of the things we’ve seen a lot from Chapman this season is the use of his slider. Because of all the miserable weather in April, his fastball velocity took a bit of a dip so his slider has been a pitch he has gone too much more frequently than in year’s past. According to FanGraphs, he’s throwing it 29.4% of the time compared to 19.7% a season ago. It’s something he clearly put an emphasis on this offseason because he’s using it in any count and he’s throwing it for strikes.
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It’s been a huge pitch for him because it’s keeping hitters way off balanced when they’re looking for his famous heater. They have to sit on his fastball because that’s the only way you can catch up to something 100-103 mph so when you can drop a slider in at 86-90 mph hitters have no chance of adjusting when it’s well located.
I think Chapman realizes that as he gets older that’s a pitch he’s going to have to use more and more as his velocity continues to drop the further his career goes. His fastball is still his go-to pitch when he needs a big strikeout but the slider is a pitch he can use to get ahead in the count and get some easy outs with.
It was only a matter of time before the rest of the Yankees pen started dominating like Chapman and now that they have it’s no surprise that the wins are starting to pile up. Last night they combined for 13 strikeouts in eight innings of relief after starter Jordan Montgomery left with an injury.
They’ve been an instrumental part of the team’s recent 10-1 stretch and that’s without a few of their key members who are on the DL. Dellin Betances seems to have found his old All-Star form recently and Chad Green and David Robertson have been as good as it gets setting up Chapman.
Even Chasen Shreve looks like a new man in 2018, throwing more strikes and getting big outs as the team’s lone left-hander in middle relief. It’s all coming together for the Yanks and once Adam Warren and Tommy Kahnle return this bullpen is only going to keep improving and continue to be a major strength.
It’s crazy how this time a season ago many were questioning the Yankees decision to give Chapman a record-breaking free agent deal for a closer at $88 million over five years. After his performance last October and the first month of this season there’s no doubt now that Chapman was well worth the investment.