Analysis

Aroldis Chapman and the Question of Longevity

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(Keith Allison)

Broken News: So, the Yankees signed Aroldis Chapman to a 5 yr, $86 million contract in December. That’s a lot of money. Biggest contract ever for a reliever. Is it too much? Who knows. Maybe. It’s hard to say.

The shape of the game is changing to such an extent that more and more pressure is being placed on bullpens, making elite relievers like Chapman an especially valuable commodity. Kenley Jansen got the same number of years for only $6 million less. The two are very comparable pitchers, but Chapman edged out Jansen last season in ERA (1.55 v. 1.83), FIP (1.42 v. 1.44), ERA+ (273 v. 213), and K/9 (14 v. 13.6). Jansen did have the better walk rate (2.8 BB/9 v. 1.4 BB/9) and WHIP (.825 v. .670), which is definitely something you want to see in your closer, i.e. not letting guys on base, but hey, Chapman throws hard. It comes with the territory.

The point of this post isn’t to compare Chapman to other closers though. In many ways, he’s in a league of his own. Instead, I want to look at how a guy like Chapman projects over the course of something like a 5 yr contract. So, let’s look at his skill set. I reiterate:

Dude. Throws. Hard.

Real hard. Let’s take a look at the PITCH/fx. Last season his fastball averaged 100.4 mph. Averaged. He topped out at 105 mph, just a tick below his career high of 105.1 mph, which he hit in his rookie season.

The good news is that 100.4 figure over the course of last season is a personal best, up a full mph from his 2015 average of 99.4 mph. We know that at some point every pitcher’s velocity starts to go, but at this point that doesn’t appear to be the case for Chapman, which makes sense considering last year was only his age 28 season, right in the middle of what is likely his “physical peak.”

The “Yeah, that makes sense.” news is that 100.4 figure happens to coincide with the season in which Chapman saw his third smallest workload, due largely in part to the fact that he missed the first month of the season while serving a suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy. The fact remains though, the less Chapman pitches, the higher is average velo is likely to be. In either case, the guy has been lighting up radar guns his entire career, and there’s no indication that he’ll be slowing down anytime soon, at least not in the next couple of years.

But what else can he do? Chapman’s second most frequently used pitch is his slider, and his third is his changeup, and that’s it. Those are his three pitches. Sure, a 105 mph fastball is hard to hit, but if batters can just sit on it all day, eventually someone’s going to (somehow) time it right. The secondary pitches keep hitters on their toes. Let’s look at each one.

The slider:

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Pretty filthy. Lot’s of downward movement. Just falls right off the table. Why does he only throw it, like, 20% of the time? Oh right. The 103 mph fastballs. Anyway, the slider has proven to be a good secondary pitch for Chapman. He gets it up there in the high 80’s and it’s got some nasty break. Over his career, hitters have batted just .100 off the pitch. Additionally, he got swinging strikes from hitters on 24.3% of his sliders last season, with a career average of 23.1%. He throws it ahead in the count and, generally speaking, keeps it low in the zone. Last season we saw him leave a few more hanging up there in the zone than he ought to, leading to a career worst .359 SLG last season, but his career average of .159 SLG on the pitch shows us that on the whole hitters don’t tend to be able to do much with it.

The changeup:

I’m not going to include a gif of Chapman’s changeup, because honestly it’s not that fun to look at. The pitch itself isn’t bad though, and it’s a necessary one for a guy who relies heavily on a fastball. On average, his changeup sits about 10 mph lower than the fastball, however this wasn’t always the case. From 2011-2013 Chapman was consistently hitting 93 mph with the change, and while it worked fine for him during his first full season in the bigs, in 2012 and 2013 respectively, batters hit .364 and .375 against it. Not good. After the 2013 season though he was able to make an adjustment, and in 2014 we saw a more than 5 mph drop in velocity on the pitch. This tweaking proved to be very effective, as in the three seasons since, batters have hit just .086 off the change. Interestingly enough, he only threw a single changeup to a left-handed batter throughout the entirety of the 2016 season, and it was nowhere near the zone. I’m not entirely sure what to make of that, so interpret it as you will.

In summary, he lives by his fastball, but his slider is a VERY strong secondary pitch, and he’s been able to make adjustments to his changeup in order to turn it into a viable option that keeps batters on their toes. The question is then, what happens when the velocity goes? It’s inevitable that it will dip at some point, but really it’s impossible to say when. So the question becomes how far would it have to drop to make Chapman a less than stellar closer? His lowest season average velocity on his fastball was 98 mph, which came in 2012. That’s 2.4 mph slower than his most recent season. In 2012, Chapman posted a 1.51 ERA (1.55 FIP) and managed 15.32 K/9, and that was before he made the aforementioned adjustments to his changeup. It’s by no means a perfect assessment of future performance, but ultimately he was able to put up elite closer numbers even with a fastball 2+ mph slower than what he’s throwing now. When pitchers do start to see irrecoverable drops in velocity, a decline of that magnitude typically takes several seasons, barring some sort of injury.

The point is Chapman hasn’t even begun to indicate any signs of such a decline. As noted, last season he was throwing harder than he ever has. Wear and tear is an obvious concern, but when you’re coming from such a high peak, it will take a fair bit of decline before he becomes ineffective. The difference between a 95 mph fastball and a 98 mph fastball is far more significant than the difference between a 98 mph fastball and a 100 mph fastball. That is to say, barring some sort of unforeseeable injury or unprecedented decline, Chapman should remain as effective as he has been for the next few years, if not longer.

And it’s a 5 yr deal. Nothing longer than that. I would say we likely see Chapman start to fall off around year 4 of the contract. In the meantime, the Yankees have secured one of, if not the best, closers in the league to help anchor a bullpen on a team that needs as much late inning support as it can get, given the unpredictability of its starting rotation. And it didn’t cost them a draft pick. It’ll be interesting to see how the biggest RP contract in the game (so far) plays out, but for now I’m fairly optimistic in Chapman’s ability to maintain his level of performance throughout the majority of its duration. He’s a good, smart pitcher, and he knows how to use what he’s got and make adjustments when necessary. He’s also a freak of nature, in the good way. Until we see that velocity drop below 98 mph, I’m not going to worry much about the value of this contract.

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