Ode to a Pitcher: With the velocity still strong, Aroldis Chapman finds his slider

Image result for aroldis chapman
Power.

Aroldis Chapman throws the baseball very hard. At his hardest, maybe no ever has thrown one harder. Now, as mileage and innings take their toll, he doesn’t throw quite as hard, but make no mistake, he’s still a flamethrower.

It’s become a bit of a topic de jour for the YES Network to mention Chapman’s declining velocity. It’s true. He doesn’t throw as hard as a 31-year-old as he did as a youngster, especially in Cincinnati. I don’t mean to pick on the broadcast team — hey, you gotta fill time — but Chapman’s velocity is hardly a cause for major concern. Among qualified relievers, his average fastball velocity is fourth-best.

Ah, heavy is the head that wears the crown.

The thing is, Chapman does seem aware that he’s lost just a bit of velocity, and that’s where this story picks up steam. Because he perhaps doesn’t feel as safe just blitzing every opposing batter with heat, he’s turned to his slider more and more the last two seasons. It was always at least a tantalizing pitch, but as we’ll see in the breakdown, when he is commanding the zone with the slider, he remains as lethal as ever.

Consider Fangraphs’ pVal metric. It tells us that for the last two seasons, Chapman’s most valuable pitch has been the breaking ball, not the well-known heater. The fastball remains quite a handful — and when Chapman is on his sequencing game, probably lifts the slider. The combination of the two, mixed around the zone with confidence and command, have kept Chapman among the game’s elite relievers even as age tries to draw its fee.

Chapman closed out the 2019 All-Star Game with epic flair. Let’s take a look.

Chapman’s slider can be downright filthy

When you’re nicknamed the Cuban Missile and you’ve been known to touch 105 MPH, people just expect to see the fastball. It’s electric in the stadium with Chapman on the mound; partly because of his stuff, partly because he gets tons of strikeouts and, well, because he’s a little wild.

Chapman still throws his heater a lot — over 60 percent of the time — but he’s begun to use the slider to change eye level and add some timing wrinkles to his approach. No matter if you’re throwing pure gas like Chapman or junk balling like Jason Vargas, the name of the game never changes: pitching is disrupting timing. That’s it.

Chapman’s delivery is breathtaking, a powerful unfurling of bat-breaking heat. The way he is able to bend his shoulders back right after separating his hands never ceases to amaze me. Chapman’s velocity doesn’t just happen; he wrenches it out of his body with every pitch. It truly is a sight to see Chapman arch back and unfurl those long arms in person.

Up first for the NL is J.T. Realmuto. Chapman starts the Phillies catcher off with a fastball belt high and away for called strike one. 97 MPH.

Realmuto Pitch 1 FB

Chapman moves down in the zone but stays on the outside corner with another fastball, this one also a called strike.

Realmuto Pitch 2 FB

Being down 0-2 to Aroldis Chapman a few years ago meant you could pretty much expect a hard fastball up. Maybe it would be in the zone; maybe not. Good luck figuring it out in enough time.

The 2019 version of Chapman still has enough power to beat you with the heat, but now he can twist you around with the slider, too. Realmuto surely knows this, and while he probably wanted to resist the shoulder-high fastball, it’s damn near impossible.

Classic Chapman. 100 MPH. One down.

Realmuto Pitch 3 FB

Don’t be too hard on Dodgers infielder Max Muncy for this flinch. Do you know how scary it must be to think for even a second that an Aroldis Chapman fastball might be bulldozing its way to your head?

Yikes. Oh, and Chapman has a reputation for wildness. Great! Alas, no worries here: Chapman tilts a slider into the zone for ball one. All humor aside, this is exactly how tunneling works. Muncy has every reason to believe this is a high-and-tight fastball … until it isn’t.

Muncy Pitch 1 SL

Chapman wisely continues to use the whole strike zone by dropping a slider down and away. You can see the ball plummet from the top-left corner of the zone right into catcher James McCann‘s glove. Unbelievable.

Muncy basically had two options. One, hope it misses for a ball or two, foul it away. It’s not going to be easy at all to drive this.

Note too that Chapman’s showing confidence in his own stuff by going slider here. If he misses, Muncy has the count advantage at 2-0. Then again, when you’re Aroldis Chapman the count is really always in your favor, isn’t it?

Muncy Pitch 2 SL

Chapman fools Muncy again, throwing a third consecutive slider, this one in the zone for a called strike. The location isn’t great, but because of the tunneling, Muncy flinches again. This is easily the best pitch to hit in the at-bat, but because Muncy has to respect the fastball he isn’t ready to pounce.

Muncy Pitch 3 SL

Chapman has two strikes on Muncy and can expand the zone to his heart’s content. Maybe another fastball above the belt, like with Realmuto?

Nah. All sliders. Chapman spins another, moving around in the zone again, this one right at the knees for a beautiful swinging strike three. This was a pitching clinic; Muncy absolutely had to be ready for the fastball, and because of that he was never prepared to handle the slider, which Chapman moved around the zone with confidence.

Brilliant. Two down.

Muncy Pitch 4 SL

Look at the tilt on this thing. (Also: Chapman finishes his delivery so well. It’s picturesque.)

Muncy Pitch 4 SL slomo

The last hope for the National League is Brewers catcher Yasmani Grandal. Chapman greets him with a slider that Grandal bounces foul.

Grandal Pitch 1 FB

Still leaning on the breaking ball, Grandal swings and misses at a slider down and away to run the count 0-2. I hate to sound like a broken record, but when Chapman is locating his pitches around the zone and in sequence, he’s darn near impossible to beat. Tonight, he has his command and we see the results.

Grandal Pitch 2 SL

We’ve seen Chapman climb the ladder and work below the knees in 0-2 counts. What will he do with Grandal? The former, and Grandal just barely holds up his swing for ball one. Smart pitch and a great take.

Consider what the pitcher has done here. By going above the belt, you give Grandal the chance to swing and miss. That’s the optimal outcome. But if he doesn’t, you’ve still shown him a high fastball that he has to be worried about with the next pitch. This is why so many pitchers go hard inside and soft away.

Grandal Pitch 3 FB

Grandal has a lot of strike zone to cover as Chapman readies the fourth pitch of the exchange. However, he doesn’t have to do much more than keep the bat on his shoulder as Chapman air mails a fastball to bring the count to 2-2. Chapman’s first real miss of the evening.

Grandal Pitch 4 FB

Will Grandal get a pitch to drive? We haven’t seen anyone make anything resembling hard contact off the Yankees closer.

Aaaaaaaaand … we won’t. Chapman unleashes an incredible slider that Grandal can’t resist. Strike three. Inning over.

Grandal Pitch 5 FB

Chapman’s slider might help him age gracefully

Aroldis Chapman is signed for two more years with the Yankees. If his velocity continues to hold and the slider proves to be this lethal, the Bombers will have a tough question on their hands that winter. Aging closers are usually not good bets for long term deals, but if you’re going to push your chips in, might as well be for one of the true greats.

Chapman’s velocity will like always be an asset for him, but the emergence of his slider gives him new ways to attack hitters. Any pitcher can benefit from that.

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