Ode to a Pitcher: Aroldis Chapman battles Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Last Sunday, Aroldis Chapman faced Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for the first time.

The young phenom, the son of a Hall of Famer, beginning to prove himself after loads of hype.

The legendary closer, an incredible strikeout machine, still punching out hitters after years of dominance.

On Sunday afternoon in Toronto, the New York Yankees sent Masahiro Tanaka back out to the mound in the ninth inning. Tanaka, his best self that day, was looking to preserve a shutout and the Yanks were looking to claim another win.

But, as happens, the ninth didn’t open favorably, and after a single out came manager Aaron Boone to pull his nominal ace. Out goes Tanaka and in jogs closer Aroldis Chapman. And how did Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo respond?

By pinch-hitting with one of his young prodigies — read that sentence again; the Blue Jays are going to be such a pain in the ass someday — in a critical part of the game. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the dreadlocked mashing machine who arrived earlier this year with much hype. On this very site, I lambasted Toronto for not freeing Baby Vlad sooner (it’s worked out well for the Padres and Fernando Tatis Jr., eh?), but now he’s here.

The young slugger, still only 20 years old, hasn’t lit the American League on fire as a rookie — .345 xwOBA and a 112 OPS+ are fine, not revolutionary — but he’s shown the spark of a potential MVP. Since July 1, he’s looked more and more the part, especially considering his age, hitting .302/.374/.511.

Meanwhile, Chapman is Chapman, even as his velocity slowly drops. Slowly. His fastball velocity is still in the 99th percentile, as is the spin on that heater. Hmm. Maybe it’s more like the desert has just a bit less sand? Something like that. Even as he turns more to the slider — .224 xwOBA, 41.4 percent whiff rate — the results stay the same. Chapman is awesome.

The table was set. The firebreathing Yankees closer against the Blue Jays phenom. One run lead. Here we go.

Guerrero Jr. proves ready for the task against Chapman

With Brandon Drury on first, Chapman goes to work against Guerrero Jr. You’ll be shocked to learn Chapman starts with a high fastball; you’ll be even more shocked to know that Baby Vlad nearly swung out of his shoes at it.

Look at the power here! Chapman, maybe the hardest-throwing pitcher of all time against a hitter with ridiculous bat speed and power. This feels like the Hulk’s fist meeting Superman’s in the air or something. Why didn’t all the glass in Rogers Centre explode after this?

Guerrero Pitch 1 FB

With an 0-1 count, Chapman sticks with the high heat but moves it inside. Brilliant pitch, and although the young slugger unleashes another mighty hack, he comes up with air.

Chapman, obviously, has total trust in his fastball, especially when he locates it like this.

Guerrero Pitch 2 FB

With the count 0-2, Chapman has options. He’s firmly set the batter’s eyes above the zone; it seems an obvious count for that underrated slider. Chapman doesn’t go that route, however, instead dialing up a cool 100 MPH fastball on the black away. Credit here to Guerrero Jr. for managing to knock this foul.

The Yankees closer went opposite quadrant with an MLB 2k19 fastball and the 20-year-old spoiled it. That’s impressive work.

Guerrero Pitch 3 FB

Still 0-2, Chapman still has several avenues of attack. He returns to the fastball, but this time misses near Guerrero Jr’s foot for ball one. If it seems bizarre that Chapman didn’t instantly go to the slider in an 0-2 count, remember that Chapman and catcher Austin Romine can read things from Guerrero Jr. that we miss on TV.

For example, perhaps they can tell the fastballs were too much for the young third baseman, so they turn to it again and again. Eventually, the slider makes sense, but Chapman and Romine are right to trust what they are reading.

Guerrero Pitch 4 FB

Guerrero Jr. hasn’t come across a good pitch to hit yet. Credit there to Chapman, but in a 1-2 count will that change? Nope! Actually, Baby Vlad gets what might be the nastiest pitch of the day, a hard slider right under the outside corner. Somehow, with every last blasted inch of his swing, Guerrero Jr. knicks it foul.

Excellent pitch, even if Chapman and Romine wanted it a bit lower, and tremendous work by Guerrero Jr. to stay alive. I don’t know that as fans or analysts we appreciate the skill involved in keeping an at-bat alive. I say it in this space every week and I will continue to do so; hitters live pitch by pitch. The great ones are able to maneuver counts into their favor with patience, pitch recognition and the ability to foul off tough pitches so they can finally, finally, get a good one.

Guerrero Pitch 5 SL

And here it is. A mistake.

Chapman hangs the next slider and Guerrero Jr. absolutely crushes it. A little too much, actually, as it runs foul, but the first time he got a reasonable pitch to hit, he damn near blasted it to the sun.

Look at Chapman watch that ball. He knows that could have been it. He realizes quickly that it’s gone foul, but for a second, a brief second, his head is still and the possibility of a blown save sweeps over him. That’s the life of a closer.

Guerrero Pitch 6 SL

Okay. Can’t throw that slider there again. Just like the two fastballs taught Chapman and Romine something valuable, so did that slider down and in. With the seventh pitch in the at-bat, Chapman stays inside but dials up the heat and Guerrero Jr. dribbles it foul. Good pitch and another skillful swing from the youngster.

Baby Vlad ain’t going down easy.

Guerrero Pitch 7 FB

Count 1-2, Chapman readying his eighth pitch of the exchange, and one wonders when the Yankees closer will try to dip below the zone with the slider. Not yet. Chapman turns back to the fastball but misses well inside and Guerrero Jr. takes it for ball two.

Guerrero Pitch 8 FB

I wonder if this an “okay, I’ve had enough of this BS” fastball. It’s right over the plate and Chapman finishes his delivery with a hard stomp. But, like before, Guerrero Jr. fends it off. The youngster is pushing Chapman into quite a fight.

Guerrero Pitch 9 FB

Chapman turns back to the slider but misses with the location and again Guerrero Jr. spoils it. This breaking ball had to be below the zone. It’s a miss. Fortunately, the previous fastball was so good and the slider has such movement that Baby Vlad wasn’t able to hammer it.

Alas, this is one Chapman would want back. Bury this at the shins and Guerrero Jr. probably trods back to the dugout.

Guerrero Pitch 10 SL

Unbelievable.

After just barely making contact with a slider down and in, Guerrero Jr. has the plate discipline to hold off on a 101 MPH fastball that’s juuuust barely outside of the zone away. This is a great pitch and an even better take. After missing wildly at the first two fastballs he saw, Baby Vlad has scratched and clawed his way into a full count against a lethal closer. This dude is special.

Guerrero Pitch 11 FB

Full count. Chapman missed his chances to bury a slider below the knees; he can do it now, but two on, no out in a one-run game isn’t exactly appetizing.

But: Aroldis Chapman is a strikeout machine. Finally, on the twelve pitch of the at-bat, Chapman spins a slider below the zone and whattayaknow, Guerrero Jr. spoils that too.

Not many can withstand blow after blow from a flamethrowing beast like Aroldis Chapman, but Vladimir Guerrero Jr. isn’t exactly one of the masses. He’s a phenom for a reason, and he’s standing toe to toe with one of the game’s best.

Guerrero Pitch 12 SL

Thirteenth pitch. Full count. Chapman dials up another 100 MPH fastball, this one down and away. Guerrero Jr. swings and bounces it right to shortstop for a clean double play. The closer wins.

Unreal. Unreal.

Guerrero Pitch 13 FB

Chapman would go on to allow a single to Bo Bichette before finishing things out, a hard-earned save against a frisky Blue Jays team.  Guerrero Jr. and Bichette will be battling the Yankees closer for years to come.

Chapman felt ‘great’ after this out

Check this quote from Chapman, as noted by MLB.com reporter Bryan Hoch (all below quotes are from Bryan’s story):

“Of course, especially when you get a ground ball like that and you end up turning a double play,” Chapman said through a translator. “Any time you’re able to get a double play when you need it, it feels great.”

The Yankee closer described how he tried to take down the Blue Jays third baseman:

“That was the strategy early in the at-bat, up and in,” Chapman said. “Then I tried to pitch him up and out, and eventually ended up getting him out going inside.”

Imagine being so difficult to get out that the dude nicknamed the Cuban Missile says this about ya:

“The mentality right there is to get him out,” Chapman said through a translator. “It’s as a simple as that. But it was a great at-bat by him. He made me work. I pitched him inside, I threw a slider, I threw a two-seamer and — nothing. It was just a good at-bat from him there.”

 

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