Exactly one month after his team formed an ostensible super-bullpen before the trade deadline, Aroldis Chapman lost his job as the Yankees’ closer. Manager Joe Girardi didn’t officially make the announcement until Saturday, but Chapman’s informal removal from the ninth-inning role was clear the night before, when he entered a game against Boston with his team losing in the eighth.
He allowed two runs that night, just as he had in his previous game, and the game before that, and—if not for a remarkable defensive play from outfielder Aaron Hicks—probably would have in the game before that, too. In sum, Chapman allowed runs in four consecutive outings for the first time since 2011, before he became a closer and one of the most dominant relief pitchers in baseball history. On Sunday, he ended that ignominious streak with 1.1 scoreless innings after entering a game in the sixth inning, also for the first time since 2011. This season has been a struggle for the erstwhile closer, who in December signed a five-year, $86 million contract with New York to become MLB’s highest-paid reliever.
Both his surface and underlying statistics reflect the work of a pitcher who has fallen from elite to merely decent, or worse.
Aroldis Chapman Ranks Among Relievers (min. 30 innings)
|Swinging Strike %||3rd||93rd|
|Win Probability Added||7th||123rd|
And even those season-long numbers are inflated by Chapman’s typically solid work at the beginning of the season; his recent sample looks worse when the time splits are narrowed. His strikeout rate tumbled from 37.3 percent through the end of June to 28.6 percent in July to 25.0 percent thus far in August, the latter of which represents his lowest mark in any month since he became a closer. It’s barely better than the league average of 21.2 percent in August, which again represents a worst-ever data point for Chapman the closer.
Perhaps the greatest indicator of Chapman’s decline is this: In consecutive games against Cleveland and Boston earlier this month, Chapman threw 21 and 20 pitches, respectively, without recording a single swinging strike. Last month, too, he failed to generate a single whiff in back-to-back appearances against Boston. Before this recent stretch, the last time he didn’t register one swing-and-miss in consecutive games was April 2013, or 268 appearances prior.
So what’s wrong with the deposed ninth-inning arm? It’s not his velocity, as his fastball still reaches 100 miles per hour on average. It’s also not his location, as he is actually pitching in the strike zone more than ever before. But for some reason, Chapman hasn’t been generating the whiffs that made him the game’s best reliever: Opposing hitters have made contact on 65 percent of their swings at pitches outside the strike zone, versus a typical Chapman rate of around 50 percent, and on 81 percent of swings at pitches inside the strike zone, versus a typical Chapman rate of around 71 percent. As FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan noted last week, no reliever has experienced a larger year-over-year increase in contact rate this season than Chapman, who is now essentially a league-average pitcher in inducing swings-and-misses.
Because so many of the usual indicators aren’t flashing red, it’s difficult to identify the underlying factors here. One possible cause, though, is injury, as Chapman missed a month earlier this year due to tendinitis in his left rotator cuff. And since his return to the mound, he has exhibited subtle mechanical differences.
According to the pitch tracking data at Brooks Baseball, the 6-foot-4 Chapman used to release his pitches in a range of 6 feet, 4 inches to 6 feet, 8 inches high, but that release point has trended downward all season. Thus far in August, it’s down to 6 feet, 2 inches for his fastball—tied for his lowest arm slot in any month since he was a rookie. Consider some visual evidence of this pattern. These representative images both come at the point of release on four-seam fastballs in Yankee Stadium (to keep the camera angle constant), with a shot of Chapman from last year on top and this year on the bottom.
In the still from last year, one could draw a straight line down the length of Chapman’s arm from his wrist to his shoulder. In the image from this year, that path would be parabolic. His shoulder previously rotated upward along with his elbow and wrist as he completed a throwing motion, but now his upper arm looks almost static vertically.
Throwing from a slightly lower arm slot, with a slightly more exaggerated elbow angle, is not per se an indicator of injury, and normally it could be attributed to a minor mechanical blip, the likes of which fellow Yankee—and new closer—Dellin Betances experienced earlier this summer. But combined with Chapman’s recent injury history, it represents a more serious sign of concern. In the book Complete Conditioning for Baseball, collegiate strength and conditioning coach Steve Tamborra writes, “There is no ideal angle between the arm and the head during the throwing motion, but pitchers tend to lower their angle when protecting a weak or injured shoulder.”
This is still just an observation, and it’s impossible to link it explicitly to Chapman’s struggles—again, his aggregate velocity and location are doing just fine, and both Chapman and Girardi contend that the lefty isn’t hurt. But it’s a new Chapman, and it’s a worse Chapman, so it’s reasonable to suppose that some connection exists.
When he went to the DL in May, Chapman said, “You definitely lose location and sharpness” because of his injury, and Yankees GM Brian Cashman explained, “He was throwing 100 [mph], but he just wasn't as effective.” Well, a few months later, he’s still throwing 100 mph, but he just isn’t as effective. He might still be hurt, or at least having trouble compensating for a recent injury to the hardest-throwing shoulder in baseball history. Either way, it’s not a promising sign for the 2017 Yankees, who hope to unleash the sport’s newest iteration of a shutdown bullpen this October, or for the 2018 and beyond Yankees, who are paying a suddenly hittable pitcher like the best reliever in the game.