CINCINNATI - Aroldis Chapman must enjoy the city of Pittsburgh, because he has single-left-handedly given the Pirates a shot to take over 1st place in the NL Central with his performances the last few times he's hit the rubber.
In his last seven games, Chapman is 0-4 with three blown saves and an 11.37 ERA. This is compared to Chapman's first 24 games, in which he picked up four wins, six saves with only one blown, a 0.00 ERA and was on a record pace for strikeouts per inning (52 in 29 innings pitched).
Not only this, but Chapman gave up just seven hits in those first 24 games. He gave up nine hits in his past seven performances.
To give even more perspective, the Reds had only lost three games of the first 24 that Chapman had appeared in, and only one of which did he directly contribute to the loss.
The weirder part of Chapman's losses is they have been given away very efficiently. Chapman has never given up more than two hits in any of his games this year, including the past seven poor performances. Check out these stats in his four losses:
Jun 7 vs. PIT: 2 hits, 1 ER
Jun 10 vs. DET: 2 hits, 2 ER, 1 BB
Jun 19 @ CLE: 2 hits 2 ER, 1 HR
Jun 24 vs. MIN: 2 hits, 2 ER, 1 HR
You may notice that the losses came mostly at home. It's almost as if the excited crowds get his blood pumping too much.
So what's been the problem all of a sudden? Chapman hasn't thrown his fastball any slower, hasn't mixed in his slider any more and hasn't been missing the strike zone, as was his Achilles heel last year (just two walks in his last seven games, compared to nine the rest of the season).
Let's offer up some possible solutions as to why Chapman's Cuban Missile has been failing to launch:
Explanation #1: Chapman is not a closer
Chapman was bred this year to eventually join the starting lineup, but as Reds fans know, due to injuries in the bullpen, he had to wait for that transition. He did a great job out of the pen, but he did so with a starter's mentality of "There's always another inning."
Dusty Baker made the initial call on May 17 for Chapman to close out a ballgame in which the Reds led the New York Mets 4-3 in the 7th inning. This was Chapman's first real chance at a legitimate save since he had been performing at record-breaking levels. He had five Holds from his previous 15 games, but never a real "Save" opportunity, and he blew it by giving up a walk that was followed by a single and a botched play in center field, leading to a game-tying sac fly.
It was not a mistake to keep Chapman out of the closer role since he has been a Red. With his erratic strike zone targeting in 2011 and aforementioned starter mentality, the Reds went out and got bullpen help on purpose, with lefty Sean Marshall seemingly nestled in that closer role in the first 40 games of the season, claiming only one blown save in nine tries.
Marshall was de-throned due to a higher-than-acceptable ERA, but he was still getting the job done in those save situations, particularly in close games where contrary to Chapman's pitching psyche, there were no more innings. Segue…
Explanation #2: Chapman can't hold a lead in close games
In Chapman's four losses and four blown saves this year, he came in to either a tied or one-run game.
His body language tends to speak to his handling of these high-stress situations. Take a look at Chapman in a game where the Reds are behind or lead by two runs or more. Chapman works quickly, breathes easily and is fluid from the set to the stretch to the plate.
In close games, Chapman huffs and puffs, he takes deep breaths, he paces between pitches, he reaches down for the dirt more to dry his hands and he's less decisive to the plate.
Throughout the rest of Chapman's appearances this season, only two of them did he come in when the game was tied or a one-run Reds lead. And even in his rough stretch in the past seven games, he picked up two saves in the middle of it all in games that the Reds were leading by two runs or more when he came in. A seemingly tell-tale sign of which situations he thrives in.
There was a reason Chapman has typically been called in the 7th and 8th innings without the game on the line this season. One might say his success is a product of his failure, and the careful situation selection by Reds management to call him in. Baker's job this year was to build Chapman's confidence back up that he could throw his fastball by hitters. He accomplished this in Chapman's first 20 appearances. What the Reds management did not do was build Chapman's confidence in his slider. Second segue…
Explanation #3: Major League Baseball players can hit fastballs
There's something to be said about how difficult it is to hit a 103 mph fastball that comes down on you seemingly from above thanks to Chapman's whiplash
like approach to the plate from his 6'4 frame, but if you consider how many of those at that speed actually get to the strike zone, his velocity is nothing but a literal "gun show."
Most of Chapman's fastballs that reach for strikes are 98-99 mph and slower.
You know who else had left-handed 99 mph fastball from a very tall frame? Randy Johnson.
But what Randy Johnson had that made him so good, even when his velocity diminished in the latter parts of his career, was a great slider. Like Chapman, Johnson's slider zipped across the plate in the high 80s, but unlike Chapman, Johnson could locate his slider low and inside, and low and away to either handed hitters.
Chapman has thrown close to 90 percent of his pitches as fastballs this year. It worked for a while when he entered into games at unimportant parts and teams paid little attention to him. But once Chapman became the consistent set-up man for Marshall and ultimately the closer, teams took notice. Managers began telling batters to shorten up and just poke at the ball to get it the other way. And it's that simple for professional baseball players.
The most recent of examples from Sunday's loss to the Twins showed a very smart Joe Mauer not even fully swinging at Chapman's pitches, but just making contact in a 10-pitch at bat that had him foul off four pitches the other way until finally making contact for a double to the opposite field.
The fact is, it doesn't take much to get a ball to the outfield when it's coming in at 99 mph.
Josh Willingham, the Twins batter that followed Mauer with the game winning home run, also knows this. Chapman got rattled (See Explanation #2), threw three balls to Willingham, and on a 3-1 pitch that had to be in the strike zone, Willingham punched a too-high-in-the-zone fastball to the second deck in left.
The fact is, all Major League batters know how to hit fastballs.
Solution: Develop Chapman's slider
It's time Chapman join the elite ranks of MLB pitchers and develop his second pitch. If he ever wants to make the starting lineup and perform to the likes of Randy Johnson, he needs to.
He's shown glimmers of greatness with this pitch, but he needs to spot it more consistently. One out of every three of Chapman's sliders bites the lower left corner of the zone for a strike. But two out of three tail in the dirt or outside the right part of the zone for balls.
Baker and the pitching staff need to get Chapman into games the Reds either have well-in-hand, or games that are well-in-doubt and give him a minimum slider pitch count. Even if he walks two guys on 30 percent sliders, it's a necessary evil. He needs the confidence to throw it, much like Baker built that confidence in Chapman's fastball in his first 20 games this year. Once that happens, Chapman can get into that scary rhythm that we've seen so often this year when he performs at his peak, with the confidence and decisiveness to throw his slider as well as his fastball.
Sean Marshall has a hard slicing breaking ball. Logan Ondrusek has a deadly 12-6 curve. Right now, these two are the better options for closer because they can keep those at the plate guessing.
Just ask Bronson Arroyo, speed isn't everything.
And just in case he's reading, Aroldis, desarrollar su deslizador.