Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman (54) pitches during the ninth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ballpark. The Reds defeated the Cardinals 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE
Has the absolutely terrifying Aroldis Chapman taken a long leap forward? It's far too early to say, but the signs are encouraging, or extremely discouraging if you're a professional batsman.
There aren't a lot of good uses for early-season statistics. But we use them anyway because they're all we have, once we grow tired of the previous season's statistics. One use of early-season statistics is for purposes of laughing at favored teams off to lousy starts. The Red Sox's team ERA is almost three times the Royals' team ERA! How embarrassing for them! Another use of early-season statistics is trying to identify players who have changed their true-talent levels. Baseball is most interesting when it changes. We want to be able to identify where it's changing.
Trying to use early-season statistics like this is, of course, dangerous, and arguably a fool's errand. We're subject to so much small-sample variation that it can be nigh impossible to separate the signal from the noise. Given that, we proceed with caution, but we still proceed. And one guy who's opening eyes early on is a certain Aroldis Chapman.
Chapman's appeared in three games out of the Reds' bullpen. A whole three games, spanning five innings and 17 batters. The sample size here is so small that you might be better off closing this window, tracking down my home address, and mailing me spit in an envelope. But still, I'm here to write about Aroldis Chapman, so I'm going to write about Aroldis Chapman. In those five innings, Chapman's recorded ten strikeouts. Okay, we know that Chapman gets strikeouts. But in those five innings, Chapman's surrendered zero walks. That's a thing.
If you want to increase the sample size, Chapman has thrown 73 pitches. Of those, 67 percent have been strikes. For reference, last season, 59 percent of his pitches were strikes. As a rookie two years ago, 61 percent of his pitches were strikes. To get up to 67 percent is a hell of a leap. Last season, Cole Hamels threw 66 percent strikes.
How dominant is a strike-throwing Aroldis Chapman? Batters so far have attempted 31 swings. Of those, 14 have touched the baseball. Nine have put the ball in play.
Aroldis Chapman was terrifying before. Here was a guy who threw 100 miles per hour without a real good idea of where the ball was going to go. I honestly don't know how he ever allowed a hit, since my first instinct as a batter would've been to protect my head and my junk. Now Aroldis Chapman might be terrifying in a different way. Now he might be statistically terrifying, instead of physically and psychologically terrifying. Chapman's issue was always throwing strikes. What if now, he's capable of throwing strikes?
I'm not just basing this off three regular-season appearances, by the way. Rob Neyer noted that Chapman had an encouraging spring. Over 15 spring-training appearances between 2010-2011, Chapman registered 29 strikeouts and 17 walks. Over five spring-training appearances in 2012 - four of them starts - Chapman registered 18 strikeouts and two walks. We're supposed to treat spring-training statistics like mosquitoes, batting them away before they can infect us with poison, but with something like this, there might be meaning. Taken into consideration along with Chapman's numbers in April...
I mean, here's Aroldis Chapman from September 2010:
Here's Aroldis Chapman from Wednesday:
Those clips were specifically selected to help make a point, so they don't actually add anything and only serve to bias your opinion unfairly, but just look at that second clip over and over and over again. Maybe with the first clip occasionally interspersed. Can you imagine if Aroldis Chapman is more like that second clip now?
We'll see. That's really all we can say when we're talking about early-season statistics - we'll see what happens from here. Maybe things go back to normal, or maybe they don't. We'll monitor Aroldis Chapman's progress. He might still be wild, too wild to be consistently reliable, but he might not. It all might have clicked, and Chapman might now be among the most dominant relievers in the world.
Chapman's fastball, incidentally, is averaging 97.5. That's one thing that hasn't changed.