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Deep Dive: Aroldis Chapman brings the heat in World Series Game 5

3 months agoLance Brozdowski

To understand how pitching and velocity have developed, it is vital to realize how dominant Aroldis Chapman was from 2014 to 2017.

In 2014, Chapman struck out more than half of the batters he faced with the Reds. In each of those four seasons, he led the league in average fastball velocity by an average of .8 mph. On July 7, 2016, he threw a pitch 105.7 mph, just marginally slower than the 105.8 mph fastball he threw way back during his 2010 rookie season. Chapman is still the only pitcher to have thrown over 105 mph dating back to 2008.

Just as the Cubs’ run for the ring started in 2016, the lefty fireballer finished off his fifth season in a row with more than 32 saves. 

But it wasn’t just velocity that propelled Chapman to success. He also knew where to use his velocity. Even if his spin rate wasn’t one of the highest in baseball, peppering exceptionally hard fastballs at the top of the zone plays into a popular theory that has circulated baseball circles in the past.

In short, Perry Husband’s theory of effective velocity states that two pitches thrown at the same velocity at different locations will appear to the batter as having different speeds (here’s more). This depends, in part, on where a “point of contact” estimate is made. It is believed that pitches high and inside have to be met further out in front of the plate, meaning less reaction time for hitters compared to those low and away. This theory gives some credence to the idea that elevating velocity alone, not just high-spin pitches, makes them potentially more effective. 

Chapman may have been ahead of his time in terms of his approach. Comparing the distribution of all pitches thrown in the upper part of the zone there has been about a 3 percent increase between 2016 and 2019. Across the entire league, this increase equates to roughly 25,000 more pitches “above the belt” in just three year’s time. The trend will likely not flip back in recent years, especially given the wide-reaching effects of pitch design and elevating highly efficient fastball.

In Game 5 of the World Series on the brink of elimination, Joe Maddon called on Chapman in the seventh inning. Forty-two pitches later, Chapman rode his fastball primarily up in the zone to an 8-out save and his best performance of the postseason. He struck out 4 batters and generated 12 swinging strikes and called strikes on his four-seamer. Over 50 percent of his fastballs in Game 5 were elevated to Indians hitters.

Chapman’s postseason before Game 5 was not perfect. Although he entered the game with a sub-3.00 ERA, that masked his issue with allowing inherited runners to score. He let four of his last seven cross the plate before getting out of the seventh inning and continuing the Cubs’ chance for an improbable 3-1 series comeback. After utilizing Chapman in Game 5, Maddon used him for 20 pitches more in Game 6 — 62 pitches in three days. When it came time to close out Game 7, Chapman entered the game throwing his fastball around 98 mph, over 1.5 mph slower than Game 5 and nearly 2.5 mph slower than his regular season average.

NOTES

  • Chapman’s 42 pitches in Game 5 were not a career high. That came on July 19, 2015 when he threw 44 pitches against who else but…the Indians. 
  • The Cardinals’ Jordan Hicks is the only other pitcher to throw 105 mph or greater since 2008. He did it on May 20, 2018 against the Philadelphia Phillies. 
  • Chapman was traded to the Yankees in December 2015 for four minor leaguers. New York then traded Chapman to the Cubs for four prospects, the most notable being Gleyber Torres, in July 2016. A few months later, he signed a 5-year, $86 million contract with the Yankees (December 2016).

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