Imagining a better Aroldis Chapman

Imagine, if you can, the least-fair thing in baseball. Do you have it? Maybe you’re picturing having to face Giancarlo Stanton with the bases loaded. Maybe you’re picturing one of those Clayton Kershaw curveballs, or Juan Lagares running down a would-be winning double in the gap. Maybe you’re just thinking about Billy Hamilton on the bases. OK! You’re wrong.

The least-fair thing in baseball is Aroldis Chapman throwing a changeup. It’s the least-fair thing for exactly the reasons you’d expect. His fastball is unfair enough on its own; add a changeup and you’ll have helpless hitters twisting their spines. The good news was this: for years, Chapman’s changeup was only theoretical. It was something he’d throw a few times in spring training before realizing he didn’t need to mess around. Chapman was never quite lacking for weapons.

Then in 2014, Chapman got experimental. For the first time, he carried that changeup into the season. And the results? You could probably guess the results, even without me telling you, but just for the sake of being complete: Chapman threw 63 changeups, according to Brooks Baseball. Opposing hitters made contact exactly once (it was an out). Allow me to repeat that, for effect: batters made contact with one Aroldis Chapman changeup in 2014, out of 63 opportunities. They didn’t always swing, but you get the point.

It was beautiful. It was perfect, from an objective-observer viewpoint. It was decidedly not perfect from an unobjective-opposing-hitter viewpoint. Through the first half of the season, Chapman threw 11% changeups. In a June series against the Pirates, Chapman threw six changeups in consecutive games. All of a sudden, it looked like the change was going to be a regular part of the repertoire, and Chapman was soaring to new levels. Chapman, at that point, was playing with his food.

But it was not to be. Oh, Chapman stayed dominant. You know that part. But in the second half, the changeups almost completely went away. He threw them just 2 percent of the time, mainly sticking with his fastball and his slider. Chapman had flashed the least-fair thing in baseball, and it behaved like the least-fair thing in baseball, but by the end we were left to wonder if we’d ever see the change again. Perhaps Chapman had just determined the pitch wouldn’t be necessary as long as he was throwing 99 miles per hour. Which, OK, you could get that.

It’s 2015 now. There have been new games, with new Aroldis Chapman appearances. And there was even the usual Aroldis Chapman talk in spring training, with his manager talking about Chapman’s increased comfort with his secondary stuff. So we were allowed to come in with new hope. There was reason to believe Chapman’s changeup wasn’t dead. And, indeed, he’s thrown it, in the regular season. He’s thrown it just five times, but it’s early, and five times suggests there will be more times. Let’s now watch those five times. Welcome back, Aroldis Chapman’s changeup.

The first one, and the best one. Chapman gets Starling Marte out in front, because against the changeup there’s really no other option, and then Marte found himself in an 0-and-2 hole. You know how that went. The whole at-bat, really, was just cruel. Sequence:

  • Slider, 88
  • Changeup, 88
  • Fastball, 100

Marte swung three times. Yeah. That’s Aroldis Chapman, as a starting pitcher, as a closer. Three different pitches in three consecutive pitches, all expertly located. Turns out you don’t just fluke Chapman’s strikeout stats.

Chapman with another 0-and-1 changeup. This one, clearly, wound up a bit higher than the previous one, drifting into the meat of the strike zone, but you have to understand that the meat of the strike zone is different when you’re talking about Aroldis Chapman or Jason Marquis. Facing Chapman just sucks a lot more, and he gets to have a greater margin of error with his location because of how the timing puts every hitter on the defensive. This changeup caught a lot of the plate, but because a changeup wasn’t expected, it went and got itself harmlessly popped up. This is, remember, exactly as much contact as hitters made against the changeup in all of 2014. Which is to say, one instance of contact.

Three changeups, three changeups in 0-and-1 counts. This one, while located well, was out of the zone, so it went for a ball, but this is a quality ball. You can see the hitter got out in front, steeling himself for a heater. Had Chapman induced a swing, there’s no way it was going to result in anything damaging. The risk here was just a ball, and Chapman can survive a 1-and-1 count. Chapman can survive a 3-and-1 count.

This time, a 2-and-2 changeup, again located pretty well below the zone. Ideally, the change would’ve been a few inches higher, to maximize the probability of a swing and a whiff, but you can see that Matt Holliday very nearly went anyway, and if he did, this was going to be a strikeout. This is where you want two-strike changeups to go. I mean, generally speaking. This missed a tiny bit, but this is how you want to miss if you’re going to miss. We’ll come back to that.

The most recent change, on a 1-and-2 count. It’s a little difficult to track the baseball, but it’s not quite as low as the catcher makes it seem. Chapman would’ve liked it a little higher, and a little further away from the hitter. But in the given count, this pitch is fine. Chapman clearly hasn’t trusted the pitch enough to use it in a hitter’s count, because he doesn’t want to fall farther behind, but that would be something to watch for. If a hitter is especially looking for a fastball to crush, a behind-in-the-count changeup could be lethal.

So, five changeups, great. It’s only five changeups. But we can talk a little bit about location. You know why Chapman all but stopped throwing the change last season? He just wasn’t locating it. It was usually a ball. From Baseball Savant, here’s where Chapman’s 2014 changeups went:

That’s a wild pitch. Not only do you see changeups in the dirt — you see a lot of changeups up, with Chapman flying open in his delivery. Most of the time — almost all of the time — a pitcher wants his changeups to be located somewhere down. If you see a pitcher throwing elevated changeups, odds are it’s not the gameplan.

Chapman’s tiny sample of 2015 changeups:

The positive part is that he hasn’t yet flown open. He’s kept the changeups around or below the knees, and though the sample is so small as to be laughable, I personally choose to be encouraged. I want to see more Chapman changeups, and he’ll throw more of them if he feels like he’s better able to locate them. As Chapman throws this pitch more often, we’ll be able to see if he can consistently keep the change down, and then if he’s doing that, with his elevated fastball and with his biting slider…it’s hard to imagine improving on Aroldis Chapman, but he might at least be able to stave off decline. Pitchers say, when they hang around the same division for a while, they like to try to come up with something to give familiar hitters new looks. Chapman’s new look is the meanest pitch in the game.

It’s such a small thing, and it’s not like pre-changeup Chapman was some kind of problem. He was already maybe the best closer in baseball, and he was already a freak. But, think about it. Why do we even watch this game? We say it’s to see our teams win, but we still watch even if our teams are bad. Really, we watch because we like to see extraordinary players do extraordinary things. Same reason for watching any sport. We like to observe the extreme extents of human ability. Because of his velocity, Aroldis Chapman is a known spectacle. There hasn’t really been anyone else like him. And now that freak is adding a twist, a twist that makes him more of a spectacle, more impossible to think about facing. What does a perfect pitcher look like? I don’t know, we’ve never seen him. But imagine Aroldis Chapman with a good changeup. Now try to unimagine that.