The Yankees face a steeper uphill battle in their quest for the American League East crown, as they lost two out of three to their division rival Red Sox at home over the weekend, to fall a whopping 5.5 games back. The rivalry appears to be gaining steam and relevance once again with the emergence of all of their talented, young stars, and several of the games have been nothing short of dramatic. The Yankees stole a win on Friday with a come-from-behind victory, but not before closer Aroldis Chapman made things interesting in the ninth, with three walks and a run allowed before “nailing down” a 5-4 victory.
The Yankees appeared on their way to another stolen victory (and series win) on Sunday, with a tenuous 2-1 lead against likely AL Cy Young winner Chris Sale headed into the ninth. Although manager Joe Girardi has mixed and matched his star-studded relief corps into various innings, Chapman is fully entrenched as his closer and Ninth Inning Guy (TM). So, on he came to face Hanley Ramirez, and three 100+ MPH fastballs and loss of helmet later, he was down on strikes. Chapman appeared locked in. He then faced 20-year-old (!) rookie phenom Rafael Devers, who Nick has gushed about before. Devers did what only one lefty (lol, Luke Scott in 2011) had done prior in Chapman’s entire career: He took him deep. It was an impressive piece of hitting to the opposite field, and the fastest pitch (102.8 MPH) to be taken deep since at least 2008 (when those statistics were routinely tracked). It stunned Yankees fans. Alas, the home run tied the game and pushed it into extra innings. Girardi stuck with his closer, who promptly hit Jackie Bradley Jr. and walked Eduardo Nunez (and his 3.9% walk rate) before being replaced by Tommy Kahnle. Kahnle walked the bases loaded before Andrew Benintendi singled in the eventual winning run.
It was the 20th blown save for the Yankees this year (2nd-most in baseball to the Mariners’ 22), and the fourth for Chapman. It was also their AL-leading 21st 1-run loss this year, after losing just 12 such games all of last year. The Yankees still have a grip on the 1st Wild Card spot, and still own the 2nd-best run differential in the AL, but the 2017 Yankees have had their share of deflating, gut-wrenching losses.
Any Yankees fan can attest that Chapman just has not been his usual, dominant self since signing in the offseason. He still lights up the radar gun routinely over 100 MPH, but he is no doubt more hittable this year, and the numbers back this up.
Chapman’s average fastball velocity has been over 100 MPH every year since 2014. Of note, he did drop 1 MPH from 101.1 to 100.1 MPH (lol), but for the most part, his elite velocity has been intact.
Despite maintaining his velocity, his batting average against (BAA) on both his fastball and slider have jumped up to career-highs of .217 and .214, respectively. As a result, his fastball and slider pitch values are both at career lows (but still slightly above average).
Why is he getting hit more often? His horizontal pitch movement is roughly the same on his pitches over the years, while he seems to have an extra 1.5 inches of vertical movement on his slider this year compared to last. His fastball spin rate appears within his usual, above-average range, which should generally correlate with strikeouts. He is throwing the ball in the strike zone at just about the same rate as last year (51.5%), but this year, opponents are swinging 10% less often at these pitches (64%) and making contact 10% more often (79%). In other words, batters have become more selective with their swings in the strike zone, and when they do swing, they have been making more contact.
In fact, they have been making contact at a career-high rate this year, both inside the strike zone and overall. His contact rates are all still above the MLB average, but they have continued to trend closer to the average with each passing year.
Of most concern is Chapman’s dwindling swinging strike rate. For the fourth consecutive year, his SwStr% (and, as a result, K%) are both on the downswing, as illustrated below:
His strikeout rates are coming down at the same time MLB hitters are swinging and missing more often. His SwStr%, once elite and otherworldly, is now slightly above average and more ordinary. He ranked first in MLB in 2014 and 2015, third in 2016, and is now 71st (among RP w/ at least 30 IP). For comparison, Chapman’s SwStr% is in the same ballpark as ex-Yankee Chase Whitley and current Yankee shuttle reliever Jonathan Holder.
In essence, Chapman is getting fewer strikeouts and allowing more contact than ever, all the while his velocity, spin rate, and movement appear roughly in line with his previous, more dominant years.
So, what gives? It could be a variety of factors. Chapman did miss over a month from left rotator cuff inflammation earlier in the year, and he could still be recovering from that. Usually, injuries (particularly related to the elbow) lead to a decline in velocity or something regarding his “stuff”, but we don’t really see that with Chapman. He was also worked hard and often during the Cubs’ postseason run, throwing 73.2 IP between the regular and postseason (one inning shy of his career-high in 2012). He also had less time than usual to recover from all of those high-stress innings, which could be contributing to a proverbial “World Series hangover”. Given the inherent volatility of relief pitchers, it could just be a slump, but the underlying worry is that this also could be Chapman’s inevitable decline. The data do not support a reduction in his stuff per se, but he is undoubtedly fooling less batters and his results bear that out. The Yankees, their fans, and Chapman himself have to hope he rights himself quick, otherwise their playoff aspirations will inevitably get stalled and the team and fans will be on the hook for four more years of continually declining back-end relief.