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MLB’s Best Relief Arm in 2021? It Might be Aroldis Chapman

New York Yankees relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman delivers a pitch against the Toronto Blue Jays during the ninth inning of a baseball game in Toronto, Thursday, March 29, 2018. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)

While the beginning of this New York Yankees’ 2021 campaign has been a weird one, perhaps the brightest spot of the first ten games has been the performance of Aroldis Chapman. In those ten games, Chapman has pitched four innings and has not allowed an earned run while striking out 11.

It’s only been four games, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this is the most dominant that Chapman has ever looked, and I think we have ample reason to believe that he can keep it up.

Throughout his entire career, Chapman has been a two-pitch pitcher, with his fastball and Slider. But in every season dating from 2016-2020, his fastball velocity has ticked down. In 2016, his average fastball velocity was 101.1 MPH. By 2020, it was 97.8 MPH. We could see this trend downward in velocity for Chapman for some years with many fearing that he was approaching “past it” territory.

In 2021, Chapman has been dominant. Small sample size? Sure. But, he’s also a different pitcher. It’d be one thing if he was having success with the same-old one-two punch of fastball and slider. But he isn’t.

Chapman has, in fact, begun integrating a Splitter into his arsenal. If I had to guess, he started to work on this pitch as his fastball velocity started to tick down over time. He had to adapt to his changing skillset and he might even be turning into more of a pitcher as opposed to a hurler.

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Let’s take a look at Chapman’s pitch usages, starting with 2018. This was around the time when we could see his average fastball velocity trending downwards. Chapman’s arsenal consisted of (courtesy of Statcast) just a fastball (65.9%) and a slider (25.4%). He also threw a sinker (7.9%), but it might as well be a fastball. The “sinker” classification is consistently 100 MPH or more, but he did not throw it very often.

2019 was a similar story. He threw the same mix but with different usages. Fastball (58.6%), Slider (31.3%), Sinker (10%). Again, we know that Chapman’s fastball velocity was going down, and it seems like he was trying to find a different pitch that he could use confidently. Which is maybe why we see an uptick in slider usage, but it’s not a given. 

In 2020, we got a similar pitch usage, but a fourth pitch worked its way out of the woodwork. Chapman threw a fastball (72.4%), slider (21.6%), sinker (4.5%) and last but not least, a split-finger (1.5%). The best part about that split-finger is that Chapman threw the pitch just three times in the 2020 regular season. They were all on 0-2 counts, and all three of them were swung at and missed.

The three splitters also all came within a day of each other, appearing on September 24th and 25th of last season, as he was just beginning to work it into his arsenal. The first one he threw was incredible, seen here (courtesy of Statcast Baseball Savant) as he got Alejandro Kirk to strike out and it looks like, based on his reaction, that Chapman realized he had something.

Now let’s fast forward to 2021, and the Split Finger has become the most used third pitch by Chapman in his career. Really, if you ignore the fact that Statcast has Chapman throwing a Sinker for the past four years, it’s been his only third pitch ever used.

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So far in 2021, Chapman is utilizing a combination of his fastball (55%), slider (25%), split-finger (11.7%), and sinker (8.3%). For the sake of ease, this is a three-pitch mix. So instead of the fastball-slider pitcher that he has been for his entire career, Chapman now has three pitches at his disposal with the third one being borderline incredible, at least to this point.

Chapman has thrown the Splitter seven times this season. Two of them have been taken for a ball. The other five have all been swings and misses. Long story short, nobody has ever made contact with Aroldis Chapman’s splitter in its existence as a pitch.

It’s also worth noting that alongside adding the Splitter to his arsenal, Chapman is also throwing harder. On both his fastball and whatever it is that Statcast classifies as his sinker, he has seen an uptick in average velocity this season.

It’s entirely possible that we have not seen the best version of Aroldis Chapman yet. Now that he has worked in a third pitch to his arsenal, which he seemingly has a lot of confidence throwing, we might be looking at the most dominant relief pitcher in baseball.

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Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it! Please feel free to follow or send your thoughts/comments to me via twitter @rcoles0206. If you would like a specific player written up with our thoughts just send over a tweet!

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