A couple of years ago, some friends and I drove over to Alliance Bank Stadium to catch a Syracuse Chiefs game (the great Lastings Milledge was a member of the Chiefs at the time). In the left field concourse there was a cage set up where you could throw a baseball and a radar gun would tell you how many miles an hour you threw it. Seemed intriguing enough, so we gave it a whirl.
After putting all of my very limited arm strength into a pitch that sailed way outside the strike zone, the radar gun blinked “55.” I resorted to the cliché excuse of “it’s probably broken” to preserve my manhood. Luckily for my self-esteem, my friends weren’t much better. Even at over six-feet and about 200 pounds (I’m only 5’8, 140ish), most of the guys were only registering in the low 60s. My friend Rob threw it the hardest topping out at a Tim Wakefield-esque 72 miles an hour.
The moral of the story here is that it is not, by any means easy to throw fast … unless your name is Aroldis Chapman. This dude invented fast. Want some proof? Last season on September 24th, Chapman threw a pitch to San Diego’s Tony Gwynn Jr. that registered at 105.1 miles per hour. The pitch eclipsed Joel Zumaya’s major league record for the fastest pitch ever thrown: Zumaya hurled a 104.8 mph fastball back in 2006. This year against Pittsburgh, Chapman bettered the record with a heater clocked at 106 mph. That’s what you call “stupid fast.”
Chapman is doing something we didn’t think human beings were even capable of. He’s redefining fast and maybe even the whole mindset of pitching. Remember when 98 used to be “fast?” Chapman’s stuff makes 98 look like slow-pitch softball.
We’re in an age where pitchers have become so reliant on a second pitch or a pitch other than their fastball to strike out hitters that 100 mph flamethrowers are almost an endangered species. Daniel Bard, Justin Verlander, Neftali Feliz, Timmy Lincecum and Ubaldo Jimenez have all hit 100 before but none of them throw that fast on a regular basis like Chapman does. And of course, none of them are close to challenging Chapman’s 106 mark.
That isn’t to say that the fastball is all Chapman’s capable of throwing. He has an excellent slider that sits between 86 and 88 mph. His changeup, which he is still developing, has the potential to be equally devastating. Imagine going up to the plate and expecting this guy to throw you a 105 mile an hour fireball … and instead he fools you with a changeup in the mid 80s. You might as well be batting with a pool cue: you’re not hitting that.
Stephen Strasburg’s MLB debut may have grabbed most of the headlines last season but Chapman, who also debuted last season, could make just as big an impact in the big leagues. He’s actually making bigger bucks than Strasburg right now: Chapman inked a deal with the Reds that will earn him roughly $5 million a season over the next six years. Strasburg’s deal with the Nationals is worth $15.1 million over four seasons, which calculates to just under $3.8 million per season.
Part of what makes Chapman so fascinating is his back-story. Chapman successfully defected from Cuba to pitch in the United States. Leaving behind his poverty-stricken homeland also meant waving goodbye to his family, his girlfriend and even his baby daughter.
Chapman’s Cuban heritage shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise: Cuban baseball has been extremely successful on the international stage and produced some excellent players over the years. Some of Cuba’s recent baseball achievements include the silver medal they won at the 2008 Beijing Games and finishing as runners-up to Japan in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006.
Despite these accolades, Cuban born players have struggled to make an impact on Major League Baseball. Just take a look at last season’s American and National League All-Star rosters. Not one of the 82 major league all-stars last season were born in Cuba. Fifty-four were American-born, 14 were from the Dominican Republic, six hailed from Venezuela, two were Canadian, two more from Mexico, with Puerto Rico, Taiwan, Panama and Japan each with one representative in the mid-summer classic. In fact, the last Cuban-born player to make a major league all-star team was Danys Baez when he was the Devil Rays’ lone representative on the 2005 AL squad (Kendrys Morales had a chance to make it last season until he broke his leg on this wild play).
Chapman is one of just 10 Cuban-born players in the major leagues right now (two of those players, Morales and Philadelphia’s Jose Contreras are on the disabled list). And at age 23, none of them have more potential than Chapman. If he stays healthy, the left-handed prodigy has a chance to join Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro, Orlando Hernandez and Luis Tiant amongst the greatest Cuban-born players in major league history.
But that’s a big if. Chapman doesn’t have a particularly violent pitching motion but it’s still taxing on the arm to reach back and throw it 100+ miles per hour on a regular basis. The 6-4, 195-pounder has already endured one stint on the DL this season so his body isn’t indestructible.
Wear and tear on his arm will probably reduce his velocity at some point, but when will that be? And when that does happen, will Chapman still be effective? Right now, if you took away Chapman’s 100 mph speed, he’d be pretty ordinary as far as major league pitchers go. Chapman will have to further develop his slider and changeup if he wants to stay in the majors for the long haul.
Cincinnati is going to have to make some tough decisions about how to use Chapman as his career develops. Since his call-up late last season he’s been used as the setup man for closer Francisco Cordero but he started the 2010 campaign as a starter in Triple-A Louisville. Is Dusty Baker using Chapman out of the bullpen to preserve his arm for when there’s a spot for him in the Reds’ starting rotation or is he grooming him to become Cincinnati’s closer of the future? With that kind of speed, Chapman seems destined to become a shutdown closer in the big leagues. But he’s also young and strong enough to eat up innings and hold his own in a major league starting rotation.
The questions surrounding Chapman aren’t all health-related though. You thought this guy was tough to hit? Try catching for him. I actually got a chance to see Chapman warm up before a game in Syracuse last year when he was still in Triple-A. Balls were flying all over the place. I can remember two times when Chapman threw and missed his catcher’s glove completely.
Chapman’s wildness was part of the reason Louisville moved him to the bullpen midway through last season. After surrendering only five walks in 13 and a third innings for the Reds last season, the man they call the Cuban Missile Crisis is back to his erratic ways in 2011. In 15 innings this year, number 54 has already handed out 21 free passes. Chapman has only pitched twice since coming off the DL last week but before that he had given up two or more runs in four straight appearances, causing his ERA to balloon to 6.60.
Another thing to keep in mind with Chapman is that Cuban players have always had a steeper learning curve when it comes to adjusting to the major leagues. Last year in Syracuse, I was told Chapman “didn’t know a word of English.” Luckily nowadays every team has at least a few Latino players to help translate but communication could still be an issue, especially with his English-speaking coaches.
I stumbled across a Buster Olney blog post about Chapman from a month ago and he touched on this same issue. According to Olney, Cuban-born players historically have had trust issues from years of living under an oppressive communist regime. In the Yankees clubhouse several years ago, the environment was so foreign and uncomfortable for Orlando Hernandez (who defected at age 32) that he once pulled a “sharp instrument” on Jorge Posada in a fit of rage. It’s important that Chapman is closely monitored and encouraged as he continues to adjust to life in the U.S. and in the major leagues so that he won’t get frustrated or feel isolated from his American teammates.
For now Chapman is still very much a project for the Reds. But he’s the superstar the Reds and Major League Baseball both need. America loves speed and Chapman has a ton of it. Think about it. We love roller coasters and fast cars. We use our phones to text and search the web instantly. Our country idolized Michael Phelps for being the fastest swimmer on the planet. We hate long lines in the super market and slow drivers. We hate anything that slows us down. Heck we even have microwavable bacon so we don’t have to cook it in the pan anymore because that takes too long. We’re all about speed. And Aroldis Chapman is here to give it to us. Whether it ends up in the strike zone or not … well, that’s a different story.
Photo of 55 mph speed limit was taken from http://bit.ly/myXqTx. Photo of 106 MPH was taken from http://bit.ly/mtSxbz. Photo of Orlando Hernandez was taken from http://bit.ly/j0kn2W. Photo of Ricky Bobby was taken from http://bit.ly/7oX98. All other photos were taken from ESPN.com.