When it comes to evaluating established stars it is easy to look at the issue in a binary way. If a star is producing like a star, there is nothing to report. If they are failing to meet expectations, then it's time to dig deeper.
However, just because an elite player continues to excel, it doesn't mean there is nothing noteworthy about their performance. Mike Trout is a good example of a player whose game has continued to evolve despite putting up excellent results consistently. If you just look in Trout's WAR column it would appear he is just humming along-except for a slight dip this year- but in reality he has been a pretty different player in each of his three full MLB seasons. Different, but similarly amazing.
Luckily, this article is not about Mike Trout. Readers of Beyond the Box Score, or the internet in general, have likely read enough about Trout, at least until MVP discussions get going. Today I mean to examine Aroldis Chapman's transformation from "unbelievable closer" to "guy who deserves a better league to pitch in" this season. It is a transition that has gone unnoticed as he has given the appearance of an elite player simply performing at an elite level.
Chapman's pedestrian save total (28) and garden-variety ERA (2.49) also hide the fact that he is having a rather unbelievable year, at least so far as fielding-independent metrics are concerned. He has excelled even compared to his impressive body work in the MLB. The table below shows all of his fielding-independent numbers since his first full season in 2011.
The FIP of 0.89 is what really sells the 2014 numbers. Of any season in which a pitcher has thrown 40 or more innings since 1950, it is the third lowest total. We only have xFIP going back to 2002, but the 1.14 mark put up by Chapman this year is the second lowest number on record.
While Chapman's career statistics are pretty incredible, he has taken it up a notch this year. One of the ways the Cuban fireballer has managed this feat is by doing something many wouldn't have thought possible: throwing even harder.
Chapman is already known as the hardest thrower in baseball, and velocity tends to decline fairly quickly with age, so it comes as something of a surprise that the 26-year-old has found more zip on his heater this year. The Reds closer was already showing unprecedented velocity before, and it's scary to think that he had another gear. Not only is his fastball faster, unsurprisingly it's also getting more whiffs.
|Year||Fastball Velocity (mph)||Whiffs per Swing|
Chapman's improved velocity helps explain his increase in strikeouts, but there is also another factor in play: the addition of a changeup to his arsenal. Huge small sample size warnings begin to come into effect here as Chapman has only thrown his new off-speed pitch 68 times this season. More than anything else it has just given hitters something else to think about. That being said, so far the results are outstanding.
There are many ways to convey the dominance of Chapman's new change with numbers, but there probably isn't a better one than the following image from Brooks Baseball:
Hitters have attempted to make contact with the changeup 20 times. They have succeeded once. One time a batter managed to line out. That's it.
While it remains to be seen how good Chapman's change can be, or what level of sustained success he can find with the pitch, it is apparent that in 2014 it has helped him have his best season to date.
Aroldis Chapman was already one of the best at his craft coming into the year. This season it appears on the surface that he is just an amazing pitcher posting amazing numbers. A closer look shows that with a more powerful fastball and a devastating new changeup he's turning in a season for the ages. If he can maintain his otherworldly velocity and continue to develop his new off-speed offering, next year could be even better.
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Nick Ashbourne is an Editor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Ashbourne.