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Is Aroldis Chapman the greatest left-handed reliever ever?

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There are at least two fans he hasn’t won over.

Cleveland Indians v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

My parents don’t like Aroldis Chapman. They’re devout Yankee fans, but every time he enters the game, they expect him to blow it. Whenever he fails to record an immaculate inning, they cry out with exasperation. “Here we go again!”

Mind you, there are perfectly legitimate reasons to dislike Aroldis Chapman. He was suspended 30 games in 2016 under MLB’s domestic violence policy for firing a gun eight times in the vicinity of his girlfriend. He apologized for using the gun, but not for the psychological terror he surely inflicted. I, too, dislike Aroldis Chapman.

While my parents don’t condone domestic violence in any capacity, they also dislike him for baseball reasons. This seems curious to me, given that Chapman has been one of baseball’s elite relievers since his 2010 debut. In fact, his 2019 season has been as fantastic as ever. By fWAR, he’s tied for third-best among MLB relievers with 1.9. His 2.54 DRA is sixth-best (min. 25 innings).

Low Contact

The key to his success has never been a secret. He’s one of the most difficult pitchers in baseball to hit. He strikes out 34.8 percent of opposing batters. This is tied for 15th best in MLB, but it’s actually down from his career 41.0 percent rate. Still, his hard hit rate and xwOBA are 90th and 95th percentile, which indicate how difficult it is to make contact against him.

Where he has thrived this season is avoiding the long ball. Seemingly every other pitcher in the game surrenders absurd amounts of home runs, but Chapman has been tagged just twice this year. He’s one of just six qualified relievers with two or fewer home runs allowed. (Kirby Yates and Brandon Workman have only one each.)

The Heat

Another non-secret is the reason why he’s been so successful: his overpowered fastball. Since 2010, 153 pitchers have eclipsed 100 mph at least once. 23 have done it 100 times. Jordan Hicks is second with 865 pitches north of 100 mph. Chapman has thrown 2,959 of them! There have been 76 pitches ever clocked at 104 mph or greater; 64 of which came from Chapman’s left arm.

This season, his heater averages 97.9 mph, and topped out at 102.7. Batters have a .313 xwOBA against it (as per Statcast), but its primary function is to set up his devastating slider. Opponents have just a .227 xwOBA versus the slider, and whiff 42.7 percent of the time.

Here’s the fastball in action:

...and the slider:

Best Ever?

Chapman is unarguably a unique pitcher in the annals of baseball. He throws harder than anyone, and more prolifically than his closest competitors. His career 14.8 K/9 is an MLB record (min. 300 innings). His 2.00 FIP is third-best, trailing Rube Waddell and Ed Walsh— both of whom retired more than 100 years ago.

He’s dominated baseball to such an extent that he might actually be the greatest left-handed reliever in baseball history. In fact, he has very little competition for that title. The seven relievers in the Hall of Fame are all right-handed. The only pitcher worthy of comparing is Billy Wagner.

Wagner threw 903 innings over 16 seasons from 1995-2010, most notably for the Houston Astros. He recorded at least 10 K/9 in every full season of his career, even though strikeouts were a bit less prevalent back then.

Chapman, 31, will finish this season with somewhere around 540 career innings. He has a few years ahead of him to catch Wagner in terms of quantity, but his quality is already superior. His 48 FIP- (adjusted for era) is the best in baseball history. Even if he regresses a little at the end of his career, he has a comfortable lead over Wagner’s 63 in eighth place.

Career FIP- Leaders (min. 300 IP)

Pitcher IP FIP-
Pitcher IP FIP-
Aroldis Chapman 528 48
Craig Kimbrel 547 53
Dellin Betances 381 54
Ken Giles 333 56
Kenley Jansen 596 56
Rob Dibble 477 60
Mariano Rivera 1284 62
Billy Wagner 903 63

We’ll see how Chapman declines, but he certainly appears to be making a case to be the first lefty reliever in the Hall of Fame. That’s a conversation for at least ten years down the road, and it’s possible Wagner beats him there (though unlikely with 16.7 percent of last year’s vote). Whether or not he makes it, he’s at least earned that conversation.

No Respect

Odds are, you haven’t learned too much in this article that you didn’t already know, or at least suspect. Every baseball fan knows Chapman is an elite reliever with the hardest fastball ever witnessed— including my parents. So why don’t they like him?

While advanced metrics like xwOBA and FIP- give accurate descriptions of a pitcher, sometimes the traditional stats can give insight as to how that pitcher is perceived by fans. Chapman leads the AL with 35 saves, but he’s tied for second with five blown saves among pitchers who have been closers all season. Maybe those five meltdowns burn a deeper memory than the 35 successes.

From the department of unreasonable standards, he has allowed at least one baserunner in 36 of his 52 appearances this season. That’s actually way better than most pitchers, but still more than half. He’s usually protecting a slim lead in the ninth inning, and many of those baserunners put the tying or winning run in the batter’s box.

Perhaps it’s because he wears pinstripes. After all, Mariano Rivera just became the first ever unanimously elected Hall of Famer. Yankees fans were spoiled for years by Mo, and there could be an element of lingering lofty expectations for the current closer.

Maybe the problem is larger than Chapman. Is it possible that no fanbase actually likes their closer whatsoever? It’s hard to picture Padres fans being upset with Kirby Yates, for example, but if Chapman can draw ire in spite of his brilliance, every closer seems susceptible to derision.

Chapman has two years remaining on his contract, but he can opt out this winter and test free agency. Maybe he will and maybe he won’t. Should he leave, Yankee fans such as my parents will soon discovery that he’s not so easy to replace. There’s no pitcher quite like him— now or ever.


Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. Tweets @depstein1983.