CINCINNATI -- Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman is learning the important things in the minor leagues -- how to control his pitches and how to order a meal in English.
The better he gets, the closer he gets to the big leagues.
The left-hander has reached 103 mph with his fastball while pitching for Triple-A Louisville, the place that the Cincinnati Reds felt was the most suitable to begin his season of adjustments. The 22-year-old had a lot to learn when he signed a six-year, $30.25 million deal in January.
He gave his best performance yet on Thursday night in Louisville, allowing only three hits in five innings and striking out seven in a 6-0 win over Gwinnett.
"He's maturing and developing with his command [of pitches] and learning the intricacies of the game that he needed to learn," general manager Walt Jocketty said. "He's also getting more accustomed to living here in the United States. That was a big part of it."
The Reds weren't sure where Chapman fit when they signed him. They left open the possibility that he could make the rotation out of spring training, knowing it was a long shot. Back spasms in March sidelined him for a few days and ended his chances of heading to Cincinnati.
Instead, he's been learning a new country, a new language and, in many ways, a new game with the Reds' top farm club, less than a two-hour drive away. He's been overpowering at times. Other times, he shows that he needs a lot of work before he's ready for the majors.
So far, he's making progress.
"I think everything has been excellent," Chapman said, with trainer Tomas Vera translating. "The adjustment has been easy. I've got a good relationship with my teammates. I have a good relationship with the organization, with the people that surround me. Everything has been excellent. Everything has been good for me."
He has to work on getting deeper into games.
The fastball is never a problem, hitting 100 mph from time to time on the radar gun at Louisville Slugger Field. He's trying to get his slider and changeup sharpened. He also needs to put batters away more quickly. High pitch counts have limited his starts to an average of five innings. In nine games, he has lasted six innings only one time.
Chapman is 5-2 with a 3.55 earned run average. He has pitched 45 2/3 innings, struck out 55 and walked 25. He tends to go deep in counts to batters -- he needed 90 pitches to get through five innings on Thursday.
"He only walked one, but he had a lot of three-ball counts," Louisville manager Rick Sweet said. "He had better command, probably, than in most of the games he's had. He pitched well, mixed his pitches well. I was very pleased with the use of his changeup and breaking ball."
His worst start was May 14 at Rochester, where he gave up nine hits and six runs in five innings. In his two starts since, Chapman has gone 10 2/3 innings without allowing a run, giving up only six hits while fanning 14. His last start was pushed back three days after he developed a blister, which turned out to be no big problem.
He hit top speed right away, a difference from his other starts.
"At the beginning of the game, I wanted to be at the top of my speed," Chapman said. "I want to use my speed at the beginning of the game and after that, I did what I was told to do. So I started mixing up my pitches and I started using more breaking pitches."
The Reds view Chapman as a long-term investment, so they're willing to be patient with him this season and let him develop at his pace. He wasn't considered when the Reds needed a pitcher to replace the injured Homer Bailey -- Sam LeCure was promoted instead and won his debut on Saturday night.
How close is Chapman to consideration for a promotion if another pitcher is needed?
"I think he's pretty close," Jocketty said.