He’s like the best pitcher in Little League, blitzing fastballs past hitters who are pretty sure they never saw them.
Sprinkling in changeups that disappear in midair.
Spinning sliders that dodge every bat in their path, kinda like Professor Philip Brainard after he invented Flubber.
He’s Aroldis Chapman. And he’s having one of those seasons, a season that really should not be possible -- or even legal -- in a place we like to refer to as “the major leagues.” Basically, we could sum up that season this way:
He. Strikes. Out. Everybody.
Yeah, well, in truth, if you want to get all technical on us, Chapman hasn’t exactly whiffed every hitter he’s run into this season. But our response to those of you who would make an issue of that sort of thing would be this: He’s sure come closer than any pitcher who has ever lived.
He’s averaging just a tick below two strikeouts an inning. At his current pace, he’ll wind up the season with 101 strikeouts -- and 23 hits allowed. And never at any point has he had a stretch this season where he’s gone more than seven hitters without a strikeout.
“He’s on a different planet,” said his catcher, Devin Mesoraco.
“It’s not fair,” said the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen.
“Scary,” said the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter.
And one more thing: It’s getting downright historic. So let’s take a look at the insane season of the amazing Aroldis Chapman through the eyes of his teammates, the hitters and the hard-to-fathom numbers on his stat sheet.
Where do we even begin? Well, let’s start by reminding you that, among all pitchers who have ever thrown more than six innings in a season, there has never been a smokeballer in history who averaged two strikeouts per inning.
But with 89 whiffs in 45 2/3 innings this season, Chapman is just about there. That comes to an unfathomable 17.54 strikeouts per nine innings, a ratio never before accomplished and barely even approached. The current record: 16.66, by Craig Kimbrel in 2012.
OK, how about some other crazy numbers:
• Chapman has faced 173 hitters this season, and struck out 89 of them. That comes to 51.4 percent. Of all the other pitchers who have ever reached a mound and worked at least 40 innings, only Kimbrel (50.2 percent two years ago) has ever had a season in which he whiffed half the hitters he pitched to.
• Then there’s Chapman’s ridiculous strikeouts-to-hits ratio. He’s currently at 89 K’s, 20 hits, which comes to 4.45 strikeouts for every hit. Seriously. Only two other pitchers in history have even topped 3.5: Kimbrel, of course, in 2012 (4.30) and Eric Gagne in 2003 (3.70).
• And this stuff goes on every game, you understand. Chapman just ended a streak of 49 consecutive appearances with a strikeout. He’s the only reliever in history ever to have a streak that long. And that was the second time in his career he’s ripped off a streak of 30-plus. No other reliever has ever had more than one streak of 30 or more. He’s also racked up at least two strikeouts in 32 of his 45 appearances, including six in a row, eight of his last 10 and 15 of his last 22. And he hasn’t gone whiff-less in more than two consecutive appearances at any point since (ready?) May 5-15, 2011. That was 222 outings ago.
• Oh, and one more thing: Remember three weeks ago, when Chapman faced four hitters in Colorado, walked them all and exited with shoulder soreness? That’s a sign of impending disaster for some people. It was just a blip on this guy’s radar. In the six outings since he came back, he has faced 27 hitters, striking out 15 of them.
In a season that hasn’t exactly been one long trip to the Comedy Works for the Reds, Chapman has been the No. 1 source of amusement for his teammates. All they have to do when they need a laugh is look into the opposing dugout when he stomps into the game.
“You can see it on guys’ faces,” said his third baseman, Todd Frazier. “They couldn’t get one run to tie it in the eighth. Now they’ve got to face him. It’s kind of demoralizing if you want to know the truth.”
The heat is on
If baseball had never discovered the invention of the radar gun, Chapman's legend might be very different. But whatever. We’ve never, ever seen a radar-gun phenomenon like this dude. And now we have the mind-blowing numbers to prove it.
• According to TruMedia, Chapman has launched 413 of his 809 pitches this season at 100 mph or faster. That’s 86 more triple-digit pitches than all of the other 679 men who have taken a big league mound this year have thrown combined. (In second place is Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera, who’s a mere 323 behind, with 90.)
• OK, let’s keep going. TruMedia tells us Chapman has hit 101 mph or higher 253 times this season. No one else has done it more than 15.
• Want to move the needle up to 102? Chapman has hit 102 or better 111 times. Totals for the rest of the sport: zero.
• He’s also reached 103 or higher 23 times and 104 once, according to TruMedia. And there hasn’t been a game all season where he hasn’t hit 100 at least once.
• Then there’s Pitch F/x, which computes Chapman’s average fastball velocity at 101.21 mph -- the highest by any pitcher in the eight seasons since Pitch F/x has been keeping track. And on Aug. 28, he topped out at 104.53 mph on a scorchball to Paul Goldschmidt, who, somehow or other, foul-tipped it (before, naturally, striking out three pitches later).
Now maybe we make too much of velocity in general. But, um, not in this guy’s case. Heck, even the hitters are up there checking the mph readings. Asked if he ever sneaks a look at the radar board when he’s facing Chapman, Matt Carpenter confessed: “Yeah. I look to see if it’s 104.”
When we laughed, Carpenter made it clear he was serious about that 104 stuff, because “I’ve seen it. I’ve watched him do it.”
“And the worst feeling,” Carpenter said, “is when he throws one and you foul it off, and you go, `Oh man, that was hard.’ And then you look up and you go, `Oh no, it’s 99.’ And you’re like, `Oh no. There’s more there.’”
But that’s the thing. There’s always more there, because it’s not merely how hard Chapman throws a baseball. It’s the way hitters react to it.
“We were talking about this the other day, me and a couple of other guys,” Carpenter said. “There are guys that throw 100. But then there are guys whose 100 miles an hour looks like 125. And that’s what his is like.”
Not that anyone is really sure what 125 truly looks like. But whatever it looks like, Chapman’s catcher concurs that even at these supersonic velocity levels, it feels faster than what the radar board is saying it is.
“You know, you see some guys throw it 98 or 99, and you say yeah, that’s good,” Mesoraco said. “But Chappy’s 98, 99, 103, whatever it is, it’s just different. It’s gets on you a little bit better. He’s got that big leg kick and motion, and a lot of action. So you don’t really see the ball all that well. So he’s just a different animal, that’s for sure.”
A change is coming
But now the truth can be told. It isn’t even the fastball that has caused Chapman’s strikeout numbers to explode this year. It’s his rapidly accelerating feel for his two “off-speed” pitches: the slider and changeup.
The hilarious part of using the word “off-speed” to describe those pitches is that they average 89 mph themselves. But the effect isn’t much different than if they averaged 59. Take a look:
• Here is how hitters have fared against his slider this season, according to Pitch F/x: 90 swings, 43 misses, three hits. So that’s gone well.
• And now here’s the havoc wreaked by his occasional changeups: 20 swings, 19 misses, zero hits. That’s a whiff rate of (cue the laugh track here) 95 percent!
Now these are major league hitters, remember. Not guys who got dragged in off the deck of one of those riverboats out beyond center field. And they don’t have a prayer against those two pitches, because they’re too busy gearing up for 104 mph.
“You know he can throw that fastball,” Frazier said. “But once he figured out that slider and changeup this year, it’s become a whole 'nother ballgame.”
The Aroldis 3-D experience
So now that we’ve broken down what’s made this man’s season the incomprehensibly dominating phenomenon it’s become, let’s get down to the real fun and put the entire experience of facing Aroldis Chapman in full perspective.
For the hitters, it’s about as fun as gall bladder surgery.
Asked to describe what it’s like to try to hit this guy, Andrew McCutchen replied: “I would say, I guess, it’s like trying to catch a fly. You see the fly coming. And you try to catch it. But somehow you don’t. That’s kind of the way I look at it.”
And by “a fly,” by the way, he wasn’t referring to a “fly ball,” obviously.
“No, I mean an actual fly,” McCutchen chuckled. “A bug. A really fast one that hasn’t eaten anything in a while. That’s all I can tell you. Just picture it coming dead at you. So you try to catch it. Next thing you know, you look at it, and it’s not there.
“But sometimes you might,” he went on. “I mean, you might catch it. So that’s kind of the way I look at it. You know the math and all that. When you’ve got a 90 mph fastball, you’ve got four-tenths of a second to be able to hit it. But he’s throwing 101. And he’s 6-6. So you might want to cut that in half. So it’s tough, man. He definitely throws hard. And now he’s throwing sliders and changeups. That should be illegal.”
And that’s coming from a man who has actually avoided the standard levels of embarrassment against Chapman by going 2-for-6, with three whiffs and a walk, against him.
Then again, McCutchen isn’t left-handed. Carpenter, on the other hand, keeps forgetting to learn to switch-hit before facing Chapman. And he isn’t happy about it. He’s 0-for-4 with three strikeouts against him, if you’re scoring at home.
Asked for his best description of what it feels like to dig in against Chapman from the left side, Carpenter came up with the perfect word: “Scary,” he said. “As a left-handed hitter, that’s the best way I can describe it, is just scary. He coils up like a snake, and he throws 100 miles an hour, and it just seems like it’s going to be right by your face. And it might be. He’s a very intimidating presence on the mound. It’s hard to hit, man. It really is.”
No wonder his teammates remain seriously grateful this is everyone else’s problem, not theirs.
“It’s just unbelievable, just to see how he owns that mound and how he understands, `Nobody is going to hit me,’” said Todd Frazier. “He’s determined. He’s not scared of nothing. He’ll come inside if he feels like you’re crowding the plate, back you off a little bit and then come back over, and guys are stepping in the bucket because they don’t want to get hit.”
He then paused for a moment, trying to find a way to sum up what those happy feet of left-handed hitters can look like after Chapman has just pushed them off the plate at like 102 mph.
“It’s like quicksand or something,” he said, finally.
Hey, of course it is, because when you’re facing the one and only Aroldis Chapman, even the ground beneath your quivering feet can’t help but feel a little quicker than normal.