BOSTON – What’s wrong with Aroldis Chapman?
That was the $ 86 million question engulfing the Yankees after the former All-Star closer’s latest meltdown led to a crushing 5-4 giveaway loss to the Red Sox on Friday night at Fenway Park.
The answers haven’t exactly been clear cut or easy to pinpoint right now – not from manager Joe Girardi or from pitching coach Larry Rothschild or from the hard-throwing Cuban lefty himself.
“We can make a big deal out of this, but he wasn’t hit hard,” Girardi reasoned on Saturday about Chapman’s most-recent poor performance, which included two infield singles, a double steal, an error by second baseman Ronald Torreyes, an intentional walk and a walk-off free pass to Andrew Benintendi.
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“When you think about it, two balls in the hole,” Girardi continued. “Yes, I know he didn’t get the strikeouts. But really what added to that inning was he allowed that stolen base. That’s what created the inning for them. Because then he gets a double-play ball and maybe Torreyes turns it, who knows?…Some of it’s bad luck, but obviously shorter counts and using all of his pitches will help.”
Indeed, Chapman threw 23 pitches among the five batters he faced, nothing but fastballs, and even reached as high as 102 mph on the scoreboard radar gun. Of his 11 strikes, however, Chapman generated only one swing-and-miss, which might be the more alarming concern.
“You have to mix your pitches, but part of it was (the fastball is) what he has the most confidence in. He wasn’t ahead in a lot of counts, he wasn’t, so you have to get ahead so you can use all his pitches,” Girardi added. “I think when it’s only one speed, yes, the lack of swings and misses comes into play because they’re longer at-bats, and (the hitters) get used to the velocity, in a sense.
“And I think players are getting more used to that type of velocity anyway because everyone has them now, those type of pitchers. Some of them have two in the bullpen.”
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The Yankees obviously are one of those teams with multiple high-velo relievers, and Girardi contends “it was a step in the right direction” that All-Star setup man Dellin Betances fanned three batters in Friday’s eighth inning following a few weeks of his own wonky command problems.
The manager also made the needed decision in revealing that struggling Tyler Clippard finally has been dumped from the seventh-inning role, with Adam Warren and impressive Chad Green (five strikeouts in two innings Friday night) to see increased responsibilities in the latter innings.
Still, following his World Series run with the Cubs after a deadline swap last summer, Chapman was brought back as a free agent (five years, $ 86 million) as the highest-paid closer in team history – yes, even more than the incomparable Mariano Rivera ever earned.
And the fading Yanks, losers of 19 of 26 through Friday, have little chance to hang around the playoff fringes with him pitching like he’s been since returning from the disabled list (rotator-cuff inflammation) in mid-June.
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In his last dozen appearances, Chapman has registered just one save with two blown opportunities. He sports a 7.71 ERA, with 21 base runners allowed (16 hits and five walks) in his last 9.1 innings of work.
“I think there’s a little difference in the command of the ball right now. It’s more sporadic than I saw last year,” said Rothschild, who couldn’t offer a reason why. “That’s a tough one to say. Delivery-wise things are fairly similar. There are a few little things. Since he’s been hurt earlier, it looks like the arm’s working pretty well again. It’s maybe not quite the same. I think he’s healthy, but I think he’s still catching up a little bit.”
Regardless of the raw numbers, something definitely seems different between last season and this season. And Chapman indicated after Friday’s loss that he planned to review videos from when he was more successful to pinpoint the problem.
“We’re trying to put our finger on it, too, just like everyone else,” Girardi said. “I don’t see a huge drop-off in velocity, I don’t. So to me, I think it’s just making better pitches.”
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Don’t forget, there also is Chapman’s heavy usage late last season and through October by Chicago manager Joe Maddon to consider. Is this simply the residual effect and part of the tradeoff for the Cubs going all out for and winning their first World Series title since 1908?
“You know, I think sometimes guys from one year to the next, if you’re used more and it’s a longer season, sometimes you do see that,” Girardi said. “But that’s sometimes the cost of going a long ways and making it to the playoffs. It’s just the extra wear and tear, and sometimes it does catch up to you the next year. But we knew that going in.”
For now, all Girardi and the Yankees can do is continue sending Chapman to the mound and ask him to be honest about his health afterward.
That’s right, the other $ 86 million question.
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“That’s the first question I’m asked all the time. Is he OK physically?” Girardi said. “Usually when a pitcher’s not OK physically you see a drop-off in velocity. We’re not seeing that. To me, it’s just him being sharper. And probably maybe the best way is to continue to get him work and get him sharper. Not overwork him, but to get him work so he gets a good feel again.”
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