Aroldis Chapman is staying with the New York Yankees’ deep bullpen, but were the Bronx Bombers right to bring him back?
Instead of opting out of the five-year, $86 million deal he signed in December 2016, the Cuban Missile instead signed a one-year, $18 million extension. Chapman will now be a Yankee through 2022 and would have left $30 million on the table had he opted out.
But was it the right move? After all, Chapman’s ninth-inning struggles advanced the Houston Astros to the World Series and sent New York packing. Moreover, in two of the last three years, he has missed time with injuries.
Oh, and what of the Yankees’ deep bullpen? No disrespect to Chapman, but it’s not as though the relief corps would be lost without him.
Thus, let’s take a look at Aroldis Chapman’s extension and determine if the Yankees made the right call in keeping him.
The good news about Aroldis Chapman’s extension is it leaves minimal questions for the Yankees bullpen. He will once again assume ninth-inning duties and the bridge to him will consist of Zack Britton, Adam Ottavino and others. If imposing righty Dellin Betances returns in free agency, New York’s bullpen truly is a fire-breathing dragon worthy of Daenerys Targaryen herself.
Moreover, as far as closers go, the Yankees are pretty lucky to have Chapman. He has 273 career saves, 111 of which have come in pinstripes. In 2020, he’ll have the opportunity to get his 300th save while wearing a Yankee uniform and potentially punch a ticket to Cooperstown.
Chapman also can still touch 100 miles per hour with his fastball and is plenty intimidating to most hitters. He’s also no slouch in October, having been an integral part of the Chicago Cubs’ 2016 run to the World Series. Chapman also owns a 2.45 career postseason ERA, including a mark of 1.67 as a Yankee.
For a team whose goal next year (and for the foreseeable future) is to win a World Series, an arm with Aroldis Chapman’s velocity can prove invaluable. $18 million is a lot to give a closer, but Chapman has proven his worth.
But speaking of Chapman’s velocity, it’s slowly but surely leaving him. He’s still young and will be just 32 years old on Opening Day 2020, but isn’t exactly a spring chicken either.
This can be best seen in Chapman’s slow decline in fastball velocity. Per Fangraphs, Chapman’s average career velocity for the pitch is an impressive 99 miles per hour. This is still a far cry from when the tall lefty set a record with a 106-mile-per-hour pitch with the Cincinnati Reds in 2011, but still good.
But Chapman’s average fastball velocity dipped to 98.4 last year, and he also threw the pitch a career-low 68.8% of the time. Meanwhile, his slider usage was at a career-high 31.1%.
And why this sudden change? Well, since Cubs manager Joe Maddon overused Chapman in the 2016 World Series, it’s taken the closer some time to bounce back. He missed time in 2017 with shoulder trouble and struggled to the point of losing his closing job for a short time. In 2018, a balky knee kept him out of the All-Star Game and he also missed a month of action.
The point is as Chapman has aged, his velocity has slowly dissipated. This isn’t to say it’s abandoned him completely, as he hit 104.4 miles per hour last year. However, the increased use of a secondary pitch is necessary.
Now, consider how pitchers today are extreme creatures of habit. Just the smallest adjustment can throw them off. In Aroldis Chapman’s case, he often has trouble with walks, posting nearly four per nine innings last year.
He’s no longer as lights out as he once was and in close games, this could come back to bite the Yankees.
A crowded bullpen
And what of the plethora of elite arms the Yankees have in their bullpen? Had Chapman opted out, it’s not as though New York would have been desperate for a closer.
For example, setup man Zack Britton was the Baltimore Orioles’ closer for years and had 47 saves with an eye-popping 0.54 ERA in 2016. He is also a groundball machine and posted a flyball rate (FB%) of just 9.5% in 2019. Chapman’s, by comparison, was 29.8%.
And who’s to say the aforementioned Betances, who faced just two batters in an injury-riddled 2019, wouldn’t finally step into the closer’s role? Adam Ottavino or Tommy Kahnle would also be more than capable of handling closing duties.
Aroldis Chapman is easily one of MLB’s elite closers. However, given the Yankees’ plan to pursue right-handed ace Gerrit Cole in free agency, it’ll be a bad look if their deal winds up exactly $18 million short.
All in all, the Yankees are ultimately better off with Aroldis Chapman than they are without him. His velocity is going down, but he’s still capable of reaching back for some of the hard stuff.
As for the rest of the bullpen, the Yankees have options in case Chapman is out for whatever reason. Hindsight being 20/20, the extension was probably more about not letting a rival team scoop him up.
The walks will be nerve-wracking. The flyballs could result in more than a few three-second heart attacks. Following Altuve’s walk-off blast, not even trusting Chapman in the playoffs is safe.
But the Yankees know what they have in Aroldis Chapman is special. Knowing GM Brian Cashman, there was no way he would just let Chapman walk. It’s a lot of money to spend on a closer, but Chapman was going to get paid regardless. Better for him to be overpaid in New York than by another team, especially a potential playoff foe.
An $18 million extension is a lot to give a closer, but Aroldis Chapman is a special case. He commands respect on the mound and is rarely ever frazzled.
It isn’t a perfect deal, but count on Chapman to make it worth New York’s while.