Aroldis Chapman's fastball has been a big national story from the day he was signed. I remember watching an appearance he made in San Diego late last summer, where the crowd would ooh after every fastball he threw, pause, and then ooh again, ooh louder, when the velocity flashed on the scoreboard. It was in that game that Chapman threw the fastest fastball in recorded history.
Gifted with an arm capable of living in the triple digits, Chapman was superb after coming up last season, and heading into 2011, the Reds viewed him as an unhittable shutdown reliever. He shook off a rough spring to pitch well in his first three appearances, but since then, something's gone wrong. He's struggled with his control, and his fastball hasn't had the same pop. Chapman's made six appearances on the season, and in the following table you can see his average fastball velocity in each, courtesy of MLB Gameday's PITCHfx data:
Chapman was his normal self early on, but something happened between April 9th and 10th that crippled his velocity, and it hasn't returned in subsequent games. The Reds are now reportedly going to shut Chapman down for a few days to see if he's simply battling fatigue, or something more sinister. The hope is that Chapman's just tired, but any time you see a guy simultaneously lose his velocity and control, you worry. After throwing 69% strikes in his first three games, he's dropped all the way to 47% in his last three.
That Chapman is struggling and possibly injured is troubling enough for a Reds team with high hopes. But more troubling still is Chapman's attitude about the whole thing. Writes Mark Sheldon:
"Chapman said he was OK, which is what they say in Cuban baseball," Baker said.
[Catcher Ramon] Hernandez and Chapman had a heated conversation in the dugout. Hernandez said Chapman was mad at him for having him taken out of the game.
After Chapman threw some uncommonly slow pitches on Wednesday, Hernandez called for the trainer and the pitching coach, who came out and then removed Chapman from the game. Chapman, it seems, didn't think much of the idea.
Chapman's a stubborn, macho kind of guy, and while insisting on pitching through discomfort or ineffectiveness is by no means unique to the Cuban, if anybody should be on high alert, it's him. He throws harder than any other pitcher in the world, so it follows that he probably puts more strain on his body than pretty much any other pitcher in the world. Therefore, he has to be aware when something isn't right, and more, he has to be forthcoming about it. Chapman's a high-risk pitcher, and he can't just act like nothing's wrong if something seems wrong. That's how a guy gets himself into major trouble.
Even if Chapman isn't hurt now, even if this is all just fatigue, one has to wonder about the next time something like this comes up. Even if Chapman's arm feels fine today, what if it doesn't feel fine in a month? In a year? Will he be open about it, or will he try to grind things out and risk severe injury? That Chapman argued with Hernandez in the dugout after Hernandez was simply looking out for his pitcher seems to suggest that getting any honesty out of Chapman would be like pulling teeth.
Based on his recent results, Aroldis Chapman might be hurt. Even if he isn't, though, one almost gets the sense that he's like a bomb without a timer. His numbers will give the Reds some warning of when something's not right, but unless Chapman's willing to be truthful, he's going to make things hard on his team and, ultimately, hard on himself.