Saturday, October 29, 2016

Unhittable? Aroldis Chapman and His 105 M.P.H. Fastball By Tyler Kepner

CHICAGO — Aroldis Chapman threw 13 pitches in his World Series debut on Wednesday in Cleveland. The fastest was clocked at 102.5 miles per hour by Major League Baseball’s Statcast radar gun. The batter, Coco Crisp of the Indians, put it in play.

Nothing much came of it, just a routine groundout to second base. But it underscored the fact that even Chapman, the closer for the Chicago Cubs and the hardest-throwing pitcher in the majors, cannot get hitters to swing and miss on command.

“This is the big leagues,” Chapman said in Spanish. “These are the best in the world. Everyone is prepared, and everyone can hit.”

The Cubs have gone 108 years since winning the World Series, and the Indians have gone 68. One team will soon break a so-called curse, but no player has yet broken the game. Some nearly did before steroid testing, when home run records fell, but no batter has come close to hitting .500 in a full season. And no pitcher has thrown hard enough to be purely unhittable.

Chapman came to the majors from Cuba in 2010 and was an All-Star four times for Cincinnati. He started this season serving a 30-game suspension as the first player disciplined under baseball’s domestic violence policy. The penalty stemmed from an episode in which he fired gunshots into his garage wall after a dispute with his girlfriend.

When he returned to the mound, Chapman resumed his usual dominance, with a 1.55 E.R.A. for the Yankees and the Cubs, and 14 strikeouts per nine innings.

Of his 26 pitches in the regular season that reached at least 104 m.p.h., just one was a swinging strike. Eleven were balls, 10 were fouls, two were called strikes and two were put in play — one for a single by Pittsburgh’s Francisco Cervelli, and the other for a groundout by Baltimore’s Ryan Flaherty, who said there was no way to prepare for a pitch that fast.

“You can’t even find a pitching machine that goes up that high,” Flaherty said. “There’s not much processing that speed. You find yourself swinging way before you normally do. You just start early, get going, try to pick up the ball. It’s milliseconds.”

Yet Flaherty, a .216 hitter in five major league seasons, was able to turn on a 104.9 m.p.h. fastball and make contact. Weak contact, yes, but contact just the same.

The Hall of Famer Ted Williams — the last player to hit .400, in 1941 — believed that hitting a baseball was the hardest thing to do in sports. Hitting a pitch moving at 104 m.p.h. would seem to add another degree of difficulty. But for professional hitters, it is essentially a job requirement.

“I played in the minor leagues; I hit .220-something and now I’m a coach,” said John Mallee, the Cubs’ hitting instructor. “I never had trouble hitting the fastball.”

For most hitters who fail, the reason is something else: poor strike-zone judgment, susceptibility to breaking balls, inability to handle the mental rigors of a game that usually favors the pitcher. But simply being unable to catch up to the fastball? That weeds out amateur players, generally not the pros.

A well-located fastball remains the best pitch in the majors — but the adjective is important. A pitcher who can spot his fastball can get ahead in the count and bait hitters with pitches off the plate, where it is much harder to do damage. No pitcher can rely on velocity alone, a statement widely accepted as fact but still rather astounding.

“The difference between a 102-mile-an-hour fastball and a 92-mile-an-hour fastball, in reaction time, is four and a half feet,” said Ty Van Burkleo, the Indians’ hitting coach. “That’s a lot. It’s unbelievable, because physiologically, the eyes can’t physically track the ball. You get an image in your mind that you think you see it the whole way, but the brain maps it for you.”

Van Burkleo, who had five major league hits in 15 professional seasons, smiled.

“Hitting a baseball’s incredible,” he said.

So it is, and it is worth emphasizing that many fastballs simply overpower hitters, even without excessive movement or a deceptive delivery. But hitters have a way of adapting.

Chase Headley, the Yankees’ third baseman, struck out four times in his first six career plate appearances against Chapman. But in their seventh encounter, in 2014, Headley guessed that Chapman would come up and in with a fastball. He did, and Headley hit a game-winning home run.

A well-located fastball remains the best pitch in the majors — but the adjective is important. A pitcher who can spot his fastball can get ahead in the count and bait hitters with pitches off the plate, where it is much harder to do damage. No pitcher can rely on velocity alone, a statement widely accepted as fact but still rather astounding.


Chase Headley, the Yankees’ third baseman, struck out four times in his first six career plate appearances against Chapman. But in their seventh encounter, in 2014, Headley guessed that Chapman would come up and in with a fastball. He did, and Headley hit a game-winning home run.
Chapman strides so far that he releases the ball nearly a foot closer to the plate than the average pitcher, adding perhaps another mile an hour of perceived velocity to his pitches. In his brief minor league career, groundskeepers would sometimes complain; Chapman stretched his front leg so far that when his back foot swung around, it would chop up the grass in front of the mound.

Bryan Price, Chapman’s former pitching coach and manager with the Reds, would marvel at the way Chapman bunched his 6-foot 4-inch, 215-pound frame, gathering his weight on his back leg, then uncoiling and launching at the hitter.

“You’re really seeing the transition of energy and power from the inside of his left foot running right up his body, all the way through to his hand — and then it’s just a lightning bolt into the catcher’s glove,” Price said.

“It’s a phenomenal thing to watch. To see a guy that’s bumping 102, 103, 105 — there is a different look to it. There’s a different hand speed, a quickness to the hand and the arm. Every bit of his energy is behind every one of those 100-plus fastballs.”

One thing that helps the hitter, said the Mets’ Neil Walker, is that Chapman has a long arm swing. A hitter can see the ball, at least at the start, and then commit to a certain location. If Chapman throws it there, the hitter has a chance.

Walker is 4 for 10 in his career off Chapman by taking that approach, but the hits are hard-earned. If the human arm has another gear beyond Chapman’s, Walker said, he will leave it to the next generation to handle.

“At what point is it just not possible?” Walker said. “I have no idea. It can’t go up too much more. I feel like we’re getting pretty close to the physical limits, but maybe not. I’m glad I’m 10 years into my career now and I’m not gonna see what comes next, because it’s no fun.”

NYT

No comments:

Twitter Updates

NetwokedBlogs

Search This Blog

Total Pageviews