The words coming out of pinstriped mouths Saturday sounded made for a horror film coming to a theater near you (post-vaccination):
“That’s gross right there. Wow.” — Aaron Boone
“Watch out!” — Justin Wilson
“I expect the usage to go up exponentially this year.” — Mike Harkey
Alas, for better or worse, the only potential frights will come from the opponents who, already on alert for Aroldis Chapman’s 100-plus miles per hour fastball and nasty slider, now must contemplate whether a “split-change” is headed their way.
The Yankees’ defeated the Pirates, 7-5, on Saturday at George M. Steinbrenner Field, as DJ LeMahieu singled and homered, Aaron Hicks singled and doubled and Corey Kluber grinded through some traffic over four innings of work. Then Chapman came in for the fifth, coincidentally the moment that Boone piped in for the YES Network, and that’s how the manager shared his real-time feelings as Chapman got Pittsburgh’s Troy Stokes Jr. to swing through his newest pitch, 87 mph with the string pulled from it.
This development serves as the latest reminder that the closer Chapman, no matter that the Yankees’ last two postseason runs ended (literally in 2019, effectively last year) with home runs he surrendered, remains among the elite at his position.
“I still feel like he’s a dominant force in the league,” Boone said of Chapman following the game.
“Guys that throw that hard, you don’t need much off-speed,” new Yankee Darren O’Day said. “Chappy’s trying to get better, and that’s the sign of a great player.”
Chapman, 33, posted a 3.09 ERA in 11 outings during the 2020 campaign that was shortened by the novel coronavirus, generally, and delayed for Chapman, specifically, as he contracted the disease last July. He pitched three times last October, totaling 4 ⅔ innings, and allowed just one run, which happened to be the last run the Yankees allowed before their elimination. Mike Brosseau’s solo, eighth-inning blast in American League Division Series Game 5 broke a 1-1 tie, advanced the Rays to the AL Championship Series and gave the undrafted Brosseau some karmic vengeance against Chapman after an ugly regular-season skirmish prompted by Chapman throwing behind Brosseau.
The prior season, you surely recall, Chapman surrendered a walk-off two-run homer to Jose Altuve, who may or not have been wearing a buzzer that alerted him to the incoming slider, in ALCS Game 6 to instantly advance the Astros to the World Series. Those were the only two runs Chapman allowed in those playoffs over four games and 5 ⅓ innings.
“It’s not been a case where he’s been hit around,” Boone said. “It’s just the nature of the beast sometimes. Especially when you’re going up against a guy like him, it’s tough to string them against him. You’ve got to run into it.”
The ramp-up of the split change (Chapman threw three during the regular season last year and at least one in the playoffs) will theoretically make it tougher for hitters to run into anything. “I’ve seen him throwing it when the pitchers are playing catch,” O’Day said. “Poor (Luis) Cessa has to try and catch it. It turns from a catch into a game of fetch.”
On Wednesday, following his first outing of the spring, Chapman said through an interpreter of his latest pitch, “I’m feeling really, really good with it.”
“It’s something that certainly will play for him in the immediate,” Boone said, “but I think something that will allow him to, as he gets to the second half of his career, be something that keeps him dominant moving forward.”
Camp has proceeded pretty smoothly for the Yankees so far, pitching question marks like Kluber and Jameson Taillon offering encouraging results, Gary Sanchez and Gleyber Torres looking far better after poor 2020 campaigns and Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton staying healthy. Maybe it can add up to Chapman getting a little room for error come the big October action, or perhaps the new pitch will make Chapman even tougher and less vulnerable to someone running into one of his offerings.
For now, though, the sneak preview of the splitter-change generates buzz. Stay tuned to find out whether it’s worthy of the hype.