By Jacob Westendorf
The New York Yankees came into the year looking to have one of the best bullpens in the history of the sport.
That was probably a little optimistic considering how bullpens work, however that unit is loaded.
The man heading up the back of the bullpen was embattled closer Aroldis Chapman.
During his career, Chapman has been one of the best relievers in the history of the sport. That’s not hyperbole. That’s fact.
Last season, however, Chapman struggled. He was removed from his closer role during the initial season of his 5-year $85 million contract.
Chapman’s velocity was not the issue. He was still regularly pumping fastballs in excess of 100 MPH.
He struggled with his control during his slump. Eventually, Larry Rothschild along with Chapman changed the grip of his fastball. That allowed him to regain his effectiveness.
He was the Yankees closer for the final two months of the season. He was one of Girardi’s most trusted relievers when they got to October.
This season it appears Chapman has attempted to evolve a bit.
The biggest different in Chapman’s game is his slider.
Chapman essentially abandoned the pitch when he was was struggling. That was due to both a lack of control and overall ineffectiveness.
At the height of Chapman’s slump last season he was only getting 3.87 of horizontal movement on his slider. That is by far the lowest of his career.
Essentially his slider was a hanger anytime he threw it. The only reason it would be effective is because of the velocity on his fastball. His slider was more of a bad change up.
Something was different in late March of this season. Chapman looked different. That’s because he was.
His slider was devastating in his early season appearances. He got a horizontal movement of 7.01 on his slider.
That’s devastating for a hitter. They already have to cheat looking for 100 MPH on a fastball. Getting a slider that would move out of the zone would make Chapman the unhittable force that he was before coming to New York.
That would be a boon for the Yankees’ bullpen that features a lot of hard throwers, but only David Robertson features a breaking ball that can lock up opposing hitters.
Dellin Betances used to have a breaking ball like that, but he has struggled to find that early in the season.
It’s also a help to the Yankees because it makes Chapman less one dimensional. As we all saw last night, Rafael Devers was sitting dead red on a fastball looking to tie the game.
Chapman got ahead of him with two sliders before blowing him away with a fastball. It’s that sort of pitch selection that makes things even harder on opposing hitters.
Chapman will likely be effective all season. His dominance, however is tied to the pitch that is not his calling card. He needs his slider to continue early season trends.