Aroldis Chapman Throws Fire in a Sleepy Stadium


“I’m kind of torn,” Fein said. “If we score a bunch of runs here, Chapman won’t come into the game.”

Indeed, with a comfortable margin, the Yankees saved him for another day.

The Yankees have a rich tradition of closers, from Sparky Lyle and Goose Gossage to Mariano Rivera and, since Rivera’s retirement, David Robertson and Andrew Miller, who was the American League reliever of the year last season but was moved out of the closer’s role to make way for Chapman.

But Chapman is unlike them in one respect: Nobody in baseball throws harder.

Chapman, whose fastball was once clocked at 105 m.p.h. when he pitched for Cincinnati, threw the 77 fastest pitches in baseball last season, according to Statcast pitch-tracking data. So when Chapman comes in to pitch, there is a curiosity in observing him do something no one else can do, akin to watching Stephen Curry shoot basketballs.

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Chapman had the 77 fastest pitches in baseball in 2015, Statcast data shows. He may peek at the scoreboard reading, he said.

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Brad Penner/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

When Chapman entered on Saturday to close out the Yankees’ 2-1 win over the Chicago White Sox, the crowd greeted him with its loudest cheers of the day. They roared when he struck out Todd Frazier with a 101-m.p.h fastball to end a tense, eight-pitch at-bat, and did the same when he whiffed pinch-hitter Jerry Sands. The entire crowd rose to its feet when he got two strikes on Brett Lawrie, who flied out to end the game.

Chapman combined with Miller and Dellin Betances to strike out eight of the last 11 batters.

“What did Max Scherzer say the other day? ‘Strikeouts are sexy,’” said Miller, referring to the Washington pitcher who tied a major league record by striking out 20 batters in a game. “Strikeouts are fun. The fans like them.”

It is not just fans who rubberneck toward the scoreboard after each pitch, checking for a velocity reading. His fellow reliever Betances, whose fastball is regularly around 98, was giddy about watching Chapman warm up for his debut on Monday. He said there was wagering over how fast Chapman would throw.

Even Manager Joe Girardi, typically impervious to such frivolousness, acknowledged that he was acting like a fan, checking the scoreboard for Chapman’s velocity.

“His stuff is electric and it’s exciting, and I think people like that,” Girardi said. “I think players are curious on our side, too. It’s not something you see every day, three digits on the board.”

Chapman said there were no radar gun readings on scoreboards in Cuba, but they have been staples at major league ballparks since he arrived in 2010. “Some stadiums, it’s easier than others to see the velocity,” he said through an interpreter. “Once in a while, you might take a peek, but my job is to focus on the pitch and hit the target.”

Chapman has not been infallible in his three appearances. On Monday, Royals pinch-hitter Paulo Orlando ripped a double off him and later scored, though it was on a 90-m.p.h. slider, which may have prompted Chapman to throw nothing but fastballs in the 21 pitches he delivered the next night. He has struck out three of the nine batters he has faced.

But at-bats are hardly considered comfortable.

Chapman shattered Cheslor Cuthbert’s bat with a 102-m.p.h. fastball on Tuesday.

“You just don’t want to make it ugly,” Orlando said. “His fastball is straight, and you can recognize it but don’t have much time.”

When Chapman prepares to pitch, he settles into a familiar routine: He loosens up using surgical tubing to do arm circles, then plays catch with a weighted ball before stepping onto the rubber to begin his warm-up pitches.

Charged with corralling them is Roman Rodriguez, a former minor league infielder who is the Yankees’ longtime bullpen catcher. Unlike Miller and Betances, who can throw fastballs in the upper 90s, Chapman does not slowly build up. He is throwing hard with his first pitch.

“It’s uncomfortable,” said Rodriguez, who wears a mask and shin guards. “If I don’t catch it, it’s going to hurt my body. You have to concentrate. It doesn’t look good if the bullpen catcher goes on the disabled list.”

Rodriguez, as he does with all the pitchers, draws a small circle in the dirt where any bounced pitch lands. He did so with several of Chapman’s on Tuesday. One did not bounce, but sailed past Rodriguez, hitting a padded wall behind him with a thump that reverberated. It was enough for one man, with his young son, to back away from the protective fencing behind Rodriguez.

When Chapman begins to throw in the bullpen, fans seated nearby rise to watch, many taking out their phones to record an intimate view of his fastball where they can hear it pop Rodriguez’s mitt.

“Everybody is so anxious to see him,” said Kirby Yates, a Yankees reliever. “It’s really cool: You can feel the excitement.”

When the Yankees make the final out in the eighth inning, the bullpen gate swings open. Chapman exchanges a fist bump with the bullpen coach Mike Harkey, draws a long swig from a water bottle and walks onto the field. Once he clears the warning track, Chapman spits a stream of water onto the grass and jogs to the mound.

A closer’s entrance has turned into a theatrical production in many stadiums. For years, Rivera entered games to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” When Miller asserted himself as the team’s closer last year, Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” accompanied him. The songs seemed to fit: Rivera for his inevitability, Miller for his ruthlessness with baseball’s second-highest strikeout rate last season, behind Chapman.

Chapman enters to the screaming guitars of Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up,” which segues into the dance-happy “La Gozadera” by Gente de Zona, which features Marc Anthony, whose entertainment agency represents Chapman. The music is accompanied by a video montage of a menacing Chapman with smoke and flames surrounding him. Flames flash on the ribbon board along the facing to the upper deck.

Asked what he thought of the production, Chapman smiled.

“It’s very nice,” he said. “It’s a lot of fire, but I like it.”

While Chapman said he was well versed in tuning out the distractions of the crowd — and the radar reading and the theatrical production — he is aware that he is keeping people in the stadium, and bringing them out of their seats.

“A lot of fans like to see the big number on the board,” Chapman said. “If I can, whenever it’s possible, I like to put on a show for the fans.”

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