Commentary

Aroldis Chapman still a phenomenon

Reds left-hander expected to begin 2011 in bullpen, throwing his high-octane fastball

Originally Published: February 19, 2011
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Most of Aroldis Chapman's Cincinnati teammates savor a special memory from his first big league season. Maybe it was the buzz that enveloped the crowd when the bullpen doors swung open and he took the field for his first career appearance, against Milwaukee in August. Or it might have been the sense of shock and awe he elicited every time the number "103'' flashed on the scoreboard in recognition of his fastball.

Todd Frazier, a Triple-A outfielder in the Reds' system, has a more tangible reminder of Chapman's coming-out party. During an intrasquad game last February, Chapman lost his grip on a fastball and hit Frazier flush on the inside of his right leg. Frazier later found out that pitch registered at 96 mph on the radar gun.

A year later, the welt has faded, but the memory is as fresh as the sensation of horsehide boring into flesh. Thanks to his first professional encounter with Aroldis Chapman, Todd Frazier knows what it's like to play the lead role in the reality show "Survivor: Goodyear.''

[+] EnlargeAroldis Chapman
AP Photo/Mark DuncanAroldis Chapman threw a pitch that was recorded at 105.1 mph last season.

"It felt like somebody shot me in my knee,'' Frazier said. "The next day, there was a 5-inch circle and it was about four or five different colors. I'm lucky he was just getting loose in the spring. Otherwise it probably would have gone right through my leg.''

A year ago, Chapman arrived in Arizona with a blessed left arm, a $30.25 million contract, and a story filled with emotion, international intrigue and a little baseball thrown in for effect. He defected from Cuba during an international tournament in the Netherlands in July 2009, made a pit stop in Andorra, and overcame any personal reservations to embrace a new life far from his family, his girlfriend and their baby daughter.

Amid the hype, the Reds resisted the temptation to rush Chapman to Great American Ball Park to stoke ticket sales. They sent him to Triple-A Louisville, where he struck out 125 batters in 95 2/3 innings to earn a late-season promotion to the big club.

This spring, Aroldis-mania endures. With apologies to White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez, there's only one "Cuban Missile."

Before Cincinnati's pitchers and catchers held their first workout Thursday, manager Dusty Baker heaved an exasperated sigh and spent 12 minutes answering Chapman-related questions. Then the Missile sat down with seven or eight reporters, and his interpreter, Louisville trainer Tomas Vera, laid out the ground rules: There would be no questions about Cuba, Chapman's personal background or the circumstances surrounding his defection.

The interview conditions were understandable given Chapman's concerns for his family's welfare back in his native land. But the reminder also was needless, because the baseball world now is less interested in Chapman's past than his future, and the magical places his fastball can take him.

Bit by bit, Chapman is providing glimpses into his personality. As it turns out, he's a Univision junkie, with an interest in five or six Spanish-language soap operas and a firm grasp of the characters and various plotlines. He also has expanded his horizons beyond Cuban food and developed a fondness for hearty American fare. Frazier, who played with Chapman in Louisville, confirms that the pitcher attacks a postgame spread at a velocity well in excess of 100 mph.

"It's unbelievable,'' Frazier said. "He kills the food. He's like a horse. He gobbles anything he sees, and he doesn't gain a pound.''

Chapman, 22, is also sporting a new adornment on his left wrist this spring. It's a tattoo of a baseball with a trail of flames and the inscription "105.1 MPH,'' in honor of the pitch he threw to San Diego outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. in late September. That's the fastest speed yet recorded by Pitch f/x technology.

Only a handful of young pitchers in recent memory have possessed the attributes necessary to inspire a "mania.'' Mark Fidrych, Fernando Valenzuela and Dontrelle Willis captured the public's imagination with their exuberance and charm. Chapman, like Stephen Strasburg, is more a product of the Dwight Gooden school: He is quiet and reserved by nature but captivates with his freakish gifts. He has extraordinarily large hands, an angular frame, and the arm speed and deception to dominate hitters and make bat speed seem almost irrelevant.

Chapman spent a month in the majors last year and threw 13 1/3 innings for the Reds. According to the 2011 Bill James Handbook, he led the National League (and ranked third in baseball behind Detroit's Joel Zumaya and Oakland's Henry Rodriguez) with 84 pitches clocked at 100 mph or more. Bobby Parnell of the Mets was second in the NL with 27.

"You don't see any fear in his eyes,'' Reds pitching coach Bryan Price said. "He doesn't back down from anybody. You'd think, 'Well, the guy throws 100 miles an hour -- why would he back down from anybody?' Well, you'd be surprised. There are hard throwers out there who don't like the ball to be touched and pitch away from contact.''

Over the long term, the Reds think Chapman has the potential to be an excellent starter, but he's in the bullpen now out of convenience. The Reds already have six or seven starters competing for five spots. Chapman serves a valuable role as a power lefty reliever now that veteran Arthur Rhodes has left Cincinnati for Texas through free agency, and he can continue to learn and adjust without feeling the weight of the team on his shoulders.

As long as Chapman is throwing aspirin tablets in the 'pen, some Reds watchers are bound to clamor for him to take the closer's job from Francisco Cordero. Baker is doing his best to kill the debate before it gets rolling.

"One thing I want to squash right now is there is no closer situation controversy,'' Baker said. "I know everybody wants to be in a hurry to rush [Chapman] in there, but we have to get him acclimated to what he's doing.''

Chapman will continue to mix in a changeup here and there, because he'll need the pitch again soon enough if he ever returns to the rotation. But Price and Cincinnati's catchers, Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Hanigan, keep telling Chapman that it's all about power and taking a simple approach. That means using the entire plate to throw strikes early in the count, rather than aiming for the corners and falling behind. Most hitters can't catch up to Chapman's fastball. And when the count is 0-1, 0-2 or 1-2, they're almost helpless against his power slider.

Chapman is a challenge for Cincinnati's catchers as well as opposing hitters.

Dusty Baker He's a fine young man, but he's still a mystery to us a little bit.

-- Reds manager Dusty Baker on 22-year-old pitcher Aroldis Chapman

"He's so long in his delivery and his body type, it just adds to the deception,'' Hanigan said. "He throws the ball hard, and you have to be ready back there. You can't settle in at all, ever. You have to be up for every pitch, every time, because he's not going to be forgiving if you get complacent at all. His ball is not straight. He'll run it and cut it accidentally. It gets real hairy.''

There's zero resentment or eye-rolling in the Cincinnati clubhouse in response to all the attention Chapman is receiving, because he's a good kid who works hard and is deferential to the veteran players. Last year, Cordero and starters Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto routinely took Chapman to dinner and tried to ease any sense of personal isolation he might be feeling.

When Baker traveled to Cuba during the offseason as part of a diplomatic excursion, he had the Missile on his mind. When he wasn't giving his son and daughter a lesson on the Bay of Pigs invasion, Baker was picking up some jazz music and photographs to bring back to Chapman. Baker developed a fascination for Cuba through his friendships with Paul Casanova, Tito Fuentes, Pedro Ramos and other Cuban big leaguers, and he hopes it helps fill a void with Chapman that might be only 90 percent bridgeable.

"He's a fine young man,'' Baker said, "but he's still a mystery to us a little bit. You're curious about his background, but you don't want to pry. I know he must be homesick some, because it's a beautiful place to be homesick about.''

Does that air of mystery contribute to the fascination surrounding Chapman? Not as much as the gun readings. There were 19,218 fans in Cincinnati for Chapman's major league debut against the Brewers, and Price remembers gazing out from the dugout and seeing most of the fans out by the bullpen when Chapman was warming up. Then Chapman entered the game, and the crowd relocated en masse to the seats behind home plate.

"It was a phenomenon,'' Price said. "He would hit 99 [on the gun] and it would be quiet. With anybody else in our rotation, people would be out of their seats. With Aroldis, it was a disappointment.''

Baseball history shows that supernovas flame out sometimes. All Chapman needs to do is look at the neighboring locker and see Willis, who is 29 years old and trying to make a comeback with his fourth organization in nine months.

If hard work, dedication and a high-octane fastball can shift the odds in his favor, Chapman is determined to try. He doesn't provide much of a window into his soul. But what he says, he says with conviction.

"I think this year is going to be a lot better for me,'' he declared through his interpreter.

The Missile launched in Cincinnati late last summer. Now we'll see how long he can stay airborne.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer