GOODYEAR, Ariz. – Two years into the Aroldis Chapman experiment and it's still just that: an experiment, full of potential and pratfalls, of amazing moments and even more confounding ones. The hypothesis was that the Cuban kid who throws a baseball harder than anyone alive, and maybe anyone ever, would be a star. And he may yet be. For now, he remains little more than an enigma wrapped in a Cincinnati Reds uniform.
Chapman threw three decidedly un-Chapman-like innings Wednesday against the San Diego Padres. For one, he started the game. And he pounded the strike zone. Plus he unleashed a split-fingered fastball nobody has seen since he defected. Offsetting those three pluses was the velocity on Chapman's fastball: between 92 mph and 95 mph, a staggering dip from the 105-mph fastball he uncorked against the Padres as a rookie and even a steep decline from the 98 mph he averaged as a reliever last season.
"And there were a lot more 92s and 93s than 95s," said one scout seated behind home plate.
"It's a simple thing," he said through interpreter Tomas Vera. "It's more important to keep the control and command than the speed."
Such dichotomies cleave Chapman's career and have come to define it. Is he content to be the fastest ever or someone willing to sacrifice that which defines him – see the license plate on his Lamborghini that reads "105" – to throw strikes? Is he a starter or reliever? Is he the 6-foot-4, 220-pound specimen capable of taming his great gifts or the guy whose supposedly smoothed-out mechanics Wednesday looked to scouts an awful like those of his past, from the double-clutch hitch upon his pivot to the unfurling of his right leg that resembles a fire hose tensing up when it becomes turgid with water?
Take, too, the Reds' frustration with Chapman. They guaranteed him $30.25 million in hopes he would evolve into the next Randy Johnson, who harnessed his stuff mid-career and became one of the greatest pitchers ever. The raw talent is there. The personality – the prickly intensity common among so many great pitchers – is not.
The Reds' handling of Chapman is beginning to resemble Joba Chamberlain 2.0. He came to camp in February intent on starting, a switch the Reds supported even after Chapman shook off a temporary loss of control and demotion to finish 2011 with 56 strikeouts and a 2.43 ERA over his final 37 innings. And now, although he has walked just one and struck out seven in as many innings as a starter, the Reds are talking about moving him to the bullpen because … Bill Bray is hurt? Seriously? Yes, the Reds have five starters in Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake, and Bray is a valuable left-handed reliever, but to continue to waste an arm like Chapman's in the bullpen without even giving him a fair shot to start reeks of short-sightedness, self-preservation and all of the other things teams do when winning now supersedes all.
[ Rewind: Chapman's 106 mph fastball was likely bogus ]
"I've always been a starter and I always like to be a starter," Chapman said. "Right now, here, I'm looking to be a starter. That's what I'd like to do."
Should Chapman tick his fastball velocity up a couple miles per hour and master the splitter – a notoriously difficult pitch to command – his potential as a starter is almost limitless. According to the PITCHf/x data on FanGraphs, no left-handed starter in the major leagues throws a splitter. It's the domain of only two lefty relievers, Colorado's Matt Reynolds and San Francisco's Jeremy Affeldt, and the data isn't sure whether to classify their pitches as changeups or splitters. The split-change – an easier-to-throw hybrid of the two – is a common enough go-to pitch today (Tim Lincecum and Ubaldo Jimenez, among many others, use it) that it's likely other lefties throw a changeup with downward action like the split. Just not to complement a fastball that tickles 100 mph.
When Chapman arrived, the Reds told him to pocket the splitter for a rainy day. This offseason qualified – they wanted him to stretch out his arm in winter ball, but a tender shoulder ended that idea – and out it came. Another scout liked its late movement but said it's far too inconsistent to use as more than a show-me pitch. As long as he's a starter, Chapman will keep throwing it and tinkering with a changeup taught to him by new Reds closer Ryan Madson.
In Cuba, when a teammate tried to teach Chapman a new pitch, he viewed it skeptically. Borne of the authoritarian government that will punish anyone who tries to defect, the prevailing mindset in his homeland is one of paranoia – of, in that case, someone trying to screw with him in order to take his spot. It's a sad sort of life – the mistrust, the anxiety, the fear and how such a concoction conspires to turn even the strongest person's head to mush.
Chapman still hasn't fully escaped it. He left behind a pregnant girlfriend when he defected. His daughter, Ashanti, turns 3 on June 28. He still has not met her. He cannot return home to see them anyone – not now and maybe not ever. And he acknowledged Wednesday what manager Dusty Baker told reporters earlier in the day: Cuba continues to haunt him.
"I had a lot of problems with my family in Cuba," Chapman said.
Vera admitted, "that's something we've been avoiding to talk [about] for the last year and a half." Neither he nor Chapman would give details, though a source said the problems involved the potential defection of family members to the United States.
If Chapman can get past those issues, perhaps this is the year those dichotomies gravitate toward one side and answer the hypothesis. The Chapman who signed was a 21-year-old unwilling to eat anything other than steak. He's 24 now, more cultured, still a little too laissez-faire for the Reds' tastes, ready to start, happy to throw strikes, hopeful the missing velocity returns, on the cusp of being whole.
No matter how tough to see, there's still a star in there. Somewhere.
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