What we must remember about this most magnificent season of Aroldis Chapman, among the greatest a relief pitcher ever has offered – better than Mariano Rivera's best as a closer, superior to any in Trevor Hoffman's oeuvre, almost certainly tippity-top since Tony La Russa redefined the modern bullpen in the late '80s – is that it almost didn't happen.
In early April, Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker faced a win-win decision with Chapman: starter or reliever. During spring training, Chapman transitioned nicely to the rotation, throwing not the otherworldly triple-digit figures for which he had become famous – he paid homage to his record fastball with a license plate on his Lamborghini that reads MPH 105 – but reasonable mid-90s funk that still flummoxed hitters. Baker, no stranger to controversial decisions, returned Chapman to the bullpen anyway, in part, he explained, because he worried about his left-handed depth. There were concerns, too, about Chapman's ability to handle the mental rigors of starting, the downtime that might send him toward a path of fast cars and women and problems. Chapman does nothing half-throttle – including, it turns out, pitching the ninth inning.
Baker moved him there May 20, and no matter the inefficiency of saving a pitcher for an inning as opposed to a situation, Chapman stands alongside Braves reliever Craig Kimbrel, his equal in nearly every statistic but innings, as Kings of the Closers. Chapman doesn't just own the ninth inning. He pwns it, his life an ever-evolving meme of weird robberies and somersaults and dangerous driving.
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And strikeouts. Lots and lots of strikeouts. One hundred twelve in 63 innings after his latest two appearances, both without a K, only the third and fourth time in 59 appearances this season that has happened. Chapman's strikeout rate is an even 16 per nine innings, just below the 16.1 per nine Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen threw last season to set the all-time record for pitchers with at least 50 innings. Between that and the walk rate that has cratered from 7.4 per nine last year to 2.1 this year, and Chapman has earned mention among the all-time seasons of 1990 Dennis Eckersley, 2006 Jonathan Papelbon, 2008 Rivera and the gold standard, PED-influenced though it may have been, Eric Gagne's 2003.
Chapman's opponent's batting average of .137? Third-best ever, behind 1999 Billy Wagner (.135) and '03 Gagne (.133).
The .205 OBP against? Fourth, next to 2007 J.J. Putz (.202), '03 Gagne (.199) and '08 Mo (.190).
The slugging percentage of .219? Fifth, alongside 2006 B.J. Ryan (.214), '99 Wagner (.212), 1967 Ted Abernathy (.202) and '03 Gagne (.176).
Because managers wouldn't dare push a modern reliever to the triple-digit innings mark, Chapman's place of value among the all-time relief seasons is suspect. Baseball-Reference.com, for example, assigns Chapman 3.4 Wins Above Replacement this season, a number that ranks 147th among relief seasons. Most of those at the top, like Goose Gossage's 8.1-win 1975 season, are the result of huge innings totals. FanGraphs, the other repository for WAR, looks more favorably on Chapman's season, giving it 3.5 wins – good for 25th on its all-time reliever list.
Chapman says he's unaware of any of the numbers, though based on his license plate that sort of copout may just be his way of deflecting credit and genuflecting to his peers when in reality they're the ones in awe of him.
"I feel proud about myself," Chapman said through his interpreter, Tomas Vera. "In the short time I've been here, since I came from Cuba, I've done all this. It feels good. That's all I can think.
"There are a lot of relievers out there. A lot of good ones. I don't consider myself to be the best. I don't consider myself better than anybody."
His competition this year is Kimbrel, who is short, stocky and right-handed, the patent opposite of Chapman's tall, lithe left-handedness. The strikeout numbers are almost dead even (Chapman's 16 to Kimbrel's 15.89) as are the walk numbers (2.14 to 2.30) and the home run rates (.43 to .38). Kimbrel induces more groundballs and allows fewer hits. His 1.15 ERA beats Chapman's 1.29 (even though Tampa Bay closer Fernando Rodney's 0.77 beats both).
And yet the innings difference – 63 for Chapman, 47 for Kimbrel – must matter, and in the Cy Young chatter, it has. Chapman's name has surfaced. Kimbrel's hasn't.
The likelihood of either emerging with it is minimal. Only nine relievers have done it, the last of whom was '03 Gagne, who went 82 1/3 innings, struck out 137, walked 20, had the .376 OPS against, sported a 1.20 ERA and saved 55 consecutive games. It was a Bonds-level performance in more than one way.
While Chapman may not be able to do that, he has positioned himself to have an all-timer of a season. Baker isn't gloating, per se, but when he talks of Chapman's season, he makes sure to remind: "And it was with much opposition, I might add."
The funny part is, that debate isn't dead in Chapman's mind. He always preferred starting. He was a starter in Cuba. Starters make more money. He is reaching silly apexes of success as a reliever this season – one 29-inning stretch to start the season without allowing an earned run, another 22 2/3-inning scoreless streak that spanned the end of June through the middle of August – and it's not that he can't find satisfaction in it. Chapman enjoys it. He just appreciates the alternative.
"I don't know because I like both," he said. "I'm happy being a reliever, but I can tell you: I don't know what's going to happen in the future. I don't know if it's going to be settled like that because I like both."
Whatever happens, Chapman will make news. It's what he does. He's a 24-year-old with among the most gifted arms ever and a wild streak that runs in tandem. He throws hard and he strikes guys out and he drives fast and he parties and he may start and he may close. And he's got that rarest-of-rare qualities for a baseball player: No matter what he does, you'll be watching.
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