ST. LOUIS – No rookie is immune from the pink backpack, not even the one with the $30 million contract and the shiny Lamborghini and the biggest fastball anyone can remember seeing. Aroldis Chapman(notes) is the greatest thing since … well, since Stephen Strasburg(notes), which doesn't constitute a whole lot of time, but whatever. Greatness can't spare Chapman from carrying a bag covered in pastels and princesses.
It is also filled with sunflower seeds and gum and drinks and candy, and because he is a rookie and the youngest player among Cincinnati Reds relievers, it is Chapman's duty to haul the sack to the bullpen before every game no matter how silly it looks. And it looks downright ridiculous, the long, lithe Chapman with a knapsack meant for a teenage girl strapped across his back.
Well, yeah. Anyone would take the fastball that topped out at only 103 mph Saturday afternoon – and a legit 103, not one of those radar-gun-on-steroids specials prevalent in baseball stadiums across the land. On Chapman's fourth pitch, against the woefully overmatched Aaron Miles(notes), he contorted his body through an ever-unique delivery, whipped his left arm and saw the digits light up on the scoreboard at Busch Stadium.
They also registered on the radar of a scout sitting in Section 150, Row 11, Seat 8. He looked at his gun and looked at the scout next to him, who saw the readout and said: "One. Oh. Three." Somehow, he turned each number into a multisyllabic word.
What Chapman has done over his first three major league appearances – fill the hype vacuum vacated by Strasburg's Tommy John surgery, and fortify a Cincinnati team already running away with the National League Central, and, fine, dutifully transport his teammates' sundries to their desired location – portends for plenty more over the next six seasons. When the Reds emerged as the surprise winner of the Chapman free-agency derby, questions emerged on both sides. Was he really good enough for a $30.25 million deal with escalators that could make it worth more? And were the Reds, a franchise that hadn't made a postseason in 14 years, really the team with which he wanted to spend the next six years?
Yes and yes, it turns out, and it leaves the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox and all the other teams that passed on Chapman full of lament. Whether those franchises were gun-shy from other failed international free agents – Kei Igawa(notes) might be the worst free-agent signing in history, and Daisuke Matsuzaka(notes) is not a $100 million pitcher – is immaterial. Chapman was always unique, and even if it took a few months of seasoning in Triple-A, always worth the risk. His outings are events, his presence invigorating, his fastball unfathomable.
In his second appearance, Chapman really did hit 104 – or, if to-the-tenth accuracy is necessary, 103.9. That was the speed when the ball left his hand. It crossed the plate at 96.4 mph. The supposed hardest pitch ever, a 104.8-mph fastball from the Tigers’ Joel Zumaya(notes) in the 2006 postseason, crossed the plate at 93.7 mph.
Chapman's fastest fastball Saturday afternoon beat that, leaving his hand at 102.6 mph and leaving Miles' vibrating at 93.8 mph. He also threw an 88.5-mph slider, which was 0.1 mph quicker than a first-inning fastball thrown by Reds starter Travis Wood(notes).
"It's a lot of fun when you've got him on your team," Cordero said. "I enjoyed watching Strasburg with the Nationals. Anytime you see a guy like that, as a pitcher, those guys especially, are special to see. You're not going to see this every day. You're not going to see this every year."
You're not going to see this every decade, either, and frankly, you may not see this every century.
"As a kid, I never saw it, but I always heard about 'Bullet' Bob Feller," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "He was the first guy I heard of throwing 100. … The radar guns are probably a lot more sophisticated and accurate now, but 100 is 100. I just want 100 in the strike zone."
That's the scary part about Chapman: He's finally finding the plate, harnessing his stuff, all at 22 years old. The Reds are just starting to find out what they can do with Chapman. In a few weeks, they might try pitching him on back-to-back days in preparation for the playoffs. They could stretch him out to throw two innings at a time. Whatever the scenario, the scrutiny will increase markedly: Not only will Chapman be a rookie cog similar to Francisco Rodriguez in 2002 with the Angels and David Price(notes) in 2008 with the Rays, he'll do so a little more than a year after defecting from Cuba.
"I feel ready," he said, "to face that kind of situation."
And though the St. Louis Cardinals resemble a team on cardiopulmonary bypass, Saturday's game was on national television, and it did allow Chapman the opportunity in the eight inning to face the world's best hitter: Albert Pujols(notes). When he connected with a Chapman fastball, the world, thankfully, did not spontaneously combust. The ball dribbled toward third base to start a 5-4-3 double play and spirit Chapman through another scoreless inning.
It ended his night after 15 pitches, 10 of which were triple-digit fastballs. He shrugged off the significance of triumphing over Pujols. It was as though Aroldis Chapman were saying, "There will be plenty more of those to come." With every outing, every 100-plus-mph pitch, it's getting tougher and tougher to doubt the man in the pink backpack, the one changing the game every time he pitches.