The precipice of success for athletes is one of those Wile E. Coyote situations. They're cruising along, all footloose and fancy free, ignorant to the cliff off which they're about to step. The drop is steep and harrowing, the sort that kicks you awake from a nightmare. Only it's not a cartoon.
Aroldis Chapman's(notes) freefall lasted nearly two months. He forgot how to throw a ball over a 17-inch-wide, house-shaped slab of white rubber, and while that's a minor inconvenience for most, it's Chapman's job. The Cincinnati Reds left-hander has been in the major leagues for less than a year since defecting from Cuba and signing a $30 million free-agent deal, and all he did in his debut season was throw the fastest pitch in baseball history at 105.1 mph.
Aroldis Chapman stares at the mound on May 10 in Houston. He walked three batters without recording an out.
His follow-up has been as deflating as his rookie year was entrancing. For eight weeks this year, he continued to fire a ball harder than anyone. He just didn't know where it was going.
"Everything was wrong," said Chapman, back in the major leagues, cured, for the time being, of what ailed him. "For a little while, I didn't know what was going on."
Sometimes it disappears. That's all Chapman can say. Sometimes the best athletes with the most transcendent skill sets simply forget how to do what they do so well. Control never was one of Chapman's fortes. Not back in Cuba, where he turned pro at 17, nor during his brief minor league stint last season, where the Reds shifted him from starting to the bullpen because they worried he couldn't throw enough strikes to last much beyond the fifth inning.
This, on the other hand, was a disaster of inconceivable proportions, among the worst three-game stretches ever from a pitcher – so bad it sent Chapman to the disabled list with shoulder inflammation, which really was the Reds' way of sparing him the embarrassment of a straight-up demotion.
Over that trio of games in May, Chapman faced 11 batters. He walked nine, hit one and recorded one out. Eight scored. He threw 54 pitches, and 41 missed the strike zone. Of the 13 strikes Chapman threw, none were swinging, perhaps the scariest number for a pitcher who generated swings and misses on nearly a quarter of his pitches in 2010. His month ended with eight straight balls that greased his track to the DL.
Baseball knows this affliction. Steve Blass. Mark Wohlers. Rick Ankiel(notes). Dontrelle Willis(notes). Right now, the Minnesota Twins' first-round pick last season, Alex Wimmers, can't throw a strike, and nobody knows why. Call it Steve Blass Disease or The Thing or whatever cute name sounds right. It cripples careers, and it strangled Chapman in May.
When the Reds suggested he try to take velocity off his fastball for the sake of command, he chafed. Chapman, after all, is the guy who registered vanity plates for his Lamborghini and Mercedes that said MPH102 and MPH101. He takes pride in his fastball the same way a fighter does his haymaker, and even if it misses, it's such a part of who he is Chapman seems disinclined to compromise.
"I don't have any issues with my speed," he said. "My speed is not a problem. When I had the problems, I told myself I could reduce the speed to get better. I found out that was wrong. I don't have to take anything off my speed. It's the other way around. I have to keep up my speed to be effective."
In his first two games with Triple-A Louisville, Chapman allowed seven runs in 3 2/3 innings. The Reds sent him to Double-A Carolina and tried to fix his mechanics. Chapman doesn't think there was a problem with them. And if it wasn't mechanics and wasn't an injury, it leaves two possibilities: bad luck or doubt infecting his performance.
The demotion, Chapman said, hurt. "I don't think anybody," he said, "wants to be down there." His performance reflected it until the end of his 30-day rehabilitation, at which point his strike-throwing abilities materialized.
"It came back," he said. "I'm glad it came back."
In six one-inning stints since returning, Chapman has struck out 12, allowed two hits and, best of all, walked just one – Baltimore's Mark Reynolds(notes), 10th in the major leagues in bases on balls, on a 3-2 pitch. Erase May and Chapman's bloated 5.21 ERA turns to 1.45.
Aroldis Chapman picked up the first save of his career on July 6 in a 13-inning win over the Cardinals.
He even picked up his first career save Wednesday night, possibly the first of many. Closer Francisco Cordero's(notes) contract expires after this season, and the Reds' hope that Chapman could grab the reins may play itself out in the second half. Though sources said Chapman still aspires to start – incentives in his contract reward him better in the rotation than the bullpen – the prospect of unleashing an inning's worth of fury does have its appeals.
Just look at Wednesday's win against St. Louis. The Reds, struggling to stay at .500, blew an eight-run lead. They stole the lead back in the top of the 13th inning and gave the ball to Chapman, the last reliever in their bullpen, to finish the game. He threw 13 pitches. Twelve were fastballs. And while they hovered around 97 and 98 mph – his velocity on the season is down almost 2 mph from last season – the bullet Chapman unleashed from his spring-action delivery on a 1-2 pitch to Jon Jay(notes) registered at 100.5 mph.
It wasn't 105.1 mph, wasn't even the numbers Chapman celebrated on his luxury cars. It was a perfect pitch, a belt-high, glove-popping morsel of unfairness that sliced a piece of the outside corner. Jay stared at it. What else could he do?
Aroldis Chapman, disease in remission, Thing in its cage, was back, for another game at least. He knows what looms within. It scares him. It would scare anyone. Chapman said he isn't sure he can throw a fastball 105.2 mph, and frankly, right now, he really doesn't care.
Everything was wrong. He's content to savor it when it's right.