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Game 5 of the NLCS took 4 hours and 16 minutes, although you could have fooled me.
Taking in the game at a bar, with some friends, a burger, and more than one Miller Lite, things just sort of breezed by – especially after a five-run eighth inning.
In fact, I was enjoying the Cubs’ then-six-run lead so much, that I simply … turned a blind eye to whatever Aroldis Chapman was doing with his inning of work.
By the time the inning finally ended, Chapman had given up two runs on two hits and a walk, while striking out none of the six batters he faced.
Was it just a case of Chapman getting his work in? Was another non-save situation giving him fits (stop getting such big leads, Cubs!)? Those are things I told myself then, but I’m not so sure of that now. In fact, I think there’s a pretty clear explanation for his relative struggles, and I don’t think it’s the kind of explanation that’ll ease your mind.
Earlier this week, Sam Miller wrote an excellent article at ESPN entitled “Surprise! Aroldis Chapman isn’t as unhittable as you think,” which you should absolutely read, like right now. Don’t be nervous, though – not being as unhittable as you think (when you think someone is extremely unhittable) is actually quite the compliment, and, for the most part, that’s how the piece plays out. The rub, however, is that there’s one glaring, convincing, and statistically-supported scenario in which Aroldis Chapman becomes downright human.
Getting behind in the count.
Okay, if your first reaction is anything like mine, you might have been unsurprised to learn that Chapman’s numbers drop under the same circumstances as just about every pitcher in the history of baseball, and, to an extent, you’re right. But, I’ll bet you’ll be surprised to learn just how crucial that first pitch strike is to the Cubs’ rent-a-closer.
To keep things relatively simple, Miller broke down Chapman’s career OPS against into three categories: 1) Batter Ahead, 2) Even Count, and 3) Pitcher Ahead. Compared to league average, you’ll find, the difference between Chapman ahead in the count and behind is disturbing:
- Batter Ahead: .911 OPS
- Even Count: .419 OPS
- Chapman Ahead: .244 OPS
I’ll do the math. The difference between Chapman being ahead in the count and behind in the count is .667 points of OPS; whereas, the same difference league-wide is .453 points of OPS (.516 OPS to .969 OPS). Clearly, Chapman is better than the league-wide pitcher in any count, but he also gets appreciably more (negatively) affected by a ball or two. The reason for this, as Miller explains, is that the frequency with which Chapman goes to his slider when he’s ahead in the count is much greater than when he’s behind. When he’s behind, hitters are almost certain to see a fastball, and, even at 100+ MPH professional hitters can handle it when they know it’s coming.
Broadly, this is a story for another time, but let’s refocus on how this played out last night.
In his one inning of work, Aroldis Chapman allowed 2 earned runs on 2 hits, and 1 walk. He did not record a strikeout (in his 59 appearances out of the pen in 2016, he failed to record at least one strikeout just seven times). So, was he getting behind the count? You betcha. Let’s go through his at-bats in order, one-by-one, to see the affect of the starting count on the outcome of the at-bat.
- Adrian Gonzalez: 2-0, Walk
- Yasiel Puig: 2-0, Single
- Joc Pederson: 0-2, Groundout
- Josh Reddick: 1-0, RBI Single
- Andrew Toles: 1-0, RBI Sac Fly
- Justin Turner: 0-2, Groundout
Well, shoot. In literally all six of Chapman’s ninth-inning at-bats, Miller’s analysis holds true. In the four counts he was behind (Gonzalez, Puig, Reddick, and Toles) the batters achieved a favorable outcome: walk, single, single, sac fly. In the two counts he was ahead (Pederson, Toles), Chapman got groundouts.
And, to really hammer it home, Toles’ sac fly out came off the bat at 104 MPH and traveled 334 feet. In other words, he didn’t miss it by much.
So what does last night mean for the Cubs going forward? Well, outside of stressing the importance of that first pitch strike, nothing, really. Chapman is still an extremely formidable closer – albeit one with an achilles heal – and won’t be losing that job anytime soon (rightfully, I might add). We’ll just have to pay extra close attention and hope he gets ahead in the count. Because if he doesn’t, well, you know what can happen.