6/27/2014 12:52 P.M. ET
Aroldis has courage to match his otherworldly fastball
After a horrific Spring Training injury, Reds closer has come back better than ever
By Phil Rogers / MLB.com
You hear a lot about five-tool players, but some of the best have a sixth. They're fearless.
Nothing gets to them on the field, no matter the game situation or their personal circumstance. They deliver consistently high-quality results no matter what is happening in their world. They've got guts, courage or whatever word you'd use to describe extreme mental toughness.
These days, is anybody showing it more than Aroldis Chapman?
Drilled in the face by a Salvador Perez line drive on March 19, Chapman went down in a heap on the mound, his future as out of focus as the vision in his left eye. He required surgery in which a titanium plate was inserted above his left eyebrow, and he missed the first six weeks of the season.
There was never really a question about whether Chapman would return. But how would he pitch? Would Chapman be able to ignore the certainty that there would be more line drives hit back toward him on the mound?
After all, the situation was so ugly at the time that after Chapman was carted off the field at Surprise Stadium, the game never resumed. Bryan Price, the Reds' manager, said that no one on the field could find it in their hearts to keep playing. Jay Bruce called it "the most frightening thing I've ever been a part of."
It would only be natural if Chapman was a little bit gun shy when he put his uniform on again.
But the way Chapman is pitching is beyond natural. It's almost supernatural.
Chapman, who nailed down his 15th save in 16 chances on Thursday night in San Francisco, is not only pitching better than he ever has, he's pitching better than anyone in Major League Baseball. Price can only marvel at how his Cuban closer has piled up 44 strikeouts against only seven walks in 22 innings, holding opposing batters to a .137 average.
"None of us could anticipate what it would be like to be in that situation and come back and rejoin the competition at this level of play," Price said. "He's done it without a hiccup. … There's been no reluctance on his part to compete. That in and of itself is pretty special."
There's only one thing Chapman has trouble doing -- that's discussing the incident. He is declining interview requests on the subject, a policy he might have difficulty maintaining if he is selected to the National League All-Star team.
That was surely the last thing on Chapman's mind when he faced hitters in live batting practice on April 24, the first time he'd done that since getting hurt. He didn't make his first appearance for Cincinnati until May 11, which meant a six-week head start for other closers. There are 10 NL closers that have more saves, including six that have lower ERAs, but take a hard look at Chapman's performance and try to find one who is actually pitching better.
It's impossible to do that.
Chapman allowed runs in two of his first four outings back, but he has been scored on in only one of his past 17. Unfortunately for him, the Blue Jays scored four runs in that game, including two charged to him when Sam LeCure gave up a homer to Edwin Encarnacion after Price had pulled Chapman. That game wrecked Chapman's ERA, and shows why ERA can be an unfair way to judge a reliever. His work is better reflected by a 0.64 FIP.
Chapman has always thrown hard, blowing away hitters with a triple-digit fastball and a wipeout slider. He has often beaten himself with his control, however, walking 7.4 per nine innings in 2011, his first full big league season, and 4.1 per nine innings last year. But an amazing thing has happened since Chapman was hit in the face.
Chapman has returned throwing harder -- an average fastball velocity of 101.0, up from 99.5 last year, according to Brooks Baseball -- and with the best command he has shown since he left Cuba and was given a six-year, $30.25 million contract by the Reds.
"He's thrown the ball over the plate, for him, at a prodigious rate," Price said. "It's not like he's shying away from contact. He's going into the strike zone with three different pitches. He's pitched ahead in the count a lot more than he's done in previous years."
Chapman has also added a circle changeup, which he's throwing about once every eight pitches to make the others even more effective. In the words of Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow, Chapman has become "a perfect throwing catapult."
Chapman was tested by the Giants on Thursday.
Buster Posey drove a 99 mph fastball for a leadoff double. It might have been a triple had Billy Hamilton not gobbled up ground to cut it off. But Chapman got the next three batters, including a strikeout of Michael Morse on a 100 mph heater. Hitters were swinging early in the count against the lefty, and he only had one two-ball count, throwing a total of 10 pitches to the four Giants.
Rookie Adam Duvall lined to third baseman Todd Frazier for the final out, making this the kind of shutout inning that causes an opponent to think they'll get to the closer next time. Maybe they will. But you probably shouldn't bet against Chapman. He's shown that this year he is the guy who is beating the odds.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.