It’s not the relievers themselves that have seemed to give the Indians a bullpen edge. I know that so many baseball fans have reduced the Indians’ playoff success to the words “Andrew” and “Miller,” but Andrew Miller might not even be the best reliever in the World Series. If you look only at this year, Aroldis Chapman was no less dominant. If you look over the last three years, Aroldis Chapman was no less dominant. Miller maybe feels somewhat fresher; Miller maybe has to try a little harder. But Chapman’s arm is amazing. It’s incredible that he’s ever blown a save.
So it’s not about how well the pitchers can pitch. It’s been about when the pitchers can pitch. The whole advantage with Miller has to do with his versatility, how he can pitch in any situation in any inning. Miller has given Terry Francona almost limitless bullpen freedom, and we’ve seen how that’s worked. With Chapman, things were a little more rigid. You might say traditional. Chapman, they said, was accustomed to his routine, and you wouldn’t want to risk a disruption.
Sunday night, the Cubs risked a disruption. Joe Maddon asked Chapman to be prepared to enter in the seventh. Chapman got warm in the seventh. Chapman came in in the seventh. No one had to relieve Aroldis Chapman. Maybe it wasn’t so much that Chapman got Francona’d — maybe it would be better to say he got Dave Roberts‘d. But for the first time in the playoffs, Chapman was pushed to the extreme, and now the Cubs know there’s something new he can do. That information could prove to be useful as the series shifts right back to Cleveland.
Aroldis Chapman didn’t blow all precedent away. He pitched to 10 batters, but he’d done that once before, two Septembers ago. He threw 42 pitches, but he’s topped out at 44. And even if you just think back three weeks, he entered in the eighth with nobody out. Five days later, he did the same thing. The meaningful difference in Game 5 was the inning of entry, but Chapman had already been somewhat stretched out. He’s simply been stretched a little more, in terms of his arm, and in terms of his psychology. It would be easier for Chapman to do this again. It’s become possible for Chapman to do this again.
And, sure, there would be risk — the Cubs have to win two more games, not one, and if they pushed Chapman hard in Game 6, they wouldn’t know what they’d have left for Wednesday. The reason to be tempted is obvious, though, because Chapman on Sunday was exactly as dominant as the Cubs would’ve dreamed. He hit a guy, but it was Brandon Guyer, so that hardly counts. And he gave up a single, but it was of the infield variety, produced in part because Chapman didn’t cover first base. Chapman got the outs, and not a single Indians hitter seemed to be comfortable.
I deliberately avoided making this post out to be a listicle, but this is an article with a list in it. The Cubs won 3-2, because Aroldis Chapman entered in the seventh with the score 3-2, and he essentially refused to budge. I think the best way to review his performance is by going over my favorite five pitches. These aren’t in order of preference; these are in order of chronology. We’ll start with the first pitch he threw.
Chapman inherited a bit of a jam — one out, tying run on second, good hitter at the plate. You might have seen some of those ugly numbers floating around about how Chapman has fared with runners he’s inherited. It’s been said that Chapman doesn’t like entering with runners on base. It’s been said that, with runners on base, Chapman doesn’t like going away from his fastball. So Jose Ramirez got an idea — he wanted to pounce. He wanted to knock the wind out of the stadium before anyone could even gasp at the first 100 on the scoreboard. Ramirez didn’t want to take a pitch, not with such a huge run 180 feet away. So he guessed heater. Why wouldn’t you guess heater? Of course Chapman was going to throw his heater. Except that he actually threw a slider. A slider that might’ve gotten a strike even had Ramirez not swung. But Ramirez was way out in front of it, because he never saw that pitch coming, and so Chapman was ahead 0-and-1, and he set an immediate tone.
We’ve skipped ahead to the eighth. Rajai Davis singled with one out, and he wound up on third with two down, and Francisco Lindor hitting. Lindor has a quick bat and he felt like one of the few Indians who might stand a chance. With Lindor hitting, Davis easily stole third, and the thought crossed everyone’s mind: that might eliminate the non-fastballs. How much does Chapman really trust his non-fastballs? In the moment, it seemed to make Lindor’s task an awful lot easier. Then, at 1-and-0, Chapman threw a slider, up, that stole a borderline strike. It wasn’t actually a real good pitch, but it worked well enough. The pitch here is the next pitch. At 1-and-1, Chapman threw Lindor a slider down, near the dirt. Yeah, it was a ball. No, Lindor didn’t offer. But Chapman didn’t back off. He didn’t want Lindor to be able to eliminate anything.
Look, let’s be real here — Chapman is complicated. I haven’t, in good conscience, been able to just think about Chapman and watch Chapman without recalling the domestic-violence incident. I’m sorry to bring that up again, but, really, no, I’m not. It happened and it makes the whole Chapman experience something less than it used to be. With that being said, considering only what Chapman did on the field in Game 5 — he has an arm the likes of which I’d never seen before, and the strikeout pitch to Lindor was genuinely perfect. It was perfect. That wasn’t Chapman just chucking gas and assuming hitters wouldn’t catch up no matter where the ball went. In making Lindor go away, Chapman did some real pitching.
I can’t get over that pitch. Of course Lindor didn’t like it — to him, it would’ve seemed down. And sometimes the umpire would agree. But Chapman painted down and away, in the most impossible part of the strike zone for a hitter to do major damage, and the pitch clocked in at 101 miles per hour. Based on perceived velocity, it’s theorized that pitches down and away look slower than pitches up and in. Very well. Maybe, to Lindor, that pitch looked like it was 98 or 99. But I’m going to see that pitch when I close my eyes in bed. Look at that pitch, and look at that screenshot. When Aroldis Chapman throws quality strikes, he is completely unfair. If you are someone who remains at all able to appreciate Chapman’s gift, this is a pitch for you to appreciate the shit out of.
Chapman got out of trouble in the seventh. He got out of trouble in the eighth. He didn’t want to create any drama in the ninth, but the potential was certainly there, with Mike Napoli leading off. As Chapman took the mound for the third time, his fastball had dipped to a very slightly more human 98. Napoli saw three of them. He took one away, then he took one on the border. He fouled one away that was inside. Napoli was behind 1-and-2, and he probably thought he had to try to protect against two things. Chapman, out of nowhere, went with a third thing. The one changeup Aroldis Chapman threw wasn’t a good changeup, but it was an effective changeup, as Napoli gave it a fastball swing and hit the ball off of the end of the bat. A pitcher’s third-best pitch tends to be a great deal worse than his first-best pitch. Chapman’s changeup is his third-best pitch. In Game 5, he threw it once. He picked a hell of a spot.
At last. If you want a good sign, after Chapman was pushed, he struck out the last batter. If you want another good sign, he struck out the last batter on three pitches, those pitches coming in at 101, 101, and 101. Chapman entered in the seventh and faced Ramirez, and he couldn’t catch up to the high fastball. Chapman closed things out against Ramirez, and he couldn’t catch up to the lower fastball. For all the credit I’ve given to Chapman here for his intelligent pitching, the game ended with an excellent reminder of what makes Chapman what he is. He’s not amazing because of his command. He’s not amazing because of his secondary pitches. He’s amazing because his fastball is amazing, and his fastball is so amazing Chapman can throw it over the plate with two strikes and it won’t matter for a hill of beans. His fastball is almost unhittable even when Chapman makes a mistake, which basically means Chapman almost can’t make a mistake. Not so much over the plate, anyway, not with the heater. The heater is the carrying tool. The heater is ultimately what carried Chapman through the appearance, and what carried the Cubs into Tuesday’s Game 6.
So now we’re going to see. Now we’re going to see how much more Aroldis Chapman can do. The Indians still have Andrew Miller, and he’s able to do things that Chapman can’t, or won’t, or hasn’t. The Indians also have Cody Allen, who makes it so much easier for Francona to use Miller flexibly. The Cubs don’t really have an Allen, not with Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop being something less than themselves. Come Tuesday, you’re almost certainly not going to see Aroldis Chapman in the fourth or fifth inning. But, the seventh? Why not the seventh? As of Sunday, he’s done it before, and it adds a little twist to a series that’s building toward some kind of historic conclusion. The Cubs just learned they can push Chapman pretty hard. Assuming his arm can bounce right back, there’s no reason not to do more of this, not with a maximum of two games to go. The Indians don’t have the only unhittable reliever. And the versatility advantage is shrinking.