Aroldis Chapman recorded the 100th save of his major league career last night – a milestone that divides Reds fans into Team Celebrate and Team Lament. Putting aside the controversies about how the organization has used Chapman, it’s a fitting moment to recognize that the 26-year-old is in the midst of an unprecedented, historic season.

Here’s why: Of the 124 batters the Cuban Missile has faced, he has struck out 67.

That’s a strikeout-rate of 54 percent.

If Chapman finishes the year with that number, it would represent the highest single-season strikeout-rate, dating back to 1901 for pitchers who’ve thrown at least 40 innings. Only one has finished a season with a K% above 50 percent and that’s Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves who struck out 50.2 percent of the batters he faced in 2012.

As you marvel at Chapman’s accomplishment, contemplate 54 percent in this historical context:

• Nolan Ryan’s best full-season (1987) strikeout-rate was 30.9 percent. Sandy Koufax’s best (1965) was 29.5 percent.

• 1968 was The Year of the Pitcher. It featured high pitching mounds and an enforced strike zone from the armpits to the knees. And in the The Year of the Pitcher, Bob Gibson was Pitcher of the Year, winning the NL Cy Young unanimously. That season, Gibson’s ERA was 1.12 and FIP was 1.77. His strikeout-rate was 23.1 percent.

• Mariano Rivera’s career strikeout-rate was 23 percent and highest single season was 30.6 percent.

• Clayton Kershaw is striking out 33.3 percent of batters he faces this year. Johnny Cueto’s K% is 25.7 percent.

• Rob Dibble had four healthy, full seasons in the major leagues. In each of those years, 1989-1992, he led baseball in K%. In 1992, Dibble beat fellow reliever Dennis Eckersley by 8 percent. Eckersley won the AL Cy Young Award that year. The Eck’s strikeout rate was 30 percent.

• In 1990, Dibble, Randy Myers and Norm Charlton – the Nasty Boys – were in the top five in baseball in K%. Their average K% was 30 percent.

• In 2003, PED-fueled Eric Gagne led the major leagues with 55 saves in 55 opportunities. He won the Cy Young Award as a reliever. Gagne also led baseball with a 44.8 percent K%, 10 percent ahead of second-place Jose Valverde.

• In 2010, Chapman’s first major league season, Carlos Marmol led baseball with a 41.6 percent strikeout-rate. The year before, Jonathan Broxton led the majors with a 38 percent K-rate.

To be certain, the number of strikeouts is growing all across baseball. The strikeout rate was 13 percent in 1975 and has risen steadily to 20.3 percent in 2014. It stood at 15.8 percent in The Year of the Pitcher. So seeing individual pitchers with ever higher K% isn’t unexpected.

But even in this era of K-inflation, Aroldis Chapman stands apart. If the season ended now, the gap between Chapman’s league-leading strikeout-rate and the second-best (Kimbrel, 43.3 percent) would be the largest ever.

What has caused Chapman’s strikeout-rate to jump from the low-40s to the mid-50s? Take your pick. His average fastball is faster this season and he’s throwing it up farther in the strike zone. His slider is better-located and he’s throwing it 26 percent of the time compared to a career rate around 14 percent. Or maybe it’s the new change-up that he’s throwing for 10 percent of his pitches. Hitters have only put it in play once. Why is Chapman better? It’s any of those factors, or all of them.

Aroldis Chapman has only thrown 33 innings this season and he’ll probably end up in the neighborhood of 55. Chapman still has two months to go before he actually sets the record for the single most dominant season in the history of relief pitching, by that measure.

That Chapman is pitching at all in 2014 is remarkable given his spring training mishap. But Chapman’s 2014 performance is an impressive continuation of a fabulous strikeout career. Nolan Ryan holds the single-season record (1973) for strikeouts with 383. Chapman has 391. Ryan pitched 326 innings that year. Aroldis Chapman has pitched 232.

20 Responses

  1. pinson343

    Steve, I’m very happy that you posted this. Last night I was ready to say something like: “Putting aside the controversies about how the organization has used Chapman, it’s fitting to recognize that the 26-year-old is in the midst of an unprecedented, historic season.”

    So absolutely, positively. Chapman’s historic season deserves recognition and a salute from us, regardless of how we feel about how he is used.

    I did not think he could develop into a legit 3 pitch pitcher from the bullpen, but he has.

  2. ToddAlmighty

    “Aroldis Chapman has only thrown 33 innings this season and he’ll probably end up in the neighborhood of 55.”

    That’s the part that kills me every time… and next year he’ll turn down his $5m player option and get like $12m in arbitration to pitch 65 innings in 2015. No matter how great he is with strikeouts, I will take the league minimum relief pitcher who can go 2 innings at once, or 6 innings in one week.

    The month is nearly over and Chapman has thrown 9.2 innings. Broxton, Diaz, and Hoover have all thrown more than 10 innings in July. Contreras has thrown the same 9.2 innings as Chapman. So this month Chapman is tied for fourth in innings pitched in the bullpen.

    Chapman almost exclusively comes in when the Reds are winning or are tied at home. So he can’t help the team at all when they’re struggling. There’s no “Oh man, Chapman will get us out of this slump.” because in order for the best arm in possibly all of MLB to even get the chance the pitch, you have to be winning or tied at home.

    Best arm I have seen in my life, but it’s a total waste to not trade him if you’re just going to keep using him for 60-65 innings a year and the vast majority of those with a lead or when you’re tied at home. Like that 3-0 win against the Diamondbacks.

    • Brian Dunn (@surrfinTexas)

      I like the contrarian point that he cannot help get the team ‘when they’re struggling’. With his skill and ultra-competitiveness, Reds need a lot more of him.

    • greenmtred

      I have certainly said in the past that Chapman might not be a good starter, largely due to his lack of secondary pitches, but that argument holds little water now, as Steve points out. We should recognize, though, that the 103mph fastballs would be few and far between if he were starting and, further, that he has evidently made it clear that he doesn’t want to start. So I would focus on the frequently stated idea that he should be traded since he is “only” a closer. That may be true, but its truth hinges on the related thought that any mlb relief pitcher can close. Maybe they can, but not all of them would do it well. This debate would look different if the Reds were still playing as they were just before the All Star break. Remember that they had (and have) excellent starting pitching and were scrapping for runs. Do you really want Hoover to close? Ondrusek? In a close, meaningful game, it certainly matters who closes. Would it make sense to, situationally, have Chapman pitch two innings? I’d bow to everyone else’s expertise here, except to say that we assume that he doesn’t because Price is hidebound and won’t diverge from traditional thinking. But we don’t know that, do we? Is it possible that Chapman is effective used as he has been, and–given how hard he throws–needs more recuperation time and generally lower weekly pitch counts than do lesser throwers?

      • Shchi Cossack

        You are 100% correct and that is the argument for trading Chapman…now. Either Chapman is incapable of starting or Chapman simply doesn’t want to be a starter. Either Chapman is incapable of pitching multiple innings or high leverage innings or the Reds refuse to utilize him for multiple innings or high leverage innings. No matter which reason anyone favors for minimizing Chapman’s role on the pitching staff, Chapman’s value as a defined closer is drastically less than his value in a trade.

  3. Shchi Cossack

    Up until 2015, the use of Chapman in such a limited bullpen role was simply wasting a valuable resource. Beginning in 2015, the use of Chapman in such a limited bullpen role will not only be a waste of a valuable resource but a serious misallocation of salary within a limited budget.

  4. VaRedsFan

    For these reasons alone, are the reason that you don’t even THINK about trading Chapman. You just don’t replace a talent like his with Diaz/Contreras/Hoover/Player X. You don’t trade away players with a talent this special.
    The formula for almost all World Series champions is having a dominant closer. That is one piece we have. You don’t fix holes by creating new ones.

    • ToddAlmighty

      He’ll pitch 55 innings this year, and make probably around $12m next year. No talent is worth that much for so few innings.

    • Ryan Lykins (@ryan_lykins)

      I disagree. Chapman has been amazing. He’s had a great season and been one of the best pitchers (starter or relied) but he’s used in some of the lowest leverage situations that it almost negates how good he really is. He does an excellent job but looking at the numbers he has an average save rate. He just looks better than anybody else doing it.

    • jdx19

      You have to get to the WS first, and an expensive pitcher who pitches 55 innings doesn’t help you much.

  5. WVRedlegs

    And add in his breaking the record of Bruce Sutter for a K in consecutive games. And still counting. A record that had stood since 1977.
    A marvelous season. It could still have some greater meaning if they would just some W’s.

  6. droomac

    Thanks for the context Steve. However, as the self-appointed captain of Team Lament, this article makes me lament how he is used even more.

  7. User1022

    Perhaps now that the Reds have seen that Chapman can, in fact, use three pitches effectively, next year will be The Year…..?

    Ah, who am I kidding? Chapman is never gonna be a starter as long as he’s with the Reds.

    • Dale Pearl

      Well at least until they need starting pitching. Right now they dont need another starter. If he had been a starter this year we would all be complaining how terrible . Chapman has been a great reliever for the Reds and that was done out of necessity.

      • nyredfanatic

        Nailed it… The way of the Reds fan

  8. Eric the Red

    Arizona’s closer doesn’t strike out a lot of guys, has an ERA near 4, and has converted 26 out of 31 Saves.

    I’m glad Chapman strikes out a lot of guys. The only time that unique strike out rate really matters is with a runner on 3rd and less than 2 outs, but of course you almost never bring your Closer into such a situation. (I liked it better when great relievers were “firemen” and you used them in tight spots.)

    These numbers for Chapman just fill me with sadness. He’s awesome, and we’re using him in probably the least valuable way we could short of only pitching him in games we’re down by 5 runs. I believe a better title for your post would be “Aroldis Chapman’s Historically Wasted Season”. Sad, sad, sad.

    • Eric the Red

      If we could use him two innings at a time, 3 days out of 5 if necessary, and that caused his strikeout rate to plummet to 30%, we’d be better off.

  9. nyredfanatic

    Add me to Team Celebrate. I think we are extremely lucky to have a talent like this. Like many have said… Once in a lifetime arm. Not too many teams can say they have someone that gets everyone on their feet every time he enters the game. He changes the atmosphere of a stadium. He brings what no other pitcher in the Reds bullpen brings.

    I get why most people on this site are upset at his use. I really do. I just don’t necessarily agree. I think he is in the correct role for this team. Sure he costs a lot of money and he is going to cost us more. He is probably going to demand and require a lot more than the Reds can afford and he might walk away. But I am glad that he is our CLOSER. I just don’t think he would have the same dominate stuff if he were moved to the starting role.

  10. cfd3000

    Chapman is a rare talent and I’ve loved watching him pitch, and love that he does that for my favorite team. But having said that, If the Reds magically found a starter whose fastball topped out at 98 mph, had two pretty good secondary pitches, gave them 200 innings, was generally considered to be reminiscent of Chapman at his best and had a strikeout rate of 30% with a decent walk rate I’d be thrilled, and I’d trade Chapman for that guy straight up no hesitation. I think that’s what we’d get if Chapman was starting. Put me on Team Reds – love the show he puts on, hate that it’s mostly a waste of his immense talent.

  11. WVRedlegs

    If I had been Jocketty, I would have traded Latos and Simon this deadline and then moved Chapman into the rotation for the rest of the season, just to see what he could do. If it works, then great proceed. If it doesn’t work out, at least you know and the argument dies out. The last two months of this lost season would have been an ideal time to try him out in the rotation. Or at least in September and give him 4-5 starts. They could settle this issue once and for all. And with no offense, and absolutely no help from Jocketty in this area, save situations will not be abundant. Trotting Chapman out once or twice every 10 days for 3 outs is foolish.