Flame throwing Chapman experiencing some growing pains
Last season, Reds' Aroldis Chapman made smashing debut, hitting 105 mph
After starting the season strong, Chapman is in slump and can't get anyone out
Reds put the Cuban on disabled list after Chapman complained of sore shoulder
If only it were as easy as throwing a baseball 100 miles an hour.
Aroldis Chapman can manage that. He furls and unfurls his sinewy, 6-foot-4, 195-pound body, stretches his left arm like a lever and catapults fastballs faster than anyone ever has. The radar gun chronicles his insane gift.
Sometimes it registers 95 miles an hour, sometimes 100. Once last year, it reached 105 mph, in San Diego to the Padres' Tony Gwynn Jr. This year 106, at home, against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Fans anticipate Chapman's appearances with the glee of a kid on a roller coaster. The JUGS gun is their Sherpa. They celebrate Chapman's excursions into triple digits with roars, high-fives and incredulous laughter.
And then he stops throwing strikes. The music dies, the doubts surface and we're forced to remember the glitches that come with all that magic. "We're trying to figure him out as we go'' was how Cincinnati Reds pitching coach Bryan Price explained it.
It isn't going well now. On Monday, after four preposterously unsuccessful relief efforts, the Reds put their phenom on the 15-day disabled list. The club says his shoulder is inflamed. So is his ERA.
Over his last four appearances, Chapman's line would have been an April Fool's joke, if this weren't May:
1.1 innings, 2 hits, 10 earned runs, 12 walks, 92 pitches.
That's 92 pitches, to get four outs.
Hide the women, and the children throwing sliders.
"He was wild high before, and now he's wild low,'' Reds manager Dusty Baker said of Chapman's last outing on Sunday, in which he walked four and got one out, when handed a 9-2 lead in the 9th inning.
Opposing hitters have The Book on Cincinnati's flamethrower. It's this, basically:
Watching Chapman lately has been like watching 10-year-olds play Little League. It's a stunning development for the Reds, who have invested $30 million in Chapman, and see him as their future closer, perhaps as soon as next season.
What makes it more befuddling, Chapman started the season by not allowing an earned run in his first 12 games, covering 11 2/3 innings. In his last outing before the current mess, he threw 19 pitches, 17 for strikes. It was a scoreless 1 2/3 innings, in which his 100 mile-an-hour fastball took a back seat to his ridiculous 88 mph slider. That day, Chapman was all but unhittable.
Chapman's shoulder might be the source of his wildness. Price mentions release points and arm slots and other vagaries of the pitching trade. All could be affected by an achy shoulder. It's more than that, though. The sideshow nature of Chapman's brief career rarely takes into account the realities of a 23-year-old Cuban defector who gained freedom, money and fame almost overnight.
Everything is at warp speed for the Reds' rookie. Not just his hairy-chested fastball.
Imagine leaving your homeland, knowing you can't go back. Picture leaving behind an extended family, a girlfriend and a daughter born three days before you left. Chapman's daughter is nearly two now. He has never seen her.
Think of playing for the Cuban National Team, where if you don't pitch well, you don't eat well. At international tournaments, teammates knock on your door the night before you pitch, and beg you to win. Because if you don't, they have to go home.
The Reds paid Chapman $1.5 million to sign, and owe him close to $30 million between now and 2015. He has a couple of expensive cars (a Mercedes and a $300,000 Lamborghini) with vanity plates that reflect the speed of his pitches. He did a commercial for Pepto Bismol, he graced the cover of a national magazine.
He has become part of a celebrity culture that some of us born into it don't understand. "There are lots of Latin pitchers in the big leagues,'' Bryan Price said, "but they've had three, four, five years to figure it out.'' Lifestyle and baseball.
Chapman still speaks so little English, he talks publicly only occasionally, with the help of a translator.
Chapman grew up in a culture of fear and mistrust. Unlearning both has not been easy. In San Diego in April, he came out of a game after a lackluster appearance, to take an earful from his catcher Ramon Hernandez. The veteran wasn't mad at his protégé for missing the strike zone or taking it easy on the Padres hitters by throwing only 92 miles an hour.
Hernandez was blasting Chapman's silence. He was laying into Chapman's stoicism. Therein lies a problem. Chapman's arm hurt then. "Biceps soreness,'' Price says now. Chapman didn't tell anyone.
The same occurred this time. At least that's what Price suspects. He says Chapman -- the Reds' lefthanded setup man -- feels pressure to do what his pen-mates do: Pitch on consecutive days, or at least be ready when called upon.
"It takes awhile for your arm and body to adjust to doing that job,'' says Price, especially since Chapman came to Cincinnati as a starting pitcher. "Not to say he doesn't know any better. But he wants in the worst way to fit in.''
With other pitchers, the team has a history. The logbook is built a page at a time, from when the pitcher was in high school or college, through his minor league career, to now. Chapman's book had no pages. "There are expectations from people that don't know him that he's going to perform and interact in the same way someone who has had four or five years in the system. It's hard to get into his head and understand the expectations he has for himself,'' Price said. "There are lots of things we just had to take a flyer on.''
Arcane things. Pitcher's things, that would be of no concern to anyone outside the dugout: The best way for Chapman to get loose without overthrowing. How many pitches he needs to warm up properly. When to long toss. When to back off. "We had no history,'' Price says.
It isn't as if baseball history is stuffed with lefthanders who threw 105 mph.
The Reds have worked with Chapman in the video room. Is it his mechanics? They've surrounded him with mentors, everyone from his translator and roommate Tomas Vera to 36-year-old closer Francisco Cordero. They're working to develop a trust Chapman never knew in Cuba. Not just of coaches and teammates, but of team doctors and trainers. It takes time.
"There are going to be hiccups,'' Price said.
Such as Sunday, when the pitching sensation who tripped the radar fantastic walked off the home mound to deep boos. He's on the disabled list, tending to a sore shoulder and, more importantly, a world still entirely strange to him.
Even Aroldis Chapman looks at the radar gun. He likes what he sees there. Throwing 100 mph is nothing. If only it were that simple.
Paul Daugherty is a columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer.
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