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April 23, 2010

Under The Knife

Checking Out Aroldis Chapman

by Will Carroll

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Aroldis Chapman warms up on an overcast Indianapolis evening.

I finally got the chance to see Chapman live last night in Indianapolis, and he didn't disappoint. Forgive me if I sound like a scout (reminder: I am not a scout), but he's a smooth lefty with a live arm, showing two plus pitches and the makings of two more. The Reds' prospect with Triple-A Louisville throws a very good fastball that lives at 92-94 mph and can touch 100 when he gets angry. He has a slider with two-plane movement, enough to buckle the knees of a good hitter. That good hitter, Pedro Alvarez, saw three pitches in his second at-bat. First was a 93-mph fastball that tailed back in over the outside of the plate. The fastball, when below 95, has a very late tailing action that comes back in to lefties. The second pitch was an 84-mph slider that had Alvarez, the Pirates' top prospect who is playing for Indianapolis, leaning back, but the sharp break pulled it over the inner half. He finished Alvarez off with a hard 99-mph pitch right over the black on the inside of the plate, handcuffing Alvarez.

But he's not perfect. The fastball really flattens out when he throws it faster than 95. Now, at that speed, a lot of guys won't be able to catch up, especially after having their eyes shifted by the slider, so it's not that big a deal yet. His second fastball—which acted at times like a cutter—didn't seem to have much control and had much earlier movement. When he got it over the plate, it was pretty fat. His changeup is a work in progress, at best. His entire delivery changes, tipping the pitch, and he tends to put it in the dirt. He does have a tendency to miss low, only working up in the zone with his good heat. He also has a tendency to "fly open," losing the timing between foot strike and ball release, pushing the ball up but usually well into the lefty batter's box.

There are also some oddities. Chapman has a devastating pickoff move. Jose Tabata got on with a walk, but still has no idea what happened once he was at first. Chapman's delivery is slow, an uncorking that has a lot of hip turn on top of a drop-and-drive motion that recalls parts of Orlando Hernandez's delivery. While Chapman pitches over the top, that hard drop with his back leg doesn't give much downward plane to his pitches. He also has one physical oddity that I haven't heard mentioned before, in his shoulders. Many pitchers have an imbalance in their shoulders, with their pitching shoulder larger than their glove-side shoulder. Chapman is the opposite and I couldn't get any explanation for why that might occur. Chapman is a natural lefty and not a weight room guy. It's possible this is some sort of quirk of the uniform, but I watched him closely and it does appear that there's a difference. Were this on the throwing side, it would suggest sick scapula, but again, it's on the glove side.

Chapman's stuff is very good, but he's inefficient and seems to get frustrated on the mound. At times, he "pitches angry," overthrowing, adding more leg drive and stride length, and giving off some bad mojo. If he can harness this, the 100-mph heat will keep that frustration from growing, but I do wonder how he'll adjust to those that can hit that kind of pitch. (There aren't many of them.) He doesn't have the polish of the Rays' David Price, someone I also saw pitch from the same mound a couple years back. His fastball is better that Price's and his slider can be, but Price had more of an understanding of pitching and was more consistent and controlled on the mound. The fastball did not appear to be nearly as good as that of the Rangers' Neftali Feliz. It is coming lefty, but Feliz keeps its movement, even at the higher velocities. We'll see if Chapman's results can approximate that of those two elite pitchers. Let's just hope this is the last time Chapman appears in this column.

Jacoby Ellsbury (fractured ribs, ERD 4/30)
The interesting part of the Ellsbury situation isn't the four hairline fractures in his ribs. It's how that came to be diagnosed. Scott Lauber's story does a great job of breaking down how these breaks came to be diagnosed and for a team as solid medically as the Red Sox, this one doesn't come off well. The Sox haven't had any tests done since April 11, just after Ellsbury collided with Adrian Beltre's knee. This despite continued pain. That's not to say they didn't treat him normally or that anything is "wrong" here. It's just that a player, nearly two weeks out from an injury and found to have rib fractures is going to come off as negative for the team, especially given that Ellsbury had to request the tests. It doesn't change the treatment, just as the Sox medical director states in the above article. Hairline rib fractures can be painful due to the constant movement of the rib cage during breathing, especially if that breathing is heavier, as often happens with physical activity. It's not serious and there's really no way besides rest to treat the condition. Doctors will look at someone ruefully, write out a script for some painkillers, and move on. Ellsbury will simply need to rest until they heal, right? Actually no. The injury doesn't actually have to heal before he could play. The pain has to get to a level where Ellsbury can tolerate it. You may read this as saying that Ellsbury is soft, but please don't. Pain tolerance is a serious issue and very individualized. There's no real way to get a handle on the timeline here, because it's entirely up to Ellsbury. When he can handle the pain, he can play. As a best guess, I'll say it's likely he'll need a couple days past the minimum.

Daisuke Matsuzaka (neck stiffness, ERD 4/27)
The Red Sox will bring Matsuzaka back to the Sox rotation after his Wednesday night rehab start went well. He was scored on and he was inefficient as per usual, going 99 pitches in just 5 2/3 innings at Triple-A, but his control and command was the key. Matsuzaka showed no problems with the sore neck/shoulder area, had no problems with recovery between his starts, and was effective. Given the struggles of the Red Sox over the first couple weeks of the season, the idea of a healthy and effective Matsuzaka has to help, but there's been no official word of who'll move out of the rotation. Previously, the Sox had talked about some sort of "modified rotation," a variation on a six-man that sounded like a five-man with a rotating swingman, but there's been no mention of that for a while. Speculation is focused on Tim Wakefield moving to the pen, at least for now, which makes the most sense. Putting Wakefield in spot or matchup starts could maximize both his effectiveness and his unique skill set.

J.A. Happ (flexor strain, ERD 5/15)
The Phillies don't think that Happ will be out that long, but Ruben Amaro Jr.'s quote of "weeks, not months" leaves a lot of wiggle room. The quotes that David Murphy got in this notebook show that this is more than just a simple strain or at least the Phillies are treating it that way. Happ's elbow is at risk here, so he will go through a full strengthening program over the next couple weeks, which makes it unlikely we'll see him on a rehab assignment until the middle of next month. Missing weeks instead of months is certainly preferable, and catching the problem here, prior to having the stress transferred to the ligaments, is also a good sign. There's a reason the Phillies took home the Dick Martin trophy last year. Nelson Figueroa will make a spot start in place of Happ, but with Joe Blanton close to a return, it shouldn't affect the pen too much.

Ryan Zimmerman (strained hamstring, ERD 4/25)
The Nats will play it safe with Zimmerman, holding him out on Friday and possibly through the weekend. The hamstring strain that Zimmerman states feels like a cramp is more than that, but not much more. The tightness is spasm surrounding some sort of damage, what some trainers would call a "catch" or a "sunrise pull." It's actually just a minor strain, the lowest of Grade Is, but enough to cause the body's defense to kick in. Pain is a sign that something is wrong, so this is the smart move. Zimmerman's hamstring issue shouldn't linger past the weekend with rest and treatment, but as with any muscle strains, the timing is a bit tricky and the recurrence risk is highest in the early stages. The big worry here is that Zimmerman was just dealing with a hamstring issue in his other leg, so the Nats are going to have to monitor this closely to make sure one of his legs doesn't turn into a real problem.

Jason Marquis (tender elbow, ERD 5/22)
Marquis hit the DL due to a tender elbow. A quick exam later, the Nats found out there was a good reason his elbow was tender. Marquis has "floating bodies" in the joint. This is normally code for bone chips, but there's also a chance that there's soft tissue in there. Marquis had a cortisone shot in the elbow and will be shut down for at least 10 days before starting up a throwing program again. That puts his return date at about a month, but you'll notice that the loose bodies aren't being removed. There could be a recurrence, but you're also hearing some reluctance to just pull things out after the Joe Nathan situation this spring. The worry is that Marquis will rest, but that the loose bodies will remain problematic and force surgery, costing him a couple months. The Nats had been hoping that Marquis could at the very least bridge the gap to Jordan Zimmermann's return, if not continue his streak of going to the playoffs.

Quick Cuts: Ian Kinsler's rehab assignment is going to be a bit longer than expected. He'll start out in extended spring training then move to Double-A next week. If that goes well, he'll be back with the Rangers by next weekend. ... Brad Lidge is throwing well on his rehab. His final test will be throwing back-to-back games. Lidge could be back with the Phillies by the start of next week. ... Huston Street is long-tossing and should be on a mound next week, though the timeline for his return to the closer role is still unknown. ... Travis Buck heads to the DL with a strained oblique. He'll miss a month. ... Miguel Tejada is expected to return to the O's lineup on Friday after missing the week with a quad strain. ... The Athletics have shut down Joey Devine again. He'll head for an MRI after what was called a "significant setback." ... Kerry Wood is scheduled to throw another simulated game on Friday. If it goes well enough, the Indians might skip a rehab assignment and let him do it from the pen, rather than the minors. He won't go right back to the closer role either way, but will ease back into it. ... Jeff Weaver's back injury isn't too serious, but Steve Dilbeck thinks that it's showing some of that old Joe Torre bullpen magic. I agree. ... The White Sox aren't concerned about Jake Peavy in the long term, but they are going to work on some mechanical issues in the short term. Pitching coach Don Cooper thinks he saw something that led to Peavy's wildness in his last start.

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