Jumping the Gun on Cuba’s Chapman

By Peter J. Bjarkman

Chapman pitching for Cuba at WBC II

HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 4 — The baseball world is now literally “atwitter” with the phenomenon of Aroldis Chapman’s first two innings of major league action–two altogether successful 3-up and 3-down frames in which the flame-throwing southpaw has unleashed several heaters clocked at between 103 and 105 mph.

Certainly a noteworthy achievement and one that lifts Chapman into the same category with now-sidelined MLB prospect Steve Strasburg and short-lived Cuban League phenomenon Maels Rodriguez (both of whom saw their magical arms quickly disintegrate under the pressures of launching supersonic missiles).

We now know that Chapman can heave a baseball in excess of three-digit speed on a JUGS radar gun. And today’s baseball fans simply can not get enough of the 100-plus fastball, especially it seems in Cincinnati.

But have I missed something here, or didn’t we already know that Chapman could top that impressive three-digit velocity standard?  Has he not already done it on several levels of diamond competition?  Was there any reason to think that Chapman’s arm would not be just as lively in Cincinnati as it earlier was in Holguín (where he broke the plane for the first time several seasons back) or Louisville (where he supposedly reached 105 a few days before his Cincinnati call-up), or Indianapolis (where he broke the ceiling for the first time in North America last April)?

Of course today’s ball fans (and seemingly a high percentage of today’s pitching coaches) are totally enamored with hurling speed above all else that might exist in a pitcher’s arsenal.  Just as today’s fans in large part worship the long home run drives and big offensive explosions above any of the sport’s finer defensive and strategic subtleties.

It is the loud noise and big muscular displays that seemingly enthrall us the most on the diamond and in the grandstand. What we have today is a game built on power alone, one hardly distinguishable from the physical mayhem that is a staple of the football gridiron, basketball court and hockey arena.  Our big time made-for-television sports are seemingly all about brute force. This is after all (somewhat sadly for me) the highly marketable baseball of the immediate future.

So we know Chapman can throw very hard–perhaps harder than any man on the planet. But Aroldis threw 100-plus in Holguín and struggled to find a slot on the Cuban national team (where he failed in several trials). He heaved 100-plus this spring in Louisville, where he had but moderate success (a .500 won-lost record) as a starter.

He now seems to be coming into his own in the highly specialized role of a pitcher assigned to face no more than three or four batters at a time. (The short relief specialist is, of course, a defining element of modern baseball, but again something that has for this writer robbed the sport of much of its original charm.)

In brief, Chapman has so far proven that he is indeed the second coming of Steve Dalkowski (you can look him up, in Casey Stengel’s words).  But he is still a decade or so removed from proving that he is anything approximating a second coming of Jim Palmer, Bob Feller or Nolan Ryan. Or for those who know Cuban ballplayers, a second coming of Pedro Lazo, Rogelio García or even Lázaro Valle.

Aroldis Chapman may indeed now have a brighter future in the big leagues than some of us originally suggested, especially since his short-stretch velocity is ideally suited to today’s pro game and its 15 or 20 pitch single-inning closers.  Chapman is a superb thrower.

The jury is still out, however–despite the eye popping numbers–on whether he will ever become that increasing rare commodity known as a skilled “pitcher.” Arm strength helps, but in the end it was just as much “head strength” (true pitching science and true pitching intelligence) that made a Pedro Lazo or a Greg Maddux or a Tom Glavine.

The world today is jumping up and down about the fact that Chapman has thrown a baseball at 105 mph from a big league mound. Hats off to this strong-armed rookie who has finally reached the “big time” after five long seasons of trials and tribulations at the AAA-level (one summer in Louisville and four winters in Holguín).

Maybe the entertainment of a few triple-digit darters is indeed worth a $30 million investment. But I still hold to an apparently worn-out version of old world baseball values. Apparently I am not quite “up to speed” with the appropriate thrills of today’s game.

But wake me up in five years time. Get back to me after we find out if big league hitters are unable to exploit Chapman’s wildness over the course of several long hot summers in “The Show”–or indeed after we find out if Chapman’s elbow will be able to survive more innings before it pops than did Stephen Strasburg’s.

I will be much more impressed when I am able to read about Chapman reaching the magic number of 100 in the big league victory column rather than on the radar gun. And come to think about it, perhaps $30 million should require closer to 300 career victories for fair return on the Cincinnati franchise investment.

I have seen 100 mph from Chapman (on several occasions in Cuba and in the stadiums of professional baseball) just as I once saw it from Maels Rodríquez (now in exile in Costa Rica after a blown rotator cuff reduced his once-saliva-producing 100-plus comets to yawn-producing minus-85 floaters.)

Pardon the skepticism and curmudgeonly stance here, but I much prefer to see 100 games in the victory column. Or even 100 Saves in the record book. Those are the numbers that truly impress.

(*)Peter C. Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely considered a leading authority on Cuban baseball, both past and present.  He reports on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team for www.BaseballdeCuba.com and also writes a regular monthly Cuban League Report for www.ibaf.com.  He is currently completing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team.

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