In my interview earlier this week with Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Pedro Alvarez (how's that for alliteration?), he said one of the things that he loves about baseball is that it's the ultimate team sport. On Thursday night, as far as the media, coaches, and fans were concerned— there were only two players on the field.
When Aroldis Chapman and his $30 million arm took the mound before the bottom of the first inning, there was an ominous silence on the field. The base coaches had their eyes locked on all 10 of his warm-up pitches. The players in the dugout left the Gatorade coolers and sunflower seeds alone. They all stood at the gate of the dugout, arms folded on the railing, chins pressed to their wrists. A tumbleweed blew across the outfield. Any baseball fan in the stadium not saying it was thinking it: "Let's see what this kid's got."
The batters had their strategy. Get a good look at all of his pitches, run up his pitch count and try to get the timing down. If there're less than two strikes, don't swing. It seemed to be working; he threw 66 pitches in 3 innings.
His first few pitches were uneventful. 94, 92, 93, 92. Indians leadoff hitter Jose Tabata didn’t swing at a single pitch and drew a walk. The next at-bat, we saw what we came to see. 93. 92. 93. Nasty pickoff move to first, one out. 76…. K. Chapman dropped 20 mph off his pitch and left Neil Walker frozen; two out.
Then the Indians’ slugger stepped to the plate. Pedro Alvarez looked slightly more anxious than his usual cranky self. He took a deep breath and followed suit; he didn’t swing at a single pitch until there were two strikes—and Alvarez, whose biggest weakness at the plate has been left-handed pitching, slapped a single up the middle.
There may as well have been a rain delay for the next several batters, until Alvarez came up again, and this time struck out looking.
After seeing him pitch in person, it’s much clearer why Chapman started the season in Louisville. Minor League hitters have an effective strategy in place—make him throw strikes, and don’t swing until you have to. Through three innings, he threw 66 pitches, walked four batters, almost hit more than one man in the chin, and was charged with two wild pitches. But he also struck out five, and maxed out at 96 mph. It was just like the opening game in “Bull Durham.” Except for he threw some warm-up pitches instead of fornicating in the locker room (presumably; I can neither confirm nor deny).
In their third confrontation, Alvarez was less patient. He swung with all his might and sent the ball soaring two feet in front of the plate. The catcher picked it up and gingerly tossed it toward first for the final out of the inning.
In the sixth inning there were some fireworks, when relief pitcher Steven Jackson threw his second pitch of the game at a batter’s head, and was promptly ejected. This is of course speculative, but it could be for one of two reasons: either some showboating by the hitter before him, who had launched a rocket all the way to the center field scoreboard, or because Aroldis Chapman asked to keep the baseball with which he got his first professional base hit.
Following the demands from the dugout after Chapman’s hit, the pitcher begrudgingly slung the ball toward the Louisville dugout, shaking his head.
When he was taken out of the game in the sixth inning, Chapman had thrown 95 pitches, while giving up 3 hits, 5 walks and 2 wild pitches (several more went in the dirt, over the catcher’s head, and into the dolphin tank at the Indianapolis Zoo when there were no runners on base). But somehow he did not give up a single earned run. He struck out 8—almost all of them when he needed them most—and managed to escape with his .60 ERA perfectly intact.
His game was infinitely better on paper than it was to witness, which bodes poorly for Reds fans. There’s going to be a lot of angry Cincinnatians when the Reds are sitting four games under .500 in June and their prize prospect is throwing 98mph in Toledo with an ERA of less than one. But this game could have easily got out of hand in the first inning, and definitely would have against Major League hitting. 75% of his breaking balls were in the dirt and the Indians stole third on him TWICE. He needs more time, and I’m afraid he’s going to need a lot more than Reds fans are willing to wait.