On Sunday afternoon, a slender, 22-year-old Cuban pitcher made his professional baseball debut. He struck out nine and pitched 4 2/3 innings, allowing an unearned run, five singles and one walk. Fifty-five of his 85 pitches were for strikes and, by all accounts, his first start was a success.
Around 4 p.m. Monday, this same phenom strolled into the visitor’s dugout at Huntington Park to answer a throng of questions from the media. He sat down next to Louisville Bats trainer and translator Tomas Vera, looking neither nervous nor excited. The young man took his time answering a myriad of questions, speaking very softly and smiling occasionally as Vera translated for him. And at the end of the session, he got up and walked back down the tunnel to the locker room.
Just two days in the life of Aroldis Chapman, the Cincinnati Reds $30 million man. A man who, if he continues to compile dominating performances like the one he had on Sunday, will force the Reds to promote him to the big league club. Count Bats manager Rick Sweet among those impressed.
“He handles [pressure] very well. He doesn’t show [nervousness] at all,” Sweet said. “He’s been on the national scene and the international scene, so it’s almost a relief when he gets in between the lines to where he can focus, to where he’s away from all of [the media hoopla].”
Even a casual observer of baseball can notice just how special Chapman is. His delivery matches his personality: calm and quiet. Right before Chapman fires the ball home, he hides the ball behind his back, keeping the hitter guessing for a few extra seconds. Then, his body unwinds, and at a three-quarter angle, his left arm slingshots the ball toward home. Sometimes the ball travels as hard as 101 mph, which Chapman reached on a first-inning strikeout Sunday.
Despite the aura around his triple-digit fastball, Chapman said he doesn’t concentrate on how hard he throws.
“Honestly, I really don’t pay attention to the speed. I think it’s something the Lord gave to me and I have to thank God and all the coaches I’ve had since I was in Cuba,” Chapman said through Vera. “They’re all a part of this, but the speed isn’t that important for me.”
And while Chapman may not acknowledge that his fastball is indeed heavenly, Sweet appeared amazed that his young southpaw threw the ball so hard, so often, and with such apparent ease.
“I just saw [Chapman] throw over 100 mph I think a total of seven, eight times in one game. I don’t know … if I’ve seen that total in my career,” Sweet said. “It’s very special, especially when you see how he easily he does it. He’s not a max effort guy that’s all over the place. He’s nice and easy and smooth, and the ball explodes out of his hand.”
Explode onto the major league scene is what Chapman could do very soon. If a Reds starter goes down with injury, Chapman would be among those considered for the call-up.
The main reason for the call-up would be because the Reds believe Chapman’s pitching prowess matches his major-league readiness, but the fact that he can draw a crowd will also heavily factor into the decision. Considering that their attendance has dwindled in recent years, the Reds would be hard-pressed not to consider elevating the left-handed Cuban. Chapman, whose warm-up bullpen session reportedly attracted 150 spectators Sunday, is also quickly gaining the respect of his comrades.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of Monday’s media session was how many times Chapman referenced how helpful his teammates have been. At one point, a reporter asked Chapman about his teammates and, after Vera translated it, Chapman flashed his pearly whites.
Across the dugout, a handful of his teammates were pointing at him, making sure their famous friend and teammate put in a good word for them.
Often times in sports, when a player signs a big contract, the size of his head swells along with his paycheck. Sweet said Chapman is the total opposite.
“He’s very quiet, very shy. Not intimidated, but he’s a shy young man,” Sweet said, “and he’s gotten along very well with his teammates.”
“It’s been nice to see. You think with all the money he’s making, sometimes guys [let the money get to their head], he’s not that way. He just wants to be part of the team.”
So long as Chapman’s cultural adjustments progress alongside his changeup, it’s hard to imagine the Reds keeping their prized left-hander in the minors too much longer.