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The Cuban Missile: The Story of Aroldis Chapman.


With the New York Yankees Aroldis Chapman has performed as one of the best closers in baseball over the past decade. Chapman has kept a lower than usual era for a closer and has provided the New York Yankees with a something of a Mariano Rivera renaissance. Chapman’s stats are not nearly as great as Rivera but he is still considered one of best in the game which is why he plays for one of the best teams in baseball. Chapman did not have an easy road to professional baseball but now that he had played in his 10th season this year it seems that he deserves a closer examination inside his talent but also in his personal journey to the Major Leagues.

However, with the advent of other phenoms like Shohei Ohtani, Chapman appears to have disappeared from the conversation of being a great pitcher in Major League Baseball despite his tremendous pitching statistics. He has earned notoriety for some off the field allegations as well. Chapman’s impact on the game is not fully realized because in the modern game the hitters are the heroes of the game not the pitchers who with all of the advantages provided to hitters deserve more credit.

A Difficult Road

Chapman as a member of the Cuban National Team.

Chapman as a member of the Cuban National Team.

Before becoming a big league closer, Aroldis Chapman was far from being one of the highest paid closers in baseball. He grew up outside of the United States in a country where baseball is king. In 1988, Cuba was run by Fidel Castro, the ruthless communist dictator who had ruled since 1959. It was a state with very little freedoms but for many youths the only way out and to a better life was baseball. Young Aroldis was born on February 28th,1988 in Holguin Province on the southern end of Cuba. He was a second generation Cuban though as his grandparents had emigrated from Jamaica. He grew up extremely poor along with his two sisters in a three bedroom house. His love of baseball did not start very young. Aroldis was 15 years old when he discovered playing baseball as a local friend of his told him about joining a local youth league. Chapman initially started out as a first baseman but was told by various sources that he had a killer arm and was needed to play elsewhere. As a result of this, Chapman felt that he could best fit in as a pitcher.

At 18, after being discovered as a Cuban talent Aroldis was invited by the local professional team the Holguin Sabuesos to become a starting pitcher. He played impressively and scouts from just north in the United States became to notice. In his brief career between 2006-2009, He had 365 Strikeouts, a 3.74 ERA, and a record of 24-19. Although he was a starting pitcher for most of this period in the Cuban National Series, he did have various relief appearances. He was very effective in these roles as well as being a starting pitcher. This gained him additional recognition from the Cuban National Baseball team who felt that he was a standout talent. He was on the team from 2007-2009 playing in the 2007 Pan American Games and the inaugural 2009 World Baseball Classic. Cuba did not do well win the World Baseball Classic but in 2007 had won the Pan American Championships.

Chapman though was not happy under the Cuban control. As a professional, he was paid very little and his intense schedule as a professional would have violated labor laws in most other countries. Chapman had attempted to defect in 2008 but this attempt was unsuccessful and Chapman was returned to the Cuba. He was unable to finish the season with Holguin as his attempted defection caused suspension for the remainder of the season. Following the World Baseball Classic in 2009, Chapman was able to defect. He was relocated to Rotterdam in the Netherlands until he was granted a chance to be a free agent from Major League Baseball. Within 6 months, Chapman was granted free agent status and was signed by the Cincinnati Reds.

From Cuba to the Reds

Chapman playing for the Reds.

Chapman playing for the Reds.

Chapman initially signed with the Red for six-years, 30.25 million. His initial contract placed pressure on him to perform as with Cuba he was playing against potential professional players, in the Major Leagues he would be playing against the best players in the world. He signed with the Reds in January and played his debut 8 months later on August 31,2010. From the moment he began his windup it was like something special was happening. He threw his first ever pitch at 98 mph. In that inning, he threw 8 more pitches to retire the side. Chapman was a starting pitcher in the minor leagues but was relegated to relief status because of his power pitching style. As a reliever he was extremely dominant as he finished his rookie season with a 2.03 ERA. He pitched 13.1 Innings, allowed 9 hits and 4 runs due to arriving late in the season. Chapman also went on to do something that season that only one other pitcher had ever done.

Chapman being a relief pitcher is known for throwing a little faster than usual. He had cracked the 100 mph mark prior to what would happen so it was not surprising that he could quick pitch fast. September, 24, 2010 in San Diego well playing the Padres, Chapman had been brought in for relief. Chapman toppled his catchers hand by moving a fastball 105.1 mph. Yes, you just read that correctly. He in fact had a later performance which was recorded as 106 mph but this is not considered accurate despite appearing as a clip on YouTube. Therefore, 105.1 is the official record for the fastest pitch ever recorded. He is tied with Hall of Famer Bob Feller for this record as there is an unofficial report that listed a Feller pitch that had been thrown at 107 mph. Like Chapman’s 106 there is no evidence for this number either. Chapman again holds the record. Chapman’s pitch landed him massive fame as a fast-baller and in the record the announcers are even stunned by what they just witnessed. Another point to notice was that the pitch was thrown to Tony Gwynn Jr., son of Tony Gwynn Sr. who is in the MLB Hall of Fame.

With the Red Chapman recorded a 19-20 record with a 2.17 ERA. He allowed 17 Home runs during this time and struck out more than 500 batters making him the youngest player to 500 strikeouts in MLB History. He notched up three All-Star Appearances with the Reds between 2012-2015 and was recorded as one of the best pitchers in a three-year span in MLB history. However, his final season in Cincinnati was uneventful despite resigning with Cincinnati. It seemed that Chapman was paid cheaply because he was going to eventually be traded. The team looking at him was the Los Angeles Dodgers. However, an incident would put this on hold.

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Domestic Violence Incident, Career Jeopardy

Chapman with Cristina Barnea.

Chapman with Cristina Barnea.

Chapman lived in Florida during the offseason as he kept himself close with his family from Cuba who had defected years earlier. In December, at his residence in Davie, Florida their was a police investigation into a domestic violence occurrence. Chapman and his girlfriend were in a dispute of sorts that allegedly was reported as Chapman placing his hand around her throat, pushing her and the firing of eight gunshots. The Los Angeles Dodgers were notified that Chapman was under investigation and they placed the potential offseason move on hold. Chapman’s future was in jeopardy with this incident as the gun shots were a major part of the story. Chapman was never found guilty of this incident due to their being conflicting reports and Chapman’s attorney denied the allegations of what had occurred. The Dodgers relinquished their interest in Chapman, but despite this the Yankees decided that they would take a shot of Chapman and he was signed three weeks later to the Yankees. His incident was dealt with by Commissioner Rob Manfred who suspended Chapman for the first 30 games regardless of where he ended up.

To New York, we go.

Chapman during Spring Training with the Yankees.

Chapman during Spring Training with the Yankees.

Not playing in 30 games Chapman was still one of the higher paid Yankees signing for one year-$11 million. His first Yankees stint did not last long at all though as the Yankees felt that they needed to build their pitching elsewhere. Chapman though kept his ERA just over 2.00 and managed to pitch in 31 appearances. He recorded 20 saves in those games and 44 strikeouts. Chapman was traded that same year to the Cubs in July of 2016. In this trade the Yankees gained Gleyber Torres who would become a staple in the Yankees lineup a little later. Along with Torres, three other players were sent that were the equivalent to what Chapman was taking up in their cap space. The Yankees received criticism for this move as Chapman had been one of their better pitchers during the stretch. However, Chapman was seen as a hot commodity to the Cubs who were looking to build a more dominant closing roster.

North Side, Chicago, 2016

Chapman hugging Cubs Manager Joe Madden during the World Series in 2016.

Chapman hugging Cubs Manager Joe Madden during the World Series in 2016.

Chapman made a fine addition to a lineup and pitching rotation that in many ways did not really need him as they had been a dominant force all season. Chicago loved having Aroldis around as they seemed to have fueled his resurgence. He threw for 16 saves which would be his career low as a closer, but he also had 44 strikeouts in 28 appearances, no counting the playoffs. The Cubs finished with a 103-58 record, best in Major League Baseball that year and were stern favorites going into the playoffs to win the World Series. However, as any fan of the Cubs knows they have a terrible curse placed upon them and had not won a World Series since 1908. All curses though will break eventually. The Cubs won the Division Series 3-1 over the San Francisco Giants to start things off. In the NL Championship Series they faced the Los Angeles Dodgers who they defeated impeccably 4 games to 2. They had won the National League Pennant for the first time since World War II had ended. Chapman made four appearances in the Championship Series and did exceptionally well. He was even pitching in Game 6 of the series as he threw the final pitch to get the Cubs to earn the pennant. Chapman would be playing in his first World Series at 28 years old.

All had been forgotten about Chapman’s appearances during the 2016 season and in the playoffs as the World Series was bigger than anyone could imagine. The Cubs faced off against the Cleveland Indians who had not won a World Series since 1948, just as nearly as the Cubs had been to one. They too possessed some of the best hitters in baseball through the playoffs and would prove to be a tough contender. Chapman was the leader behind finishing the Cubs final innings in the playoffs but his team needed him now more than ever. The Cubs lost 3 of their first 4 in the World Series and it seemed that the curse would continue. However, Game 5 set the tone for what would be the greatest comeback in sports history. Chapman pitched the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings in game 5 which is rare for a closer and allowed one hit. Game 6 was more of the same, Chapman pitched again to give the Cubs a tie 3-3 series while allowing one hit and one run. Chapman also appeared in Game 7 but would not finish off the side as he had in the previous two games. In the 9th, Rajai Davis, hit a two-run homer to tie the game and continue into extra innings. Chapman had blown a save and possibly a World Series for the Windy City. However, his team marched back scored a run in the 10th and won its first title in 108 years. Chapman now had a World Series and it all seemed to be coming together. Their was no more talk of domestic violence and his off-the-field troubles. He had accomplished the ultimate prize. This would be his last game in a Cubs uniform though as a month later he signed again with the New York Yankees for a record contract for a relief pitcher at the time.

Back to NYC

Chapman with the Yankees.

Chapman with the Yankees.

Like his first period with the Yankees Chapman was again primarily on the bench. He had issues with his throwing shoulder and sat out for two weeks. 2017 was a disappointment though for the Yankees as they would venture to the AL Championship Series facing the Houston Astros. This would become a similar theme in 2019 when they again faced the Astros with a similar result. The Astros would go on to beat the Yankees in that series and the Yankees would suffer further humiliation as Chapman had thrown some of his best in the playoffs but the Yankees could not seem to score runs against a defiant Astros defense that would not give up. Chapman was not event selected as an All-Star in 2017 despite putting up a closing seasonal record of strikeouts with 69. Furthermore, he allowed only 18 earned runs in 52 appearances. Chapman’s season was not a disappointment but his team did not due him justice.

2018, Chapman would return as an All-Star selection but did not attend the game due to wanting to heal from a knee related injury. Chapman did not lose a single game in 2018. His record for that season being 3-0. A season low ERA as a closer with 2.45 and 32 saves that year set Chapman up for another playoff run with the Yankees. Yet, again, the Yankees fell flat losing to the eventual champions the Boston Red Sox. Unlike the Astros, this loss was more personal as the Yankees had beaten the Red Sox in almost every major category that year but could not beat them when it mattered. Chapman still had one ring and wanted more.

However, in all of the seasons that Chapman had spent with the Yankees 2019 would be both his best and his worst. He recorded 37 saves, 3-2 record, 2.21 ERA and in 60 relief appearances struck out 85 batters. The Yankees were the favorite to win the World Series by a mile, the only thing that it seemed would stop them was the Los Angeles Dodgers. However, the team that they had played against in 2017 would return. the Houston Astros, who were under suspicion of sign stealing prior played the Yankees in what would be a series for the ages. The Yankees were back and forth but the Astros would not die. They battled back and continually hammered the Yankees pitching, even Chapman took a beating in the playoffs. However, Game 6 would be the worst. Chapman, the ace closer for the Yankees was sent in to bring some life to the Yankees at the end of a long Game 6. It did not go well. Chapman was able to get two outs in the 9th but Jose Altuve would seal the deal with a walk-off home-run that would send the Astros to the World Series. Chapman was the ultimate failure for the Yankees fanbase as he had let them down when they needed him most.

Current Status

As it already has appeared the Yankees have done well going into 2020 as it is. Chapman’s 2020 has not been so lucky as he had tested positive for COVID-19 in July. Chapman has yet to appear this season and with Gerrit Cole being the new highest paid pitcher in baseball it seems the Yankees may have found their answer to their problems in the postseason. Chapman still remains on the roster and hopefully will continue so as he is pleasure to watch due to his speed, precision, and composure under pressure. 2019 was a setback for him and the Yankees but hopefully 2020 will be much better and Chapman will earn his second World Series.

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