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Aroldis Chapman: a pitcher with a point…or two…or a hundred…

A visit to the Oakland Coliseum this weekend by the Chicago Cubs was an occasion for two sure things: one, a workmanlike sweep of the three games by the Cubs, and two, a lot of oohing and aahing over the very fast fastballs of Aroldis Chapman.

Every pitch from Chapman during his ninth inning appearance in Sunday’s game elicited breathless comments on the game call, as well as studious reports on each pitch’s radar gun reading. “101.7” “102.3” “One Oh Three Point 5!”

Wait. One-oh-one…point seven? Since when did the ballpark radar gun start giving readings in tenths of a mile per hour? And what exactly is the point of that?

Obsession with the radar gun has been around in baseball for a long time. Back in the day, before they even had radar guns, Bob Feller threw a pitch that raced against a guy on a motorcycle, to see which was faster. When I was a kid, the howling fastballs of Goose Gossage were the gold standard for pitching speed. And now, today, it’s Chapman who lights it up and sets ’em down.

All well and good. But do we really need to split the hair so fine that radar readings now give tenths of a mile an hour? When the ball is going 102 mph, it’s safe to say it’s going fast; any gradation above that up to 103 really isn’t making that much of a difference in the outcome of the at bat. To refine those readings to such a point is to fetishize Chapman’s fastballs, almost beyond any concern for whether or not he’s getting batters out.

This is just part of the larger trend–embodied by “Statcast“–that has been growing on baseball lately: a concern for numbers and stats that is all out of proportion with their actual importance. Baseball is, and has always been, a game of numbers and stats–but that has mostly been about the long haul. It’s not a moment by moment thing, nor should it be. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what is the speed of the pitch, or how fast the ball travels when the batter hits it out; what matters is the strikeout, or the roaring home run that results when someone turns that fastball around.

Remember that the next time Chapman hurls a 103 miles per hour pitch…that gets belted way out of the park by Giancarlo Stanton, or Trevor Story, or Bryce Harper. One hundred and five matters…only up to the moment when it doesn’t.

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