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LHP Chapman’s fastball an overnight sensation

- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 1, 2010

CINCINNATI (AP) - Sometimes, left-hander Aroldis Chapman can't help but peek.

A murmur will go through the crowd when one of his express-lane fastballs smacks the catcher's mitt and the estimated speed is shown in triple-digits on the ballpark scoreboard. The 22-year-old Cuban hears the commotion and can't help but sneak a glance to see what big number has popped up.

"Once in a while, I take a look and yeah, I get surprised and really happy to see what it is," Chapman said.

From now on, scoreboard watching will take on a little different meaning every time he lets one fly.

Chapman made his big league debut with the NL Central-leading Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday night and pitched a perfect inning. He threw eight pitches, half of them reaching at least 100 mph on the Great American Ball Park board. Two of them clocked in at 102.

He was even faster the second time around.

Pitching the seventh inning on Wednesday night, he hit 103 mph twice while throwing another perfect inning, fanning two on sliders. He threw 11 pitches, six of them clocking triple digits.

Still not his best.

At Triple-A Louisville, he hit 104 and 105 mph on the radar board, turning his fastball into an urban legend even before he arrived in the majors.

Fans love the big numbers _ the crowd roared every time one popped up during the 8-4 win over Milwaukee on Tuesday night. But is there more to it than just the allure?

Sure is. Just ask a hitter.

"The old adage is that speed kills, and it does," Hall of Famer Joe Morgan said in an interview Wednesday. "Guys who throw hard are the most successful because there's an intimidation factor in there, too. If a guy throws real hard and the ball gets there quick, there is a slight fear factor."

The three Brewers who faced Chapman had trouble catching up with his best pitch.

He fanned Jonathan Lucroy by throwing a 98 mph fastball, an 86 mph slider, a 102 mph fastball and an 86 mph slider that tied him up. Craig Counsell got a 100 mph fastball and another at 102 _ he grounded out to shortstop on that one. Pinch-hitter Carlos Gomez also went down on two pitches, a 101 mph fastball and another at 98 mph that he grounded to second base.

"I think he can be a weapon for them because, let's face it, people that throw that hard, there's an intimidation factor," Counsell said. "That's why closers are usually hard throwers."

A Louisville Slugger researcher pointed out on Wednesday that it takes little more than a third of a second for a ball to travel the approximately 55 feet to the plate once it leaves Chapman's hand at more than 100 miles per hour. That leaves a batter little time to make up his mind and start to swing.

Better not blink.

"The speed bothers you because you have to rush your swing," Morgan said. "And the other (pitches) bother you because once you rush and something else happens, you've got to adjust to that."

Batters were so keyed to Chapman's fastball that his slider became tough to track in such a short time. Reds manager Dusty Baker noted that the dominant pitchers of any era have more than just a superior fastball.

"Fast didn't bother me _ if they were around the plate," Baker said. "It's what they have to go with the 'fast' that bothers you. If they can put something in the back of your mind _ curve, slider, changeup _ it makes the fast look even faster. That's what bothers you."

Chapman didn't become overpowering at Louisville until the Reds moved him into a relief role in July. He had a 4.11 ERA as a starter, needing a lot of pitches to get through five innings. Throwing hard didn't translate into domination until he got his control and his other pitches in order.

"If he's throwing 103 and it's down the middle, guys are going to hit it," Counsell said. "There are guys that are going to hit it hard."

One thing working in Chapman's favor is that batters don't see the triple-digit pitch very often. The Society for American Baseball Research said that only three other major leaguers have thrown a pitch 102 mph in the last two years _ Detroit's Joel Zumaya, the Dodgers' Jonathan Broxton and the Mets' Bobby Parnell.

By using Chapman out of the bullpen, the Reds give him another advantage. Batters won't get to face him more than once in any game, making it tougher for them to get acclimated to the heat.

"He's taken it to a level that's different, that we haven't seen in a while," Counsell said. "The guy's throwing really hard. The first time you face a guy, it's always a little tougher, especially a guy that's doing something you've never seen before."

And, there's always the allure.

Baker remembered that when he was a youth, researchers used photoelectric cells to estimate the speed of major league pitches. Tests suggested that Cleveland's Bob Feller threw at triple-digits.

"I remember as a kid hearing about Bob Feller throwing 100 mph," Baker said. "I thought that was the most amazing thing I'd ever heard. I was like, 'Man, the guy's throwing 100?'"

Back then, it was big news.

Same now. The number's just slightly bigger.

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