Just when we thought that it would be a “tame” winter for the Kansas City Royals in their first Dayton Moore-less offseason, JJ Picollo and the Royals go out and make this move:
According to Feinsand, Chapman has agreed to a one-year deal worth $3.75 million (though he could earn more if he reaches certain performance incentives).
As expected, the move has been a polarizing one among Royals fans, including among spouses of Royals alumni (such as Mark Teahen):
Baseball and sports become pretty tricky in situations like this.
On one end, it’s a business. A team like the Royals, who can’t afford or entice big-name free agents to come to their small market team, has to look for any advantage they can get. Chapman certainly is coming off a rough season that resulted in him not only posting a 4.46 ERA but losing the Yankees’ closer job in 2022.
That being said, he still sports some of the best stuff in the league, as his fastball velocity still ranked in the 96th percentile, according to Baseball Savant. Hence, it is possible, with some lessened expectations, and a change of scenery in Kansas City, Chapman could become a valuable reliever again, which is what this bullpen needs after ranking 27th in reliever ERA a season ago.
Let’s look at three questions that should be on the mind of Royals fans in the wake of this polarizing free-agent signing.
Will Chapman Harnass His Control in Kansas City?
Over the past two seasons, a significant issue for the 34-year-old lefty has been Chapman’s struggle on the mound to control walks.
In 61 appearances and 56.1 IP in 2021, according to Fangraphs, Chapman posted a 6.09 BB/9 and a K/BB ratio of 2.55, the latter being nearly three points lower than his mark in 2020. Things, unfortunately, didn’t get better in those two categories last season, as his BB/9 increased to 6.94, and his K/BB ratio declined to 1.54 over 36.1 innings of work.
A big reason for that 1.01 decline in his K/BB ratio was a decline in strikeouts in 2022. That regression in strikeouts seemed to stem back to the midway point of the 2021 season, as Chapman saw a dip in K rate around that time, according to his career rolling K% chart (via Baseball Savant).
As Royals fans can see, his K rate toward the end of the year was his lowest percentage since 2015. On the other hand, although Chapman’s strikeouts trended in the wrong direction last year, he still was well above the league average in this category in 2022.
To compare, Chapman’s CSW rate (called plus swinging strike rate) of 30.9 percent would’ve been the third-highest mark of Royals relievers who pitched 10 or more innings last season, according to Fangraphs. Also, if Chapman can regress back to his career CSW rate of 33.1 percent? That would be up there with the best mark for Royals relievers, as Scott Barlow’s CSW rate in 2022 (which was tops among Royals relievers) was 33.2 percent.
Another positive sign is that Chapman only allowed a contact rate of 69.1 percent in his final season with the Yankees. That would’ve been the second-best mark of Royals relievers last season (behind only Barlow’s 68.4 percent mark). His 2022 contact rate was the highest rate he’s had since 2019, but it also shows that he can still make batters swing and miss, even in a season of regression.
Chapman’s splitter also was an effective pitch in 2022 when it came to generating swings and misses, despite his disappointing overall season. Even though he only threw it 14.9 percent of the time, according to Savant, Chapman only allowed a 29 percent hard-hit rate on the pitch, and also produced a K rate of 41 percent as well.
Here’s a look at the splitter getting Boston’s Bobby Dalbec to look foolish at Fenway Park back in September:
Also, this breakdown from Greg Jewett on Twitter demonstrates how effective his splitter was, especially during that save streak he had in his final days with the Yankees:
Expect the Royals to continue to push for Chapman to utilize the splitter to help him generate more swinging strikes, which could lower those high walk rates from the past two seasons.
Additionally, new Royals pitching coach Brian Sweeney came from an organization that was known for developing and prioritizing control with their pitchers, especially relievers. If Sweeney can impart some of that magic onto Chapman, it is possible that the Cuban reliever could bounce back and be a productive setup man and spot closer in the Royals bullpen in 2023.
What Will Be Chapman’s Role in the Royals Bullpen?
The days of Chapman being a regular closer are likely over, and that seems to be what a lot of Royals fans who disagree with the signing (as well as Yankees fans) seem to be harping in response to Chapman’s signing:
However, the Royals do not need Chapman to be the closer, which works in Kansas City’s favor.
Barlow was one of the American League’s most underrated closers, as he posted a 2.18 ERA and saved 24 games in 69 appearances and 74.1 IP in 2022, according to Fangraphs. Unless an injury happens in Spring Training, Barlow is not in danger of losing the Royals closer’s job to Chapman or any other Royals reliever at this time.
And that’s a good thing.
It means the Royals will have depth in the bullpen, something they really haven’t had since their 2014-2015 World Series runs when they were throwing out Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, and Greg Holland, just to name a few.
It also means that Barlow won’t be utilized so much, as former manager Mike Matheny constantly brought out Barlow for multi-inning save opportunities or whenever the Royals were in an insurmountable jam. While it was nice to see the Royals’ best reliever in high-leverage situations, it also was discouraging to see Barlow overworked and with not many backup plans behind him if something went south (which wasn’t often, thankfully).
Chapman helps give Barlow and the Royals bullpen some insurance, especially with Chapman’s recent experience as Yankees closer. In addition to Chapman, the Royals still have a promising young reliever in Dylan Coleman, and they could see bounce-back seasons from Amir Garrett and Josh Staumont, who struggled with consistency and injuries, respectively.
In fact, here’s a look at the projections of the Royals’ projected bullpen, according to Roster Resource:
Honestly, if those projections come close to fruition, the Royals could have one of the most productive and under-heralded bullpens not just in the AL Central, but perhaps in all of baseball in 2023.
Will Chapman’s Off-Field and Clubhouse Issues Be a Problem?
There’s no question that there is a considerable risk for the Royals when it comes to Chapman’s impact in the clubhouse and with the fanbase.
Last season, the Royals were a fun young core who brought a lot of energy to the clubhouse and to the field, especially at Kauffman Stadium. While the Royals lost 97 games in 2022, it was a much different ballclub after the August Trade Deadline, and young stars like Bobby Witt, Jr. and MJ Melendez could be two of the examples credited for that turnaround in attitude and energy:
The Royals got better once “veterans” like Whit Merrifield and Andrew Benintendi left the Royals clubhouse. While there’s no questioning their ability and production, especially over the past two seasons, it was obvious that they were holding back the young core from fully taking over leadership in the clubhouse.
Will Chapman affect that, especially after essentially quitting on the Yankees at the end of the season by blowing off a team workout, shortly before the postseason (which prompted the Yankees to leave him off the playoff roster)?
The Royals do not need that kind of “selfish” attitude in any capacity on the roster, especially for a group of players learning how to win consistently at the Major League level (both on a hitting and pitching end).
Chapman was once one of the most “high profile” relievers in baseball prior to 2022 (and maybe 2021, if one asks more pessimistic Yankees fans). Those days are gone however, and he’s going to have to check that previous attitude a bit if he wants to have an impact in Kansas City (and if he wants to land on a contender at the MLB Trade Deadline, which seems like a strong possibility).
As for the off-field stuff, it’s been nearly seven years since Chapman had his domestic abuse incident which cost him 30 games back in 2016 (he was actually the first to be punished by MLB’s domestic violence policy, which didn’t exist prior to Chapman’s incident). That said, the impact still sits with many baseball fans, especially in the wake of Trevor Bauer’s recent suspension and release by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It’s going to be hard for Royals fans to immediately warm up to Chapman because of that history of alleged domestic abuse. Already, the early sentiment among a lot of Royals fans on Twitter doesn’t appear “positive” for Chapman.
My guess is that Chapman said all the right things to Picollo and the Royals’ front office. While the Royals are desperate for pitching talent, they would not have made the deal with Chapman if they felt his off-the-field and clubhouse weren’t behind him…
But saying the right things in the negotiation process is one thing…
Chapman now has to prove it on and off the field in Kansas City to earn the trust of the Royals faithful.
And to be honest…even proving it may not be enough for some Royals fans.
Photo Credit: Quinn Harris/Getty Images