On Aug. 27, before a Louisville, Ky. crowd of less than 10,000, a lanky, 6-foot-4-inch pitcher paced the mound. The score was 1-1 in the top of the ninth inning with two outs and a 1-2 count. The mysterious hurler reared back and threw a 105 mph fastball, which was fouled off, then blew the hitter away with a 104 mph heater on the next pitch.
That pitcher's name is Aroldis Chapman, and he's currently shutting down Major League talent for the Cincinnati Reds. Called up on Aug. 31, Chapman, a Cuban, has already thrown the three fastest pitches in the majors this season and has yet to allow an earned run. Perhaps the most novel thing about Chapman, besides his prodigious fastball, is the fact that he was relatively unknown until as recently as last year - a real-life, pitching version of Roy Hobbs.
Living in the information age, it's easy for the common fan to read up on any and every prospect from the 50-round Major League Baseball draft each year. This year's No. 1 pick, Bryce Harper, made the cover of Sports Illustrated last year as a 16-year-old. Last year's No. 1 pick, Stephen Strasburg, had an
entourage of scouts following his every move at San Diego State University. Even talented rural high school players can have extensive scouting reports. This makes Chapman and his mid-100s fastball that much more of an anomaly.
We have United States-Cuban relations to thank for our dearth of information about Chapman. The icy attitude between the countries has made scouting Cuban prospects a difficult and often wasteful endeavor. Even if a tremendous talent is unearthed, MLB teams can do nothing but pray for his defection; there aren't going to be any work visas handed out.
That is why Chapman remained somewhat of a mystery until his participation in the World Baseball Classic last March that permitted scouts a tantalizing glimpse at his bottled-lightning fastball. Even then, Cuban rules forbade him to speak to scouts or media; his abilities and background remained shrouded in secrecy. A March 13, 2009 article by The New York Times claimed that Chapman was 26-years-old; he is actually 22. And respected agent Joe Kehoskie, when asked in July 2009 about Chapman's potential, said, "I don't believe Chapman is Cuba's best pitcher right now, or even in the top five."
Murmurs of the mythical Cuban southpaw with Kenny Powers-like velocity turned to reality in June of last year when Chapman defected during a tournament in the Netherlands. From there, he got an agent, established residency in Andorra and waited to be approved for free agency. Finally, Chapman agreed to a six-year, $30.25 million contract with the Cincinnati Reds in January. American baseball fans were at last going to vet the supposed superstar.
In Chapman's spring training debut against the Kansas City Royals, his fastball touched 100 mph three times. The hype was justified, but Cincinnati nonetheless sent their fabled prospect to the minor leagues to start the season. There, Chapman awed tiny minor-league towns with his big-league fastball, lurking in obscurity until the Reds unleashed him in the middle of a pennant race on Aug. 31. To say that the southpaw has exceeded expectations since would be an understatement.
With the advent of the information age, it's important to appreciate the unlikelihood of such an unknown player rocketing to stardom so quickly. The ubiquity of scouting and the presence of the Internet make stories like that of 1984 film The Natural feel less and less believable every day. Now, such generational talents are brought to light well before they ever reach the big leagues, making Chapman's ascent a marvelous rarity.
One has to go back all the way to the mid-1950s to find an apt comparison to Chapman. A scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers at that time investigated a tip from a local sporting goods store owner that led him to a southpaw with the best stuff he had ever seen. The Dodgers signed the pitcher to a massive contract, and within the year he was mowing down major leaguers. Now, of course, Sandy Koufax is widely regarded as the best left-handed pitcher in history.
That isn't to say that Chapman's story will result in similar grandeur - after all, he's only pitched for three weeks. Strasburg's tale of glory was put on hold last month for dreaded Tommy John surgery, and the ending of The Natural was much darker in print than in film. For now, though, we should sit back and appreciate the effortless awesomeness of Chapman, who may very well be the last 'natural' in the world of baseball.