With the Little League World Series set to begin on Thursday, fans will watch 12-year-olds face pitches from 46 feet away that reach the plate as quickly as an upper-90s fastball in Major League Baseball.
The hardest throwers in the LLWS give opponents about as much time to react as pitchers throwing 100 miles per hour pitch in the MLB. And yet, that still gives them more time to react to a pitch from Aroldis Chapman 60 feet 6 inches away.
With a fastball that regularly touches 102 miles per hour, the Cincinnati Reds' left-hander is striking out batters at a pace that has never been seen before. The hardest thrower that professional baseball has seen was at it again on Wednesday, when he made just his third appearance of the month. With his struggling Reds behind, Chapman entered in the ninth inning to strike out the side, rather decisively, against the Boston Red Sox.
The Cuban import has only pitched 37.1 innings on the season after recovering from facial fractures from a line drive back at him in March and with his team going many games between save opportunities of late. But Chapman has struck out 74 batters. It only takes some quick mental math to realize that's nearly two strikeouts per inning. That extra third of an inning pitched officially makes Chapman's strikeouts per nine an astounding 17.84.
Strikeout numbers in baseball have been on the rise, especially over the last four to five years, much like passing totals in the NFL. But while usage rates and adjustments to the rules can affect a quarterback's effectiveness in the NFL, pitchers in baseball have been pushing the limits without such assistance.
Craig Kimbrel holds the best strikeouts per nine innings mark for a season of at least 20 innings pitched with 17.42 in 2010. He also holds the record for a more reasonable minimum inning requirement when he fanned 16.66 per nine over 62.2 innings in 2012. Chapman's would-be record-setting mark is over an inning total somewhere between Kimbrel's two totals. And he sits within striking range of punching out two batters an inning for an entire season.
Looking back into baseball history, finding a pitcher who has done that becomes silly. It's like searching for the best career batting averages and acknowledging Cliff Dapper's .471 mark because he went 8-for-17. The most number of innings a pitcher has thrown in a season while maintaining an 18 strikeout per nine inning clip is 5.2. That would be Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez, at his peak of dominance, when he struck out 13 of the 17 outs he recorded in 2002. Even more recently, Dellin Betances K'ed exactly 10 in five innings last year for the Yankees. But those are the only two strikeout per nine rates better than Chapman's for all pitchers who have thrown at least five innings. For Chapman to be matching those outliers over nearly 40 innings is unprecedented.
There's still time for Chapman's strikeout rate to fall as he pushes it closer and closer toward what is even mathematically possible (ball-getting-away-from-the-catcher technicalities aside). But as you watch the best teenagers dominate hitters from 46 feet away, take time to consider and appreciate what Aroldis Chapman is doing from regulation distance against the best hitters in the world.
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