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Reds' Chapman throws 100 ... a good first step

3/9/2010

Joe Posnanski was in Arizona Monday, and apparently was sitting next to long, longtime scout Art Stewart who ... well, both Posnanski and Stewart were impressed:

But the amazing part was the ease ... there was no grunting, no straining, no laboring. You hear that line all the time about athletes who look as if they were born to do something. Chapman struck out David DeJesus on a hard-sweeping slider that seemed to break two feet. He struck out Chris Getz on a 100-mph fastball that sliced the outside corner – anyway Stewart clocked the pitch at 100 mph. Another scout clocked it at 102. Another got it at 98. Chris Getz’s speed approximation: “It was moving.”

Two batters later Chapman struck out Rick Ankiel on a slider that Ankiel missed by so much he had to be rebooked on a later flight. Watching Ankiel trying to hit Chapman was somewhere between comedy and tragedy; you got the sense that if Ankiel faced Chapman 100 times, he would strike out 100 times.

The Ankiel at-bat was especially poignant because there was a time, not long ago, when Ankiel was that left-handed pitching phenom, the 19-year-old kid who had struck out 416 batters in just 298 minor league innings. No, you never know exactly how the phenom’s story will play out.

On a day like this, really, anything seems possible.

“I would say Chapman has the best young left-handed arm I’ve seen since Herb Score,” Art Stewart says, and here he is referring back to one of my heroes, Score, who as a 22 and 23-year-old for the Cleveland Indians led the American League in strikeouts. That was in 1955 and 1956. Score seemed to be on his way to becoming one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history – Sandy Koufax before Sandy Koufax – when he got hit in the eye on a line drive by Gil McDougald.

But, Art Stewart concedes, even the Herb Score comparison isn’t quite right because Score had a famously violent motion. Chapman makes you think he could throw 115 mph if he was really trying.

Other solid candidates for Best Young Left-Handed Arm Since Herb Score: Sam McDowell, Vida Blue, and Frank Tanana, all of whom Stewart must have seen.

McDowell won 141 games, Blue 209, Tanana 240 (most of those coming after his arm was shredded).

All three of those guys averaged at least a strikeout per inning when they were 23 or younger. Also on the list: Oliver Perez (the leader, with 11 K/9 when 22), Scott Kazmir (10.4), Rick Ankiel (10), Clayton Kershaw (9.7) and Sid Fernandez (9.5).

Without doing some serious research, I can't tell you which of these lefties threw real hard with ease. I should have a good scouting report on McDowell handy, but don't. Here's what Roger Angell wrote about Vida Blue, though: "His motion looked to be without effort or mannerism: a quick, lithe body-twist toward first base, a high lift and crook of the right leg, a swift forward stride -- almost a leap -- and the ball, delivered about three-quarters over the top, abruptly arrived, a flick of white at the plate."

I don't know that anyone every accused Blue of throwing 100, but I suspect that he threw about as hard as anyone in the early '70s, outside of Nolan Ryan (and McDowell was probably No. 1 in the late '60s). One thing we don't know about Chapman: Can he consistenly throw in the upper 90s for seven or eight innings? Because there are a lot of major leaguers, right now, who can do that for two innings. Maybe not with so much (apparent) ease ... but the batter doesn't care much about your delivery unless it's particularly deceptive; what matters to him is how fast the baseball is moving, and in which direction.

Today, we know a little bit more about Chapman than we knew yesterday. We don't know enough, yet. If he was obviously the best left-handed pitcher in the National League, he would have cost more than $30 million. Doesn't mean he's not. It just means it's too early to know if he'll win as many games as Sudden Sam McDowell. Or even Herb Score.