TOLEDO, Ohio — The Minor League debut of Reds pitching sensation Aroldis Chapman was befitting a man destined for a quick and major change of scenery.
Chapman, the Cuban defector who signed a six-year, $30.25 million deal with Cincinnati on Jan. 11, lit up the radar gun and opposing hitters in his first U.S. regular-season appearance on Sunday with the Triple-A Louisville Bats. Facing the Toledo Mud Hens, Detroit’s Triple-A affiliate, Chapman allowed one unearned run, struck out nine and unleashed three pitches that registered 101 mph in 4 2/3 innings of the Bats’ 2-1 triumph.
“No debut compares to that at this level,” Louisville manager Rick Sweet said. “As soon as the radar gun hit 100, you could hear the buzz in the ballpark.”
Chapman, a 6-foot-4, 185-pound lefty from Holguin, Cuba, walked one batter in his 85 pitches and threw 55 strikes. Of the five hits — all singles — Chapman allowed, only former Tigers player Clete Thomas’ sharp second-inning grounder past the second baseman left the infield.
Sweet removed Chapman with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth after one of those infield rollers plated Toledo’s lone run.
“I was happy today that everything went about how I wanted it to,” Chapman said through interpreter and team trainer Tomas Vera. “Of course, there were pitches that couldn’t do what I wanted them to, but overall, I was happy.”
Chapman and catcher Wilkin Castillo worked to establish the Cuban’s blistering fastball early and moved to more sliders and changeups as the game wore on.
While Chapman used his offspeed pitches with varying degrees of success, his fastball was simply too much for Toledo to handle. He fired 10 pitches that read 99 mph or faster and five that traveled at least 100 mph.
Have pity on Toledo outfielder Brennan Boesch, who struck out twice on 101- and 100-mph fastballs, respectively.
Chapman also threw another pitch to Boesch that reached triple digits.
“It was like, ‘Oh my God,’ he broke my hand, man,” Castillo said. “They didn’t have a chance [on the fastball]. They were late.”
Chapman’s American professional debut came on a special day for highly touted pitching prospects in the Reds’ organization and throughout baseball. Cincinnati’s 2009 No. 1 Draft pick, Mike Leake, debuted in the Reds’ 3-1 win over the Cubs at Great American Ball Park on Sunday, while baseball’s top-rated pitching prospect, Washington pitcher Stephen Strasburg, made his first pro start for Double-A Harrisburg.
An announced crowd of 5,642 was on hand at Toledo’s Fifth Third Field to witness Chapman’s first start. The Bats’ game was also streamed live on reds.com and .com.
Back spasms on March 22 sidelined Chapman for a couple of days during Spring Training, and it ultimately derailed his bid to make the Reds’ starting rotation out of camp. The Reds optioned Chapman to Louisville on April 2, even though the hard-throwing lefty concluded his Cactus League campaign with a 1.69 and 15 strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings.
Toledo manager and former Major Leaguer Larry Parrish was impressed with Chapman’s arm strength, but he saw some mechanical flaws that he felt would need to be ironed out before Chapman joins the Reds.
“He wasn’t J.R. Richard or Nolan Ryan out there,” Parrish said. “Today, he walked one. In the big leagues, he would’ve walked eight.
“Would you like to have him? Heck yeah, but he’s just not a finished project yet.”