MLB Playoff Star Power Index: Is Chapman’s hand OK for Yankees’ ALCS? Plus, the Soto Shuffle and more

Welcome to the MLB Star Power Index — a weekly temperature reading that tells us which players are owning the baseball conversation right now. While one’s presence on this list is often a positive, it’s not necessarily a good thing. It simply means that you’re capturing the baseball world’s attention for one reason or another. The players listed are in no particular order. 

Party People, this one goes out to you, the Party People. 

Let us acknowledge Aroldis Chapman for a couple of reasons. First, he’s still very good at his chosen craft. At age 31 and even after 550 mostly high-leverage relief appearances (584 if you count the postseason, and, buddy, we count the postseason), he can still phone it up to 100 mph with some regularity. He also remains adept at suffocating opposing hitters, as his 2019 ERA of 2.21 and FIP of 2.21 would surely attest from the nearest mountaintop. Chapman is particularly vital to the Yankees‘ hopes right about now as they get set to tussle with the mighty Astros in the ALCS. The Yankees rotation isn’t quite up to the standards set by the remainder of the roster, and that’s why manager Aaron Boone will continue to lean heavily on his assortment of fire-breathers in the bullpen. Aroldis Chapman, thy name is Fire-Breather in the Bullpen. 

So as Chapman readies himself to record high-stakes outs in the Republic of Texas, let us acknowledge the numbers among the Party People of this large land. We know this because Chapman, in right-wise celebration of sports conquest, suffered an injury while treating the party before him like the verb that it is. Via the New York Post, where the good times go to read about good times: 

And in the clubhouse after Aroldis Chapman got the final five outs of the series-clinching, 5-1 win over the Twins, Chapman had his left hand heavily bandaged, but insisted he was fine.

“I was just celebrating and everyone was jumping around,” Chapman said through an interpreter. “I got hit with a bottle, but it’s fine.”

Brian Cashman said he noticed Chapman’s hand when he fist-bumped the closer.

Chapman is of course left-handed, and it was left hand that was swaddled in tape and gauze. Those facts alone make this concerning from the Yankee standpoint, especially given Chapman’s importance to their championship aspirations. Also, note that we’re not talking about some wee merest band-aid here: 

That’s a photo tweeted out by an account devoted to oil and gas industry news. Anyway, note the “Hyperion, moon of Saturn”-sized bandage around Chapman’s business hand. Disconcerting, no? It’s also very 2019 Yankees for a core contributor to get mangled by an implement of the Good Life. And who’s throwing bottles in the clubhouse? For purposes of intrigue, let’s assume it was the thrown bottle that injured Chapman. Someone, it seems, forgot the rules: 

The latest word is that Chapman will be amply healed for the ALCS, but to repeat: left-handed and left hand. Who can say what the future holds. No question mark there because it was a rhetorical question. 

Jack Flaherty‘s start in Game 5 of the NLDS, in which the Cardinals threw the Braves from a moving train, down a rocky hillside, and into a shallow inlet of nitric acid, roused the people into stomping and shouting slogans mostly because manager Mike Shildt left Flaherty in for 104 pitches despite being staked to a 10-run lead before he threw even one of those 104 pitches. The Cardinals likely had no intention of using the 23-year-old right-hander on short rest in the NLCS, and he can still make two full-rest starts if the series against the Nationals goes the full seven games. 

What’s puzzling about Shildt’s decision is letting Flaherty work six innings (and throw those 104 pitches) in a game they won 13-1. Maybe it was in the name preserving Flaherty’s routine, even at a risk of mounting fatigue. Flaherty is now up to 209 1/3 innings on the season (regular season plus playoffs) after never throwing more than 182 2/3 innings in professional season prior to this year. Maybe that’s not a huge leap in workload, but there’s at least some risk that Flaherty could hit an untimely wall soon. 

Maybe lost in all this is that, yeah, the Jack of Starts once again twirled a gem. Over those fretted-over six innings, Flaherty struck out eight, walked one and allowed one run on four hits. In his Game 2 start, Flaherty allowed three runs in seven innings. That’s notable because not since July 2 has Flaherty allowed more than three runs in a start. In his final 16 starts of the regular season, Flaherty, over a span of 106 1/3 innings, pitched to an ERA of 0.93 (!) with 120 strikeouts, 24 walks, six home runs allowed and only one unearned run permitted. In the ALDS, he notched a 2.77 ERA over his two starts. 

As the Cards get ready for the Nats, let’s take yet another moment to appreciate the roll that Flaherty’s been on. At this point — 18 starts in a row with no more than three runs allowed — the safe assumption is that he’ll take the Nats’ bats in Game 3 and if necessary Game 7. 

Thanks to his pair of NLDS homers — the last of which, off Clayton Kershaw, was clutch in the extreme — Nationals outfielder Juan Soto is finally getting some of the attention he merits. This is a 20-year-old who through 266 MLB games across two seasons has 56 home runs, 57 doubles, 187 walks and an OPS+ of 140. Even playing in the majors at such an age is itself a sign of future greatness, but Soto is not only playing but also thriving. He’s got an impossibly disciplined approach at the plate for his age, and the power from the left side is obvious. The reasonable expectation is that he’ll be one of the best hitters in baseball for the next decade-plus. 

Maybe it’s because his service time roughly overlaps with that of Ronald Acuna Jr., but Soto hasn’t really gotten his due as a player who’s peppering leaderboards at an age when most hitters are sizing up High-A ball. Maybe a .278/.409/.611 in the NLDS and a spot in the NLCS will get him more eyeballs and bandwidth. 

Speaking of eyeballs, the more people who get a glimpse of the “Soto Shuffle,” the better. Regard: 

Is this the Buffalo Stance of which Ms. Neneh Cherry crooned? Possibly to probably. Enemies of whimsy will surely meow about such provocative behavior in the batter’s box most sacred, but they’ll meow about anything, really. Let Soto himself explain the shuffle (via Jamal Collier): 

Q. What you do after you take a pitch, what are you trying to convey, is that something for you and how did that start?

JUAN SOTO: That started in the minor leagues. I like to get in the minds of the pitchers because sometimes they get scared. In the minor leagues some pitchers get scared, they say, oh, wow, because they never see that before. I just try to get on their minds and all this stuff.

I still do it here in the big leagues. A couple of the guys tell me, hey, you can keep doing it, but do it in the right situation and that’s what I’m trying right now. Because in those tight moments everybody’s paying attention, everybody wants to get the job done and if you get a little bit of that and get a little bit comfortable with that, and confidence to get the job done, you kept one step in front.

Q. So it feeds your confidence as well.

JUAN SOTO: Yeah, it fuels my confidence. It just me getting more confidence at the plate. 

So in the NLCS, please enjoy the Soto Shuffle. Also enjoy or at least acknowledge the three home runs that Soto is going to hit in the NLCS. 

Carlos Correa is a 25-year-old capable defensive shortstop who’s got a career 137 OPS+ and who’s averaged 30 home runs per 162 games played over that career. The problem has been health. Since playing 153 games in his “sophomore” season of 2016, Correa has played in 109, 110 and 75 regular season games per year. That’s a lot of missed time, and much of it is owing to what’s starting to seem like chronic back problems. 

Regarding those, here are some recent words from Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle

The last saga surrounding Carlos Correa’s back began while he sat through a four-hour flight to Seattle in September. The Astros shortstop missed the final six games of the regular season, causing concern for the looming playoff race and the travel it brings.

Eliminating any sitting seemed to solve the issue.

Correa claimed he laid in the aisle throughout the club’s two-hour flight to Tampa Bay on Sunday for the American League Division Series.

To repeat and emphasize, Corra says he lay in the aisle during a recent flight from Texas to Florida to as to prevent his lower back from seizing up. That’s not optimal when you’re just 25 years old and play Major League Baseball for a living (and play the demanding position of shortstop, at that). 

With all sample size caveats duly noted, Correa in that recently completed ALDS triumph over the Rays batted .158/.158/.211, and that was after playing just three regular season games since Aug. 19. Performance over such a minuscule span may mean nothing, but it’s not as easy to dismiss in light of Correa’s back problems. As the ALCS looms, it’s also worth noting that the flight from Houston to New York is more than an hour longer than the flight from Houston to St. Pete. That’s a long time in the aisle. 

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