At the end of last season, all the talk in baseball surrounded the Nationals decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg. Baseball writers, managers and fans all weighed in with their views, which basically weighed up the advantages of protecting a young pitcher’s reconstructed elbow with the disadvantages of crippling the post-season chances of the Washington Nationals. For the record, I agreed with the decision of Nats GM Mike Rizzo, but that is a discussion for a different day. The reason I bring this debate up, is because it’s equivalent in the pre-season is the Reds decision to move Chapman from the bullpen to the rotation.
The debate has not been as heated as the Strasburg debate was, at least not yet, but as opening day approaches, the arguments are gathering momentum.
In 2012, Aroldis Chapman was good. In fact, he was historically good. He had always had the 100mph+ fastball that made fans stay to the end, but he began to perfect the finer arts of pitching, notably location. In 2011 he walked 41 batters in 50 innings, which contributed to a good-but-not-great 1.30 WHIP. In 2012, he walked just 23 guys in 71.2 innings, and although the hit rate remained remarkably consistent, he was able to transform his WHIP to an otherworldly 0.81. Quietly, he and Craig Kimbrel delivered two of the greatest closer seasons of all time. He struck out a ridiculous 122 hitters on his way to a 1.51 ERA and 38 saves, despite spending the first month of the season as the 8th-inning man. There’s no question, he was one of the most dominant relief pitchers in baseball last season, which of course begs the question – if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
The answer is, in my opinion, perfectly simple. As a reliever, Chapman’s effectiveness is limited by the number of innings he pitches. Chapman pitched 71.2 innings in 2012, or in other words, he retired 215 batters. If he became a starter, he would pitch (perhaps not this year, but at some stage you’d like to think) up to 210 innings. 210 innings is, conveniently, almost three times as many as he threw in 2012. He would retire three times as many hitters, and for that reason would be so much more valuable. Yes, of course his WHIP and ERA would probably take a hit as a result of his need to dial back the fastball in order to pitch up to 100 times in an outing, but the simple fact is that starters are always more valuable than relievers, if they can successfully make the transition.
Some relievers don’t have the stuff to be effective starters, but in short bursts can be successful out of the bullpen. Of course, some people believe this could be the case with Chapman. There’s no doubt about it, he’ll need to make adjustments. There’s no chance he could throw 100mph more than 30 times in a game, and so he’ll need to dial down the velocity and pitch closer to 95mph. He also threw his fastball 88% of the time according to baseball reference, and he’ll have to change that once he’s pitching at a velocity hitters can actually see. But any argument that Chapman doesn’t have the stuff to be a starter is foolish. He started for Cuba for several years (and successfully too) before defecting to the US. He was the Reds best starter in Spring Training last year (even if it was only Spring Training) and it’s easy to overlook the fact he has an excellent slider, made more effective by his fastball. He’s re-introduced a splitter to his arsenal, and catcher Miguel Olivo was impressed by his change-up in pre-season work. There are bound to be growing pains, particularly concerning the increased workload. Chapman was forced to take 10 days off his throwing programme at the back-end of last season due to arm tiredness, and this kind of problem is likely to be exacerbated by a heavy workload. But there’s no doubt in my mind that Chapman provides much more value to the Reds in the rotation than in the bullpen if he can be effective.
One point that is bizarrely being used as a reason not to move Chapman is that he has proven he has the mental toughness to handle the ninth inning. This idea is absurd on two counts. The first is the idea that pitching in the ninth inning is for some reason more difficult than any of the other eight innings in baseball. The role of closer itself goes against everything we know in baseball (that’s a post for another time), and even if being a closer involved some sort of special ability, the Reds possess one of these rare breeds of pitchers who don’t crumble in the 9th inning in the form of Jonathan Broxton who has 111 career saves to his name. If Chapman is able to successfully transition to the rotation, he becomes a pitcher who is three times more valuable for the Reds. If he is not, then they can move him back to the bullpen next season. On the flip side, the longer they keep Chapman in the bullpen the harder it would become to stretch out his arm and make him a starter. It can be argued that with the Reds in contention now, it is not a time to be messing about stretching out Chapman’s arm, as he can provide immediate value in the ‘pen. But the Reds have been set up to contend for several years, and whilst they may not get the immediate returns in 2013, he’d become immeasurably more valuable as a starter in years to come.
Put simply, this is a gamble the Reds have to try on the decent chance that it pays off. Chapman will likely post an average stat-line this season, with an elite strikeout rate, but some trouble keeping the ball in the park (a problem that may be more poignant at GABP). However, he will become a better pitcher as he learns the trade, and with the raw stuff he has, he may become a Cy Young contender in future seasons – something that will be impossible whilst he is restricted to 70 innings in the bullpen. Chapman was paid by the Reds to become a starter, and whilst this move by GM Walt Jocketty is bold, it is necessary and correct.