Why Reds are right to keep Aroldis Chapman at closer
By Jay Jaffe
For the second straight spring, the Reds have prepared fireballing lefty Aroldis Chapman as a starting pitcher, and for the second straight spring, they have decided that he fits their plans better by pitching out of the bullpen. The Cincinnati Enquirer‘s Paul Daugherty (a contributor to SI.com) has reported that the team is expected to announce later today that Chapman will serve as their closer.
A few weeks ago, I examined the specifics of Chapman’s case in light of last year’s mixed bag of reliever-to-starter conversions and conceded that the risks of moving the 25-year-old southpaw may outweigh the rewards. With a few more weeks to watch the story unfold, it appears from here that Cincinnati is making the right call.
From a general value standpoint, it’s easy to lean back in the armchair and reflexively declare that the Reds are making the Wrong Decision, since the rule of thumb is that a starting pitcher can be far more valuable than a reliever assuming both are able to throw full workloads. However, Chapman, who threw 71 2/3 innings last year, was always likely to be placed on an innings limit that would have left him far short of 200 frames in his first season in the rotation, and it’s fair to admit that once you scale that workload back, the value distinction is a bit grayer.
Consider that among the pitchers who threw less than 180 innings last year, the top 20 starters averaged 2.6 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version) apiece, headed by Kris Medlen, who put up 4.3 WAR in 138 innings spread over 38 relief appearances and an amazing run of 12 late-season starts, and Ryan Dempster, who was worth 3.6 WAR; Stephen Strasburg, at 2.7 WAR, ranked eighth. The top 20 relievers, none of whom made a single start, averaged 2.4 WAR, headed by Fernando Rodney at 3.7 WAR, and by Chapman himself at 3.6. The difference isn’t even a full 0.2 WAR, it’s actually 0.12 since the starters averaged 2.56, the relievers 2.44, but the conventions of rounding and significant digits obscure some of that. In other words, the gap between a very good starter whose innings are limited and an elite reliever was just around one run worth of total value last year.
That may have been just an aberration. Expanding the sample to include the last five years (2008 onward), the top 20 starters with less than 180 innings were worth an average of 4.1 WAR, headed by the 2008 edition of Rich Harden, who threw 148 innings and compiled 5.7 WAR, and Clay Buchholz, who in 2010 was worth 5.4 WAR over 173 innings. The top 20 relievers, with Mariano Rivera’s 2008 (4.2 WAR in 70 2/3 innings) and David Robertson’s 2011 (3.8 WAR in 66 2/3 innings) leading the way, were worth an average of 3.3 WAR, a difference of 0.8 WAR (0.78 if we throw back the curtain on the rounding), or eight runs.
Among those top 20 starters, it’s striking to note the ones who have battled injuries or other durability questions in the years since then. Harden, Buchholz, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Ted Lilly, Scott Baker (who’s in the top 10 twice), Jake Peavy, Justin Duchscherer, Scott Kazmir and Daniel Hudson have all missed at least half of a season due to injuries or injury-related ineffectiveness, with Tommy Hanson (22 starts in 2011) just missing that cut. There’s certainly the potential for a selection bias in these results, given that the pitchers in the sample may not have exceeded 180 innings in those years because of those injuries, and that starting pitchers in general get hurt at alarming rates. As Dodgers trainer Stan Conte — one of the game’s most respected trainers — told ESPN’s Jayson Stark last year, 50 percent of starting pitchers spend at least some time on the disabled list in a given year, compared to 34 percent of relievers. “When I first [computed] that,” said Conte, “I thought, ‘This can’t possibly be right.’ But it is.”
Beyond the increased statistical likelihood of Chapman getting hurt as a starter, here’s a quick look at a few of the other factors that mitigate the Reds’ decision.
• Rotation depth and performance. From an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t fix-it standpoint, it’s tough to begrudge the Reds’ desire to keep last year’s unit intact. Their starting five (Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake) ranked fourth in the NL in ERA (3.64) and third in quality start rate (60 percent) despite toiling in a park that increased scoring by about seven percent. None of the five starters missed a turn in the rotation; only for the nightcap of a doubleheader did they need a sixth starter. Four of the five (all but Leake) threw at least 200 innings with ERAs at least 10 percent better than the park-adjusted league average, making Cincinnati the first team to do so since the 2005 White Sox, and the first NL one to do so since the 1997 Braves. One shouldn’t expect lighting to strike again, but the Reds are starting with a very strong foundation even without Chapman.
• Leake’s two-way ability and strong spring. For a fifth starter, Leake isn’t a bad one. Last year, he made 30 starts and threw 179 innings with a 4.58 ERA and a 4.47 FIP, which is to say that he wasn’t significantly better or worse than his ERA indicated. An exceptional hitter for a pitcher, he also added value by batting .295/.306/.443 with two homers in 69 PA. In fact, he was worth more as a hitter (1.0 WAR) than as a pitcher (0.6), and the same is true over the course of his three-year career (2.5 batting, 1.7 pitching). Move him to the bullpen and except for the rare pinch-hitting appearance in a game where he might not be available to pitch, his value with the stick would disappear. By comparison, Chapman has never batted in a regular season major league game, and it’s tough to hang too much hope on his 4-for-10 performance at Triple-A in 2010.
Furthermore, Leake’s work has drawn some positive attention this spring. Earlier this week ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted, “Talked to scouts who are raving about work of Mike Leake this spring, about how he’s commanding four different pitches, throwing 92-93 mph.” Similarly, last week Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal wrote that Leake was working in the 88-92 mph range and threw four pitches for strikes.
• Chapman’s limited arsenal. There’s no dispute about Chapman’s awe-inspiring velocity. As I noted in our Power Week feature earlier this month, he holds the major league record for the fastest recorded pitch, with a 105.1 mph heater back in September 2010, and more pitches in the triple-digit range than any other NL hurler in each of the past three years, including that year’s abbreviated debut; his 484 over the last three years are 174 more than the runner up. According to the PitchF/X data at Baseball Prospectus, his average fastball velocity of 98.8 mph, is third among all relievers with at least 1,000 pitches since 2007.
Man cannot live by fastball alone, however. During his brief major league career, Chapman has thrown the heater 85 percent of the time and his slider 14 percent of the time, with just five change-ups mixed in there in three years. His slider is effective, but he still needs a third pitch to battle hitters the second and third time through the batting order, and while he has experimented with a splitter, he hasn’t convinced anyone that the pitch is average or better, which it likely needs to be in order for him to succeed as a starter. In the outing that Rosenthal saw, he noted that Chapman was unable to throw his offspeed stuff for strikes with consistency; furthermore, with a need to conserve his energy, his velocity topped out at 93 mph — still high for a lefty, but not elite. It could ramp up over the course of the season, but he’s not going to be throwing 98 with frequency.
• Chapman’s preference. Even amid the pitcher’s rotation trial, numerous outlets have reported that Chapman’s stated preference is to close. As he told MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon, through an interpreter:
“In the beginning when I started closing, it was something I didn’t know… But as I started throwing and getting into the late part of the game when the game is more exciting and has more meaning, I kind of liked it. Yeah, the adrenaline goes up and I like to be in that situation. I would like to be a closer, yeah, but there are some things that I can’t control.”
That statement may call into question whether Chapman has put his best foot forward during the spring. If he truly wanted to join the rotation, he might he have worked harder in the offseason or earlier in camp to hone that third pitch. Even so, it’s worth conceding that his own desires should be weighed into the process. He likes the thrill of closing, and given last year’s 1.51 ERA and 38 saves (in less than a full season of ninth-inning duty, no less), there’s little question that he’s up to the task.
• The Dusty Baker factor. When he was managing the Cubs, Baker gained a reputation for overworking his best pitchers, and blame for the subsequent injury woes of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, both of whom repeatedly reached high pitch counts on his watch, was laid at his feet. In 2003, when the Cubs came within one win of reaching the World Series for the first time in more than half a century, their starters threw more than 120 pitches an MLB-high 29 times, with Prior throwing nine of those games, five in September alone. He was worked hard in the postseason as well, and was never the same pitcher.
The industry has changed since then, becoming far more conscious of pitch counts, and despite his hardass reputation, Baker has changed as well. Even with those 200-inning workhorses, only twice did a Reds starter top 120 pitches last year, and none went higher than 122.
But even if Baker has fallen into line with the industry standard and is no more likely to overwork Chapman than any other manager, he too prefers Chapman as a closer, in part because he feels the pitcher’s desire should be taken into account. “We were going to do what’s best for the organization and for him. But he makes it a lot easier when you get the person’s blessing,” he told Sheldon. “Like I’ve said, a man in the middle is a man in constant turmoil.”
• Clubhouse harmony. Teammates Arroyo and Brandon Phillips are among those on record as preferring that Chapman remain in place. They may not be able to weigh the short term and long term consequences of the decision in the same way that general manager Walt Jocketty can, but as bellwethers in the Reds’ locker room, their voices are worth acknowledging. Recall the way that many veterans in the Nationals clubhouse spoke out with regards to the organization’s decision to shut down Strasburg late in the year. It may not have actually affected the team’s on-field performance — Washington did win an MLB-high 98 games, and was one inning away from advancing to the NLCS — but it created a major distraction all season long. Hearkening back to my post on clubhouse chemistry last week, there’s no easy way to quantify the value of Chapman’s teammates being on-board with the decision, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s no value in the elimination of a flashpoint of controversy.
The decision to keep Chapman as a closer — which will likely act as a drag on his career earnings, since closers don’t sign $100 million contracts and the trend is clearly away from $40-50 million ones — does have its drawbacks. Jocketty and pitching coach Bryan Price both prefer him to start, and the latter told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick:
“I hear the argument, ‘Why mess with something when it’s gone so well?… But I also have a feeling in my heart that he’s not going to be the best possible pitcher he can be until he throws enough innings to master his craft. I think this kid has untapped potential, but it won’t come out until we give him an opportunity to mature as a pitcher. Does he have a chance to be one of the better starters of his generation? The longer we wait, the less chance we have of ever finding out.”
With this move, that likelihood just got slimmer, and given the strength of Chapman’s convictions, the ship may have sailed for good.
Jocketty spent the winter laying the groundwork for Chapman to start by re-signing late-season acquisition Jonathan Broxton to a three-year, $21 million deal, one that had plenty to do with his development of a cut fastball to counteract the decreased velocity of his four-seamer. With Chapman closing, Broxton now becomes a very expensive setup man on a team whose Opening Day payroll is nearing $100 million, well up from last year’s $87.8 million. Down the road, Cincinnati may have to eat some of that salary as part of a disadvantageous deal if payroll becomes an issue and other areas need to be addressed. That said, signing a pitcher whose 2012 comeback wasn’t all that convincing after a season and a half in the weeds — his 7.1 strikeouts per nine was well below his previous career mark of 11.5 — may not have been the best move in the first place, and whether Broxton was closing or not, the money has been spent.
In the end, there are still numerous reasons to consider the alternative paths for a good young pitcher, and in a vacuum, my internal GM would always prefer to see whether one could cut it as a starter before consigning him to the bullpen. Baseball teams don’t make decisions in a vacuum, however, and in light of the specifics of Chapman’s case, they’re making the right call here.