Closer to Free

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It has been quite a week for Reds closer Aroldis Chapman. Last Tuesday, during the All-Star Game, Chapman trudged out of the bullpen to the fanfare at Great American Ball Park to which he is accustomed. Once he took the mound, he proceeded to remind the American League hitters—and the world—exactly why he is so special.

Chapman, selected to represent the National League in the All-Star Game for the fourth consecutive year, struck out the side in spectacular fashion. He threw 14 pitches in the outing, and 12 of those were clocked at 100 mph or greater. Two pitches were thrown 103 mph. We’ve been watching these feats since 2010, and it probably should be old hat by now. But it’s not; it’s always fun to see Chapman do his thing in front of a national audience.

Then, over the weekend, Chapman added to his considerable resume by reaching 500 career strikeouts quicker than any other pitcher in baseball history. It took Chapman just 292 innings to get to that mark; the previous record was held by Craig Kimbrel, who reached 500 Ks in 305 innings. And yet, all the talk is that Chapman is destined to be traded over the next couple of weeks.

All of which reminds me that Ryan Madson is the biggest villain in the storied history of the Cincinnati Reds.

Worse than Yadier Molina? Yes. Also worse than Carlton Fisk or Ed Cicotte. Worse than Bud Harrelson or Bart Giamatti (or Pete Rose, depending on your perspective toward the Hit King). Worse than Bowie Kuhn. Yes, that’s a harsh assessment and yes, it’s hyperbole. Indulge me for a moment.

Think about that record we just celebrated: 500 strikeouts in 292 innings. Amazing, right? Only an incredible pitcher could compile numbers like that, and almost no one will disagree with you if you said that Chapman’s left arm is one of the greatest we’ve ever seen in the history of baseball. (Unless you say that on Twitter; there are always dozens of people lurking to disagree with you about anything and everything on Twitter.)

But he’s only pitched 292 innings. Since 2010! During his tenure with the Reds, 265 other pitchers have thrown more innings than Chapman. Yep, the greatest arm we’re likely to see in a Cincinnati uniform during our lifetimes has pitched fewer Major League innings since 2010 than such luminaries as Blake Beavan, Brad Bergesen, Tony Sipp, and Samuel Deduno.

And the fact that Chapman has pitched so little is all Ryan Madson’s fault.

Aroldis, of course, had been a starting pitcher before the Reds signed him out of Cuba, and he made 13 starts at AAA Louisville in 2010. You might remember that 2010 was the year that the Reds won the NL Central, advancing to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. On the final day of August, the Reds brought the fireballing 22-year-old to Cincinnati with the idea that he would shore up the bullpen for the stretch run.

It worked. Chapman pitched well that year and the next. The long-term plan, however, still called for Chapman to return to his roots as a starting pitcher.

Enter Ryan Madson. During the offseason, the Reds signed Madson to a one-year, $8.5 million deal to be the team’s closer in 2012. The year before, Madson had taken over as Phillies closer for an injured Brad Lidge, and posted a 4-2 record with a 2.37 ERA and 32 saves. He would take over the spot that had been vacated by Francisco Cordero, who compiled 150 saves during his Reds tenure.

During 2012 Spring Training, Chapman was stretched out as a starter, and pitched exceptionally well (2.12 ERA) during Cactus League play. Everything was going according to plan…when disaster struck.

In late March, just before the season was to begin, Madson tore a ligament in his right elbow. He was destined to miss the entire 2012 season, and would never throw a pitch for the Redlegs.

Initially, there was hope that newly acquired Sean Marshall—who had been one of the best relievers in baseball during the previous couple of years with Chicago—would hold down the closer duties. When Marshall was something less than perfect early in the season, however, Chapman was inserted into the closer role in May, after which he went 5-5 with a 1.51 ERA, 38 saves, and 122/23 K/BB ratio in 71.2 innings. The Reds won the division again.

The following spring, the Reds tried once again. Walt Jocketty re-signed Jonathon Broxton (whom they had acquired over the summer in a trade with Kansas City) to close, and proceeded to stretch out Chapman again. Chapman did his part in the spring, posting even better numbers than he had the year before.

What happened this time? Well, even though Jocketty and Bryan Price (the pitching coach at that time) were publicly in support of moving Chapman to the rotation, manager Dusty Baker went on the record to whine about the move. That was understandable. Dusty was as old-school as they come, he knew his job was going to be on the line if he didn’t win, and he thought—as do many—that closers are more valuable than they actually are.

Eventually, Chapman said he would prefer to remain in the ‘pen, and Jocketty gave in. When Price took over as manager the following spring, the die had been cast. Chapman would never start a game in the big leagues.

So what? you might say. After all, hasn’t Chapman been an elite closer? That’s something, right? Well, there’s no doubt that Chapman has provided us a lot of thrills over the last few years, but in terms of value, he has compiled 10.5 fWAR. That ranks 63rd among major league pitchers since 2010, and it trails guys like Brandon McCarthy, Jason Vargas, and yes, Homer Bailey. Sure, only one reliever has been more valuable than Chapman (according to fWAR; it’s Craig Kimbrel, as you may have suspected), but that’s kinda the point, isn’t it? Starters are more valuable than relievers.

By some measures, Chapman hasn’t been as dominant as you probably think he has been, even among relievers. Aroldis’s save percentage of 89.1% is good, but it’s only 8th best among closers who have pitched at least 100 innings since 2010. It’s lower than Jose Valverde and Greg Holland. And Chapman pitched a grand total of 4.2 innings in two Reds playoff series without collecting a single save.

I really don’t mean that to sound like criticism. Chapman has been great as the Reds closer, and he’s also been great fun to watch—his average fastball this year, at 99.7 mph, is 1.5 mph faster than any other reliever in baseball!—which is almost as important in these seasons when the Reds are struggling.

But what might have been? Is it possible that he would have provided more value to the Reds as a starter? I think it’s almost a guarantee. And if the Reds gave it a try, but it didn’t work…well, they still had a great closer on their hand. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Obviously, I think Chapman-to-the-rotation stood a pretty good chance of providing real value to the club. No, he wouldn’t have broken that strikeout record, and we wouldn’t have had a moment like we saw at last week’s All-Star Game, but the team might have had a top-shelf starter on its hands.

For a long time, the criticism was that Chapman really only had one pitch, maybe two, and so he couldn’t be a starter with that repertoire. You know about the fastball, and over time, Chapman’s slider has become one of the most effective pitches in baseball (it averages around 88 mph this season, which is unhittable).

Did you know about the Aroldis changeup, though?

But Chapman’s change-up is the most unfair pitch in his repertoire.

He started experimenting with the change-up early in his career before abandoning it from 2011 to 2013. Last season it made a comeback and he continues to use it this year as well.

Last season he threw 70 change-ups, and just one got put in play: Adam Duvall lined out to third baseman Todd Frazier on June 26.

So far this year Chapman has thrown 49 off-speed pitches. Seven have been put in play and only two have gone for base hits, both singles.

That’s good.

Yeah, this is all speculation. But the Reds are way out of the pennant race already, so what better time to dream? Just imagine a rotation of Cueto, Chapman, Bailey, Latos, and Arroyo/Leake. That had the potential to be one of the best rotations in baseball. Maybe things would have gone differently in 2012 and 2013 (and beyond).

So basically, thanks for nothing, Ryan Madson.*

*No, it’s not really Madson’s fault, and I’m happy to report that Madson finally returned to the big leagues just this year after that elbow injury he suffered with the Reds. Still…what might have been?

Chad Dotson is a Nuxhall Way contributor. He is also the founder of Redleg Nation and a contributor to ESPN’s SweetSpot blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @dotsonc.

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