What to Make of Aroldis Chapman

Here at Cincinnati Magazine, we had so much fun launching our Bengals Blog that we’ve decided to write about the Reds, too. To get things started, I’ve written a sprawling essay about young pitchers. Several talented writers will be pitching in, so stayed tuned.

The Reds, apparently, have no idea what they’re doing with Aroldis Chapman. Walt Jocketty admitted as much in Paul Daugherty’s column in Thursday’s paper, saying, “I think there’s a lot of things we don’t understand about him.” Eventually, this post will be about the Reds and their decisions regarding their well-compensated young fire baller. But first, a brief discussion of the trouble with pitchers.

I’ve never been the general manager of a major league baseball team, so I can’t speak from experience, but it certainly seems like a difficult job. Listing every responsibility would be tedious and probably a little insulting, but suffice it to say that scouting and drafting and signing players, managing a farm system, and building a major league roster ain’t easy. If you do it all just right, and have a little luck, you might win the World Series. Or a team from a bigger market might buy a few star players and beat you anyway.

Perhaps the biggest challenge that a GM faces is grooming young pitchers. There was a reason that Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson famously despised his pitching staff. (Other than the fact that, as the old line went, the only thing Sparky knew about pitching was that he couldn’t hit it.) Pitchers are finicky. They require coddling. They’re inconsistent. Starting pitcher, like rock star, is one of the few jobs that allow you to perform only once or twice a week. And pitchers get hurt a lot.

Of the many dynamite, can’t-miss pitching prospects that we hear about every spring, only a select few turn into successful big league pitchers. Even fewer become aces or All-Stars. Baseball economics dictate that small market teams like the Reds must periodically flip their major league stars, whom they will likely lose in free agency, for packages of prospects. If those prospects don’t pan out, you’re sunk.

For these reasons—because developing young pitchers is both tricky and paramount to an organization’s fortunes, because there are major injury risks associated with young arms, and because pitchers are so darn annoying—teams go to great lengths to put neophyte hurlers in the best position to succeed. The problem is that nobody seems sure what that means. How quickly should pitchers move through the minor leagues? When can they safely be called up the majors? How many innings should they be permitted to pitch?

Over-exertion is a major concern, so many teams place pitch counts and inning limits on inexperienced pitchers. The prevailing theory says that pitchers younger than 25 whose major league innings jump by 30 or more from one season to the next will likely suffer a decline in performance or an injury. It’s called the Verducci Effect, named for the Sports Illustrated writer who advanced the hypothesis. A recent example that’s often cited is Mark Prior, who went from pitching 116 innings as a rookie in 2002 to throwing 211 innings in 2003. After finishing third in the Cy Young voting that second year, Prior has suffered a series of devastating injuries. He has made only 106 career starts and hasn’t pitched since 2006, though he is reportedly attempting yet another comeback. There is, however, a vocal minority that does not believe in the Verducci Effect, an unlikely marriage between old school baseball men who argue that young pitchers should toughen up and new school stat geeks whose formulas contradict (or at least fail to confirm) Verducci’s ideas. One counter example to Prior is Tim Lincecum, who went from pitching 146 innings in his rookie year to 227 innings in 2008. He won the Cy Young that second year, then went on to win it again in his third season. No regression to see here, folks. It’s hard to know which side of the argument is right, but baseball executives are a paranoid bunch, constantly worried about being fired, so they understandably tend to err on the side of caution.

Some teams, especially teams in contention for the postseason, have brought their pitching prospects to the big leagues as relievers before eventually transitioning them to the starting rotation. This decision provides obvious immediate benefits. A future ace who isn’t ready for the big league rotation can help push the team past its rivals by shutting down opponents in the seventh inning. But as Grantland’s Jonah Keri wrote earlier this week, the long-term value of this technique is harder to evaluate.  For one thing, it’s much more difficult to succeed as a starter than as a reliever, so the pitcher’s ERA is likely to go up even if he performs relatively well in the rotation. (Even in our closer-crazed culture, it should be obvious that pitching one good inning is easier than pitching seven good ones.) For another, the sample size of pitchers who have made the transition is small, and their results have been all over the board.

That finally brings us to Aroldis, who is spending this spring trying to transform himself into a capable starting pitcher—a process that generally requires increased stamina and the development of a third and/or fourth pitch—after two years of setting radar guns on fire out of the Reds bullpen. If nothing else, the Reds can take comfort in the fact that they aren’t alone in their quest to convert a young reliever. Daniel Bard (Red Sox), Chris Sale (White Sox), and Neftali Feliz (Rangers) are making similar transitions.

As I see it, there are two big dangers with this strategy. First, putting a young pitcher with starting potential in the bullpen, while helping acclimate him to the majors, might still delay his development. In his first two seasons with the Reds organization, Chapman has only pitched 172 innings while being shuffled between AA, AAA, and the majors. He has appeared in 69 games, but only started 16. Would Chapman be further along in his development if he had been allowed to be a full-time starter at AAA the last two years instead of a sideshow in the major leagues? Probably. Johnny Cueto’s years as a full-time starter in the minors certainly seemed to serve him well. And at the very least, had Chapman been starting all this time, Jocketty wouldn’t be telling Daugherty that the Reds don’t understand the Cuban defector, two full seasons into his six-year contract.

The second problem with the bullpen-to-rotation path is that there’s a chance the player will never settle into a consistent role and will therefore waste a big chunk of his career trying to find an identity. The Reds can avoid this issue by making Chapman’s transition from reliever to starter a permanent change. Another couple of switches back and forth could do lasting damage to his confidence. A good comparison here might be highly regarded Yankees prospects Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes. They were both groomed as starters in the minors, but have bounced back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation in the big leagues. They have each been more effective as relievers than as starters, but haven’t had an opportunity to truly settle into either role. That’s partly because of injuries, but also because the Yankees haven’t been able to decide how to best utilize them. The Reds would be well-suited to avoid a similar situation with Chapman. After all, he is under contract with the Reds for only four more seasons, and it would be a shame if the franchise develops him so slowly that he doesn’t reach his potential until he leaves town.

If Chapman is capable of starting, that’s what he should be doing. It’s probably what he should have been doing all along. Their decision to make him a starter is coming late, but it’s probably still the right one. As mentioned before, starters have much more value than relievers. But the bottom line is this: The Reds have limited resources, so when they hand out a $30 million contract to an unproven pitcher, they better do everything in their power to make him worth the money. Thus far, they’ve fallen short of that goal.

Facebook Comments