When you can throw your fastball hard enough to dent the side of a tank, it's probably just a matter of time before your arm starts to get tired.
Aroldis Chapman can vouch. The man who once threw the fastest pitch ever recorded is going to take a breather for a few days, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, with what the Cincinnati Reds are calling "shoulder fatigue." It could be worse. In baseball's medical lexicon, the word "fatigue" isn't nearly as alarming as words like "broken," "torn" and "ruptured." If all goes well, Cincinnati's star closer will be right as rain in a matter of days.
This story has a moral, though, and the Reds would be wise to take it to heart. The debate has been raging for years whether Chapman is better off starting or relieving games, and I daresay we have our answer now.
Chapman's sore shoulder is a warning that making him a starter isn't such a great idea after all. Especially not now that we know that Chapman was born to close games rather than start them. I'll admit that I'm flip-flopping on this particular issue, as I recall writing many moons ago that Chapman would be of best use to the Reds starting games rather than finishing them. But I assure you that I have my reasons for jumping ship, starting with what the numbers have to say.
For starters, we have the number 67.2. That's how many innings Chapman has pitched this season, and it's 17.2 more innings than he pitched during his first full season in the majors in 2011. Evidently, the extra workload has taken its toll on Chapman.
Yeah, yeah. You could point out that he pitched a grand total of 108 innings between the minors and the majors back in 2010, but that was largely due to the 13 starts he made at the Triple-A level. He was never really stretched out as a starter, and he only made 40 appearances between Triple-A and the majors after the Reds decided to transition him into the bullpen. As a result, he got relatively little experience being called on when he was needed rather than every fifth day.
The Reds were aware of this last season, as they used Chapman relatively sparingly. He only made 54 appearances in 2011, logging only 50 innings in the process. The training wheels have come off this season. Chapman has made 10 more appearances this season than he did in 2011, and he's averaged more than an inning per appearance. This season marks the first time in his brief career that the Reds have tested Chapman's limits, and Chapman's shoulder has effectively told them where his limits are.
His velocity readings from his last few appearances provide evidence that Chapman doesn't have an infinite amount of triple-digit fastballs in his arm. He leads all major league pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched with an average fastball of 98.0 miles per hour, according to FanGraphs, but he wasn't able to throw his fastball that hard in either of his last two appearances.
According to Brooks Baseball (via CBSSports.com), Chapman's fastball averaged 97.03 miles per hour when he notched his fifth blown save of the season against the Houston Astros (the Houston Astros!) on Sept. 7. Against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday, Chapman's fastball averaged 95.37 miles per hour.
Just as concerning is the fact that he walked three hitters against the Pirates on Monday, a sign that his tired shoulder was impacting both his velocity and his control. The Reds therefore know that when it goes, it all goes—and it will all go when Chapman hits his limit. Knowing what they know now, the Reds will know to manage Chapman a little more carefully if they keep him as their closer in 2013 and beyond. They'll know to watch his innings like a hawk.
The Reds would watch his innings like a hawk if they were to make him a starter, to be sure, but they wouldn't be able to prevent Chapman from racking up innings no matter how closely they were to watch him. He'd set a new career-high for innings in no time at all, and then he immediately would go about setting a new career-high that would put his old one to shame.
And this, of course, would come with the risk of Chapman losing his stuff and watching all of his former dominance go down the drain. Take Chris Sale, for example. He logged 71 innings over 58 appearances as a reliever in 2011, and he had that total beat by early June as a starter this season. By the All-Star break, he'd already logged 102.2 innings.
Things were going just fine for Sale at that point, as he had a 10-2 record to go along with a 2.19 ERA and a .198 opponents' batting average. Ever since, however, his dominance has come and gone, as he's 6-4 with a 3.93 ERA and a .264 opponents' batting average in 10 second-half starts. He's allowed 12 home runs in 66.1 innings after allowing five home runs in the entire first half.
Sale isn't the only cautionary tale that is relevant to Chapman's situation. Joba Chamberlain hasn't been the same since the New York Yankees tried to convert him into a starting pitcher in 2008, and Daniel Bard hasn't been the same since the Boston Red Sox tried him out in their starting rotation earlier this season.
The Bard saga is particularly concerning because he's not at all unlike Chapman in that he got by mainly on his killer fastball as a reliever in 2010 and 2011. FanGraphs' velocity charts show that Bard had good velocity earlier this season, but he quickly started to lose it and hasn't recovered it since he recently returned as a reliever after a lengthy stint in the minors.
We really don't know if Chapman can maintain his excellent velocity for six or seven innings at a time every fifth day, but it's not crazy to think that the same thing that happened to Bard could happen to Chapman. Bard didn't have the arm strength to maintain his velocity, and he proved to be incapable of pitching with diminished velocity. Chapman really has only pitched with diminished velocity once in his career, and that was this past Monday against the Pirates. Obviously, that outing didn't go so well.
Granted, it's not entirely fair to assume that Chapman can't pitch effectively with 94- or 95-mph fastballs just because of one bad outing in which he was clearly hampered by a dead arm. We haven't had a chance to see if he can maintain a good 95-mph fastball with good control. If he can do that, he could make it as a starter.
However, one of Chapman's own teammates pointed out earlier this year that a 95-mph fastball just isn't the same as a 100-mph fastball, no matter where it's located. Here's what Bronson Arroyo told Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal in May:
And if you could [make Chapman] a starter, he would be backing down [his velocity] even more than he is now. He's pitching at 95 percent now compared to last year. If he backs it down a little bit more, it makes him a little more hittable. And you're not really using how special he is.
You're bringing him down to earth a little bit if you make him a starter. Not that he couldn't do it. But I just don't think you're maximizing his effectiveness.
Arroyo brought up another good point when he said that Chapman would have to transition from a strikeout pitcher to more of a finesse pitcher to avoid high pitch counts, and that's not something that can be accomplished overnight.
To that end, a good example would be Brandon Morrow. He spent the first three years as a reliever for the Seattle Mariners, not starting on a full-time basis until he joined the Toronto Blue Jays in 2010. He posted high strikeout rates in 2010 and 2011, but he struggled with walks and failed to go deep into games on a regular basis. He didn't really start figuring things out until this season, when he went at least six innings in 10 of his first 12 starts. He even mixed in three complete-game shutouts.
His development goes to show that it takes time for a reliever who's used to blowing people away for a living to become more of a pitcher than a thrower. Even with on-the-job training, it's a process that could take years. The dilemma facing the Reds is that they're in no position to experiment. They're in a position to win, and Chapman has shown that he's capable of helping the Reds win a lot of games if he's the one getting the last three outs.
There's a train of thought out there that having Chapman close games is a terrible way to maximize his value relative to his contract, but that's not really the case. Using him in the eighth inning was certainly a terrible way to maximize his value, but the ninth inning is a horse of a different color.
According to FanGraphs, Chapman has a WAR of 3.4 this season. That's an excellent WAR for a relief pitcher, especially one who is only being paid $2 million. The Reds are basically getting 1.7 wins for every million bucks that they're paying Chapman. To put that in perspective, the Philadelphia Phillies are paying Jonathan Papelbon $11 million this season, and he has a WAR of 1.2. For every million dollars they're paying him, they're getting 0.11 wins.
Per Cot's Baseball Contracts, Chapman will make $2 million in 2013 and $3 million in 2014, and he has a $5 million player option for 2015. There's some rather complicated language in Chapman's contract that could result in a big pay raise via arbitration, but a big pay raise won't change the fact that the Reds basically have baseball's best closer on their hands. If his 2012 season is a sign of things to come as a closer, Chapman will be able to provide good value even if the Reds are forced to pay him Papelbon money.
Believing that Chapman can be a stud closer for years to come doesn't require a leap of faith. Believing that he could be a stud starting pitcher, on the other hand, does require a leap of faith. There are a lot of unknowns down that road, and the odds of Chapman being a dud as a starter are at least equal to the odds of him being a stud starter.
If I'm Walt Jocketty, I'm not risking it simply because my team is already really, really good. To boot, the Reds don't really need starting pitching help. Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey have made for a dependable starting rotation, and all five of them are going to be back in 2013.
With them in tow, Chapman's role should remain the same. As long as he has the goods to be the most dominant closer in baseball, that should be his lot in life. It all boils down to an age-old question: If it ain't broke, why fix it?
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