Cuban fire-baller Aroldis Chapman had an electric first season pitching out of the Cincinnati Reds bullpen. All signs, though, point to him moving into the starting rotation for the 2012 season.
Just 23, Chapman has all the necessary ingredients to succeed as a member of the starting rotation at the Major League level. The southpaw has a plus fastball with a well-documented ability to hit triple digits, as well as a wipe-out slider that is death to left-handed hitters.
Out of all the pitchers in the Majors, Chapman's swinging-strike rate was the 15th best, slightly behind the likes of Boston's Jonathan Papelbon, Los Angeles' Kenley Jansen, as well as Atlanta's dynamic duo of Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters.
Along with impressive strikeout numbers (12.78 K/9 in '11), Chapman produced slightly-above-average ground-ball numbers in 2011; this is important because the more a pitcher can keep batted balls on the ground, the less likely hits are to fly over the fence for a home run.
Despite pitching in an offense-rich ballpark, the lefty had a HR/FB (home run per fly ball) rate of 7.1%, which is outstanding.
One area of concern for Chapman in 2012 is his control. He struggled to find the plate in '11 with a walk rate of 7.38 BB/9. If he were to pitch 180 innings out of the starting rotation in 2012 and produce the same walk rate, it would result in 148 free passes.
A modern day comparison would be Seattle's Randy Johnson - also a hard-throwing lefty - walked 152 batters in 201.1 innings in 1991 and 144 hitters in 210.1 innings in 1992. The most walks in 2011 came from Oakland's Gio Gonzalez. He walked 91 batters in 202.0 innings of work.
Another issue with Chapman's proposed conversion to starting comes from his lack of proven depth. He made 13 minor league starts in 2010 but pitched exclusively out of the 'pen in '11 and missed about two months with a shoulder injury.
After returning from the DL, Chapman appeared to tire as the year progressed; his walk rate rose each month from 2.35 in July to 6.10 in August and 8.68 in September. He was then shutdown in the Arizona Fall League after once again experiencing shoulder woes.
If he does in fact move to the starting rotation, the Cincinnati Reds club will have some work to do to find room for him. He'll fit in well with a right-handed heavy rotation that will feature Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey. Mike Leake and Edinson Volquez will be on the bubble.
Chapman carries a certain amount of risk as a starter (healthy, control issues, inexperience) but his massive ceiling remains undeniable and enticing. He is the epitome of the high-risk, high-reward athlete.
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