Will Keeping Aroldis Chapman at Closer Strengthen or Damage Reds' Title Hopes?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 22, 2013

After winning 97 games and the NL Central in 2012, the Cincinnati Reds have their eyes on winning the World Series in 2013.

They'll be more able to accomplish that now that they've made their decision on where Aroldis Chapman will be pitching in 2013. According to Mark Sheldon of MLB.com:

Mark Sheldon @m_sheldon

It's decided: Leake in rotation, Chapman to be closer #reds

Bound to happen. John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer reported on Thursday that no decision had been made regarding Chapman, but Chapman himself told Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com last week that he wanted to close, and the Enquirer's Paul Dougherty reported on Thursday that the Reds were expected to re-install Chapman as their closer "barring a significant change of minds."

Dougherty then made it quite clear that he wasn't a fan of the decision. ESPN's David Schoenfield feels the same way. Without dropping any more names, I'm sure many others are in the same boat as them.

But not me. I'm totally on board with the Reds' decision. Chapman has closed, he wants to close and he should close. In the jigsaw puzzle that is Cincinnati's 2013 championship quest, that's where Chapman fits best.

I understood the appeal of Chapman as a starter. Had he established himself as a dependable one, Cincinnati's rotation would be even more stacked than it was last year, when Reds starters ranked fifth in MLB in ERA (see FanGraphs). 

And yes, the possibility existed that ace status could have found Chapman. Schoenfield suggested a "Randy Johnson 2.0" scenario earlier this month, and that seemed plausible enough given what we know about Chapman: he's big, he's left-handed, he throws hard and he has that rare sort of nasty factor that the Big Unit practically trademarked.

But all the while, there were the great unknowns about Chapman as a starter. Could he maintain velocity? Could he throw strikes consistently? Could he expand his repertoire? Could he eat innings?

These unknowns refused to go away during spring training. That's not necessarily a bad sign, mind you, as spring training is not the most definitive proving ground. But it's certainly not a good sign, and the underwhelming vibes strongly suggested that the Reds would have been shooting their championship hopes in the foot if they had moved forward with Chapman in their starting rotation.

Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, for example, spoke to a scout who was not impressed by what he saw from Chapman in a recent start.

“His velocity dropped off in the second inning. He couldn’t get his off-speed stuff over the plate consistently. No question in my mind, he’s the closer," said the scout.

The scout also referenced one of the ultimate cautionary tales for reliever-turned-starter experiments: “It’s Joba Chamberlain all over again."

Yeah...Nobody wants to go there. Even the Yankees should be able to admit they'd like to have that one back.

Elsewhere, ESPN's Buster Olney (Insider article) spoke to a longtime evaluator who wasn't crazy about Chapman's repertoire.

"For me, he's got one major league quality pitch," said the evaluator. "His fastball. His other pitches aren't major league caliber."

This sounds like a shot at Chapman's slider, which is generally viewed as a legit major league pitch. After all, Chapman posted a 2.80 wSL/C in 2012, according to FanGraphs. That means he saved 2.8 runs for every 100 sliders he threw. Only five relievers did better last year.

However, Chapman only went to his slider about 12 percent of the time, meaning he only threw about maybe 140 sliders out of the 1,203 pitches he threw last season. For some perspective, 24 different qualified relievers threw their sliders at least 30 percent of the time.

Given the low percentage of sliders thrown by Chapman last year, it's possible that his slider was so successful not because it was nasty, but because hitters were too busy watching out for Chapman's heat. That was the danger pitch, not the slider.

If we can take the evaluator's word for it that Chapman's slider is not a legit major league out pitch, then he would have been in for some trouble as a starter simply because he wouldn't have been able to break that pitch out so infrequently. It would have had to have been on display more often. Same goes for his other offspeed pitches.

And about those...

We know Chapman has a changeup, but he's never had to use it consistently in the majors. That's a big chunk of time that he hasn't spent mastering the pitch, so maybe it's no surprise that Harry Pavlidis of Baseball Prospectus (h/t Dayn Perry of CBSSports.com) pointed out last month that Chapman's changeup is hard to distinguish from his slider.

For a guy who was trying to become a legit major league starter, that's not a good thing. A starter needs to show different looks to get through a lineup several times, and that's hard to do when two of your offspeed pitches are basically the same thing.

So the stuff concerns were there, and so were the concerns about Chapman's ability to eat innings. He likely wasn't going to be doing a lot of that in 2013 had he broken camp as a starter, as he surely would have been on an innings limit to account for the fact that he's never thrown more than 115 innings in any one season (he topped 110 between the minors and majors in 2010).

To boot, we're talking about a guy who developed shoulder fatigue last year despite his one-inning-at-a-time workload. It was clear then that asking Chapman to eat five, six or seven innings at a time rather than just one at a time was going to be a risky venture.

And on and on and on it goes. The potential is there, but so are the question marks and there are too darn many of them. The writing is on the wall in big, bold letters that Chapman's just not cut out to be a starter, be it an ace starter or a merely dependable starter.

That writing is there partially because of the question marks, but also partially because of what we do know about Chapman. That's that he's a good reliever. Good as in freakishly good.

Per FanGraphs, Chapman struck out 44.2 percent of the hitters he faced last year, second only to Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel among relievers.

He was able to do that largely because his fastball averaged 97.7 miles per hour, a marked topped only by Kelvin Herrera of the Royals. It's worth noting, however, that the raw PITCHf/x data had the two reversed, with Chapman leading all relievers in average velocity at 98 miles per hour.

Whatever the proper order is, Herrera certainly couldn't match Chapman's swinging-strike percentage. Only Kimbrel was Chapman's better in that department.

For Chapman as a closer, it's that simple: Throw hard, get hitters to swing and miss, get strike three, celebrate. The bottom line in 2012 was 38 saves to five blown saves, making Chapman a vital part of a bullpen that had the best ERA in baseball.

Now that Chapman has been officially moved back to the closer's role, I see no reason to expect a major regression from Cincinnati's bullpen in 2013. Chapman is going to be in a role that suits him best, and there's going to be plenty of talent around him.

Yes, having Jonathan Broxton serve as a setup man is ridiculous given how much money the Reds will be paying him. But once the season starts you have to say "Whatever" to stuff like that and accentuate the positive. Chapman will be a hell of a closer once again, and Broxton and Sean Marshall will make for a hell of a late-inning setup tandem.

I wouldn't worry about Mike Leake stepping in and taking Chapman's spot in the rotation either. I was as frustrated as the next guy watching Leake pitch last year, and it is indeed discouraging that he's compiled a 6.48 ERA this spring against non-top-flight competition (see Baseball-Reference.com).

The buzz surrounding Leake, however, is positive. One of the scouts Olney talked to told him that Leake has four major league-quality pitches, and Olney also tweeted this:

Buster Olney @Buster_ESPN

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.

Even if Leake proceeds to do exactly what he did last year, the Reds will take it. They'll to live with a high ERA and a fair amount of headaches, but they'll gladly accept the roughly 180 innings Leake gave them last year. For a fifth starter, that's acceptable to a point of being ideal.

To this end, the Reds know that Leake is dependable as a fifth starter in the same way they know that Chapman is dependable as a closer. With the switch made, the Reds are heading into 2013 with a pitching alignment that served them well last year and could easily serve them well again in 2013.

Besides, let's be real here. It's not like the Reds really needed an ace starter in their rotation and that they went ahead with the Chapman experiment hoping that he would be that guy.

Last I checked, the Reds have two darn good pitchers in Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos, and there should be some excitement about Homer Bailey after what he did late last year. He had a 1.85 ERA in his final seven starts, which included a no-hitter, and then stymied the San Francisco Giants in his lone postseason start. Beyond these three guys, Bronson Arroyo is pretty good too.

The Reds didn't win the World Series with their pitching situated the way it was last year, to be sure, but there should be no doubt that their pitching was championship-caliber. Had they gone into 2013 with Chapman as a starter, they would have been at significant risk of not having championship-caliber pitching, for they would have been risking having a burden in their rotation and/or ruining Chapman. They also would have been leaving the ninth inning in lesser hands, another risk.

Generally, change is a good thing in baseball. But not here. The Reds have made the right decision. They've stuck with what they know can work, and now they can go confidently pursue some unfinished business.

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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