2012 burning question: Cincinnati Reds

From last Tuesday’s Reds season preview

Burning Question
Where does the future for Aroldis Chapman lie: in the rotation, or in the bullpen?

The Reds seem utterly confused as to what to do with their high-priced Cuban acquisition. The team signed him to a six year, $30.25 million contract prior to the 2010 season and, after less than 100 innings in the minors in 2010, had him make his major league debut in September 2010 as a reliever. In his stint at AAA Louisville in 2010, Chapman made 13 starts and 25 relief appearances. He struck out 122 and walked 52 in 94 2/3 innings. The Reds threw him in the bullpen instead of trying him as a starter, and he remained there for the 2011 season.

In the majors in 2011, Chapman had a trying year. In his 50 major league innings, all coming in relief, he struck out 71. Unfortunately for him, he also walked 41, which is unbelievably too many. Now, the battle ranges between the front office and the on-field staff. The front office of the Reds, led by GM Walt Jocketty, apparently wants to send Chapman to AAA in order to stretch him out as a potentially dominant starter. The Reds on-field staff, led by the master of shredding young arms, Dusty Baker, apparently wants to throw Chapman in the bullpen again and groom him for the closer’s role.

So this begs the question: what should the Reds do with Chapman? In his stint in the majors in 2010, Chapman’s average fastball velocity was 99.6 mph. Yes, his average velocity was nearly triple digits. Last season, for a full year in the majors, that velocity dipped to “only” 97.9. Still, that’s an outstanding number. If Chapman was a reliever, he’d be able to retain velocities that high. He threw his fastball 76.5% of the time in 2010, and an outrageous 84.3% of the time in 2011. For 2011, his average velocity was second among all relievers (behind only Henry Rodriguez of the Nationals), and his fastball usage was third (behind Kenley Jansen and Matt Thornton).

What worries me about Chapman is his pitch selection. He’s only shown off two pitches in the majors: the debilitating fastball, and a vicious slider. Even the two pitchers ahead of him in fastball usage have more than two pitches, with Jansen adding a rarely used curve and change to his fastball/slider combo, and Thornton using a slider and cutter equally, while rarely sprinkling in a change.

Here’s the deal. The Reds are paying Chapman a ton of money, and the absolute peak value you can get out of a reliever is three wins in a perfect year. If Chapman doesn’t start walking fewer hitters, he will never approach that peak value. By the same token, if he doesn’t develop a third pitch, he’s not going to be an effective starter, because it’s not possible for a human being to throw 98 mph for seven innings 30 times a year. Only three starters threw fastballs more than 70% of the time last year: Justin Masterson, Bartolo Colon, and David Price. None of the three had a velocity of higher than 95 mph. All had at least three pitches (though Masterson rarely uses his change). Only two starters averaged 95 mph for the season: Alexi Ogando and Justin Verlander. Both have more than two pitches.

It would probably be most wise for the Reds to start Chapman off at AAA this year, try to get him stretched out, and get him to develop another pitch. If he can average 95 in the rotation with three pitches, then he can really be something special as a starter. Also, it’s not as if Chapman is old and this is a last-ditch effort to get him to stick in the majors. He’s 24 years-old and has thrown less than 175 professional innings over two seasons. The Reds have an asset in Chapman, and they’ve got him under their control for a few more seasons. Why not try to get the most out of their asset instead of taking the easy way out and potentially wasting it, like the Yankees did with Joba Chamberlain?

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About Joe Lucia

I'm the managing editor of Awful Announcing and the news editor of The Comeback. I also made The Outside Corner a thing for six seasons.