Imagine you grew up in poverty, scraping and scratching in the playground dirt to make something of yourself. Imagine further that you’re a prisoner of the local authorities, encumbered by anger and the callowness of your youth; blessed with unnatural talent, yet unable to get out of your own way. Let your imagination fly and see yourself winning the lottery, everything you ever dreamed of suddenly within the grasp of your hands, yet all of it coming at great personal cost. Add to that the loneliness that is the special province of the outsider, set apart by language, with no one to truly confide in, certainly no one to trust—at least not in that way a young man so far away from home needs.
Now, flip the script and imagine you are the guardian of this young, potentially fragile individual; every decision you make having consequences for not only your young charge, but for yourself and your business, with everyone watching, waiting to pass judgment not only on him, but you as well.
That’s where the Reds are right now with Aroldis Chapman, the magnificently talented, yet wildly complicated and almost unknowable young man. Is it smart to turn this meteor flashing across our red sky into a starting pitcher? Every replacement level GM in the moondeck with a Big Red Smokey in one hand and a BudLight in the other has an opinion about how to go about it OR whether to do it at all. What few seem to be talking about much is the man himself and what it will take off the field to protect and fuel the player on it. The sketchy men in the shadows, the mysterious woman in the hotel room in Pittsburgh, the out-of-nowhere stardom—Chapman’s story unspools like some foreign film version of The Natural. But, don’t be fooled. There’s much more grit here, potentially much more darkness, as Craig Fehrman’s piece over at Cincinnati Magazine so hauntingly tells us:
“Under the Obama administration it has become comparatively easier to send money and care packages to Cuba. For all anybody knows Chapman may be taking great care of his family, but some in Miami find it peculiar that he hasn’t brought them over—especially his girlfriend and the now-3-year-old daughter he still hasn’t met. “That’s when I knew it wasn’t the fairy tale story,” says Joe Kehoskie, a Florida-based sports agent who’s worked with Cuban players for more than a decade. “The two people he cared about the most are still sitting in communist Cuba.”
More important than the decision to go 130, 150 or 160 innings, or how the Reds go about developing his other pitches, may very well be the how the Reds guide and care for Aroldis Chapman outside the lines, away from the game.
But little of this will play out where we can see it. Even the launch codes that will transition the Cuban Missile from stone cold closer to dominant starter are being guarded with only slightly less secrecy than the real ones.
Two obvious questions hang over the discussion: (a) SHOULD they do it; and (b) HOW will it be accomplished? The former is a firestorm of debate around Baseball. The latter? Not nearly as much. Yet.
I’ll go out on a fairly sturdy limb and suggest that most of Redleg Nation is on board with the decision by Jocketty, Price, et al. Yet, there is a vocal minority that thinks this is a terrible idea with repercussions that will reverberate throughout the season. I chalk up much of this angst to a natural human inability to deal with change—a If It’s Not Broke, Don’t Fix It mentality.
I had an all too predictable debate the other day with a guy who insisted that Chapman the Closer was infinitely more important to the Reds than Chapman the Starter. He, as well as a local scribe (who once covered the Reds in Sarasota), were unmoved by 100 years of historical outcomes that show that teams don’t need a lights out closer, instead clinging to the belief that Chapman’s worth as Closer and Entertainer, who puts fannies in seats, ratcheting up the crowd—ala Charlie Sheen’s fictional “Wild Thing” character—is worth more than he will ever be in the rotation:
“You never played the game and don’t understand it. Esoteric giant piles of stat sheets are the latest fad in sports … They allow armchair “managers” like you, who have no clue what the game feels like on the field between the lines, to develop your own little “pet” theories that turn into delusions of righteousness, while ignoring the other, equal important aspect; intangibles. I’ve yet to see any of your stats quantify motivation, confidence, effort, or momentum, and I dare say because, one, you have no real understanding of them, and two, they’re not quantifiable except by the best computer of all, the human brain. … Perhaps someday you’ll wake up and realize your stat sheet proofs of your heavily blog marketed theorems are just paper tigers waiting to line the cage floors of the real life tigers out there, who include in their victory arsenal things not found on geeky spreadsheets.”
Well, alright then.
Classic stuff. Like a door-to-door salesman summarily kicked off the front porch without so much as a word, the mere mention of anything with even a whiff of numbers beyond the usual AVG or RBI variety routinely gets a screen door to the face. Never mind that what I was offering wasn’t advanced metrics, but historical outcomes of games, mere percentages illustrating that taking the mound with even the slimmest of leads in the ninth results in overwhelming success, whether the guy on the mound is named Mariano Rivera or Virgil Trucks. I can’t imagine what war would have broken out had I brought up the subject of … well, WAR.
Sorry, no sale, Propeller Head.
Keep in mind though, that it’s not merely Joe Fan who has trouble with any deviation from the norm, but also the “experts.” On MLB’s 30 Clubs in 30 Days, Al Leiter and Larry Bowa both made a case for keeping Chapman where he is, with Leiter being particularly adamant:
Why ruin a good thing? I don’t see it. I see a guy who empties the tank. He throws 10, 12, 14 pitches. 102 mph … and a very occasional slider. This isn’t somebody—now again—I don’t know, I haven’t seen him pitch in the minor leagues. All I know is what I see here. I see gas, gas, gas, occasional slider. I don’t know if he’s got a third pitch. Automatically, Larry, it’s impossible physically, to be able to go 34 starts and still maintain the same stuff. You’re not going to do it. So velocity’s gonna drop a little bit, he’s got a slider at times … but how does that translate into flipping the lineup 3 times. I just don’t understand. Especially when they had a rotation of 4 guys with 200 innings.”
Bowa: “Well, I’m not messin’ with that bullpen. This guy to me is a lights out closer. He comes in in the ninth inning—game is over …. Say he does start, you know there’s gonna be an innings count on him. So, by June or July, they’re gonna have to get him out of there and put him back in the bullpen … the other problem is, when they know a guy like this is starting, as a manager … the first thing you’re gonna do is tell your players is ‘make this guy throw strikes.’ … Let’s work him a little bit. Who’s to say his pitch count is not gonna get up to 100 in 3 or 4 innings. I would not mess with this guy. He’s one of the best closers in baseball. LEAVE IT THE WAY IT IS.”
In Leiter and Bowa, you have a classic case of status quo baseball myopia. Leiter admits he hasn’t seen Chapman pitch in the minors, doesn’t know his history as a starter in Spring Training, but nevertheless doubts the 25 year old Chapman’s ability to develop other pitches and the durability of his arm. He views the entire move as unnecessary because he sees a repeat of 200 innings for Cueto & Co. a mere fait accompli.
I think assuming the starting staff will be as durable as last year is ludicrous. Bowa comes across as just another old baseball guy who sees the role of a closer as set in stone and the bailiwick of a select few warrior-athletes. Agents like Scott Boras feast on this mentality. They and their clients routinely reap windfalls from GMs because of this enduring myth.
So, is my “friend” right? Am I the victim of pet theories and armchair delusions? Are we fools to question the knowledge those who played the game? Billy Beane, discussing why managers don’t bring their best pitchers to high leverage situations, preferring to hold them back for the 9th, offered the following reason why baseball people often get it all so wrong:
“I’ll tell you why. It’s the same reason more football coaches don’t go for it on fourth-and-1. Because when it doesn’t work, 30 of you guys come storming in wondering why the manager didn’t go to the closer. It’s turned into a situation where a lot of emotion is tied to that decision, just as a lot of emotion is tied to the fourth-down decision. Even if you know the odds, it’s more comfortable being wrong when you go to the closer or the punter.”
Could that be Dusty Baker’s mindset?
There are, of course, no guarantees. Chapman could get hurt. But he could get hurt where he is. People who think fewer innings protects his arm should talk to Ryan Madson and Nick Masset. Have people forgotten how the Reds got Jose Arredondo so cheap? Oh yeah, it was because of this.
For stretches, Chapman has experienced control issues. But, wildness is not a deal breaker. Randy Johnson was wild. The Mariners and later the Diamondbacks would thank the Expos for giving up on him. For years, a guy named Koufax couldn’t find home plate with two hands and a map:
Still, despite the arsenal of pitches, he did little to distinguish himself as anything other than a guy who could throw a ball right through a catcher. By the end of his sixth season, he was 36-40 and had walked 405 batters in 691 2/3 innings.
The turning point came in 1961. According to the team’s backup catcher, Norm Sherry, Sandy’s major league career changed during a routine ride on the team bus to a spring training exhibition game. Sherry suggested that Koufax concentrate more on simply throwing the ball over the plate rather than putting so much power behind his pitches. He also recommended that he be more varied and selective with his pitches.
“Sandy, you could solve your control problems if you’d just try to throw the ball easier,” Sherry told Koufax. “Just get it over the plate. You’ve still got enough swift on it to get the hitters out.”
“In the past I’d go out there and (try to throw every pitch) harder than the last one,” Koufax once told a reporter. “(But) from then on I tried to throw strikes and make them hit the ball. The whole difference was control. Not just controlling the ball, but controlling myself too.”
And so, in his seventh season, a star was born. His delivery had taken on an easier rhythm and he relied more on that devastating curve that was once described as being like a chair whose legs suddenly collapse out from under it. He went 18-13 with a 3.52 ERA, walking 96 in 255 2/3 innings. He also broke Christy Mathewson’s strikeout record that had stood for 58 years.
Could Aroldis make a similar adjustment with Bryan Price guiding him? Before he quit throwing his slider and began relying almost exclusively on his heater, his second pitch was devastating. Mr. 106 has also shown periods of superior control, particularly in ST last year (18 SO, 2 BB) as well as the first few weeks of the season, where he had nearly identical numbers. What this tells me is that Aroldis most certainly can get the ball over the dish on a consistent basis. Taking a few MPH off the fastball as a starter is only going to make controlling his fastball a simpler prospect. Rather than throwing every pitch at max velocity, he can throw mid-90s knowing that in tough situations that third time through the lineup, he’ll have that 100 mph fastball to selectively reach back for. And with Price working with him between starts, any problems he’ll have can be dealt will in a way that never could have been done with him in the bullpen. Plus, he can continue to develop his off-speed pitches between starts, continuing to grow as a player, rather than be relegated to a carnival sideshow, coming out to screaming fans and smokestack flames, putting the finishing touches on 2 and 3 run leads.
The Reds must try this. Then, stick with it. The youngster is going to struggle. So, give him a long leash, let the non-believers howl, and the young man learn.
In Part Two, I’ll offer my thoughts about how I think the Reds may go about beginning to turn Chapman into one of the dominant starters in the game and what that might mean for October.