I know we don’t write very much about moving Aroldis Chapman to the rotation, so pardon the novelty here. I think we’ve all resigned ourselves to the idea that we will only see Chapman when the Reds are already winning the game and, even so, only for one inning.
We are almost a third of the way through the season and our most electrifying pitcher has completed a grand total of ten innings for us. Yes, ten. Sean Marshall (10.2), Nick Christiani (13.0), Logan Ondrusek (17.0), and Manny Para (18.0) have all logged more innings than Chapman. Once again, he is well on his way to pitching another forty-to-fifty inning season for our Reds.
Yet Chapman recently passed the 200-inning mark for the Reds, so it’s worth asking: had all 200 of those innings come in one season (which is a normal workload for a starting pitcher), what would we be writing about Number 54?
I realize there are plenty of methodological issues here: having to pitch only one inning means a pitcher can go all-out. He doesn’t need to face the same batters twice. Relief pitchers don’t need a secondary pitch. But it’s a Friday, and this is sort of fun, so why not take a look at see what Aroids’ 200 innings would look like.
[Here is a fun fact: for every additional 3 MPH a pitcher adds to their fastball, the ball will move an additional foot toward the batter in the same amount of time. This reveals something truly amazing about hitting: home plate is 17 inches from front to the back tip. If a hitter were to swing assuming the pitch was going to travel at 90 miles per hour but it was actually 93, they would barely get a bat on it. The window for hitting a baseball is that small. So if you were to gear up for a 102 MPH fastball but actually receive Chapman’s 90 MPH changeup, the ball would be four feet in front of you when the bat crosses the plate. You could practically swing twice.]
First, the value stats: In his five years, Chapman has pitched a total of 208.2 innings for the Reds and has a career ERA+ of 168. This means the rest of the league, on average, was 68 percent worse than Chapman. When Joey Votto won his MVP award in 2010, the league batted 77 percent worse than he did (OPS+ 177). When Clayton Kershaw won his first Cy Young award, he posted an ERA+ of 161 (although last year he posted an ERA+ of 196).
Baseball reference and FanGraphs use different variables to determine pitching wins above replacement. BBref uses a pitcher’s ERA in their equation while FanGraphs uses FIP. Since ERA includes the variance associated with fielding, these numbers can differ due to variables outside a pitcher’s control.
Chapman has compiled a modest 6.9 bWAR and 6.3 fWAR.
The top bWAR in 2013: Verlander (7.8), Price (6.9), and Kershaw (6.2).
And fWAR : Kershaw (6.5), Sherzer (6.4), A. Sanchez (6.2)
Now, the fun stuff: strikeouts. In his 208.2 innings, Chapman has struck out 342 batters for an otherworldly 14.8 K/9. This would have not just been good for the best in baseball last year: it would have been the single best season of all time. Randy Johnson currently holds the record at 13.4099 K/9 while Pedro Martinez is right behind him at 13.2047.
[Another fun fact: how consistently did Randy Johnson send batters back to the dugout? Spots 4-8 on the all time K/9 list belong to him. That means in the history of baseball, Johnson has thrown six of the best ten K/9 seasons, ever]
Chapman’s 342 strikeouts would fall well short of the all-time record, set by Matt Kilroy (513 strikeouts!) back in 1886. It is fair to say that batters struck out at a higher rate a few years after the civil war than in modern baseball since the top seven spots belong to pitchers who were playing between 1884-1886. Conservatively, if you rule out all seasons prior to 1900, then Chapman would rank 8th all-time.
Chapman’s strikeout-to-walk ratio would fall about 50th all-time while his WHIP would not be as impressive, somewhere in the 100th best season ever pitched.
Chapman could improve his secondary pitches in the rotation. Already we are seeing him use his fastball 20% less than he did last season and throwing his slider and change up deep in the count. This season Chapman is throwing his fastball (66.9% of pitches) less frequently than Cingrani (72.1%) and only a tick above Bailey (62.2%). He is always going to be a fastball-heavy pitcher, but I can think of 342 reasons why that’s not a bad thing.
In fact, because he is relying more on his secondary pitches, Chapman more resembles a starter than a reliever. Take a look at other power pitchers and you start to see that when you have a weapons-grade fastball, you can get away with throwing it over sixty percent of the time:
When Clayton Kershaw won his first Cy Young in 2011, he threw his fastball 65.3% of the time. When he won his second Cy Young, that number was 60%
Roger Clemens threw his fastball over 65% of the time from 2004-2006. He won a Cy Young Award in 2004.
Tim Lincecum, in 2007 and 2008 threw his fastball over 66% of the time. He won a Cy Young in 2008.
Justin Verlander, from 2005-2009 threw his fastball over 62% of the time. He didn’t win a Cy Young until 2011, when he threw his fastball 57% of the time.
Is it that hard to believe that after five years in major league baseball a player like Aroldis Chapman — who is naturally athletic and gifted with a powerful arm — has learned to throw additional pitches? And if so, shouldn’t the Reds take advantage of his new abilities?
All of this is not to imply that in the fantasy-world where Chapman takes the ball in the first inning he would become the best pitcher in the history of baseball. No, there would probably be some regression. Yet, almost all of his comparables fall on the “all time” list. When you’re measured against the history of baseball, I think its safe to say that you would hold up in the present.
Actually, let’s just assume he regresses over fifty percent and delivers a 3.0 fWAR season by moving to the starting rotation. That would make him our third best pitcher in 2013 behind Latos (4.4 fWAR) and Bailey (3. 7 fWAR).
Despite this, he would also be twice as valuable as our current closer, a guy who can throw over 100 MPH, but could only accrue 1.6 fWAR last year. What a slacker.