[This post was written by Steve Mancuso and co-signed by the editors of Redleg Nation.]
Research on the brain shows that when we witness or learn of an emotional and shocking event, a surge of adrenaline encourages the formation of vivid, lasting recollections. They’re called “flashbulb memories” because of their nearly photographic nature. Depending on your age, you might have flashbulb memories about assassinations, the first moonwalk, the OJ Simpson verdict, and of course 9/11.
We carry flashbulb memories about sports as well and I have a few about the Reds. Some happy, some not so much.
Hal King’s dramatic homer, Joe Rudi’s catch at the wall, Joe Morgan’s bloop single in the ninth and Tom Seaver’s no-hitter. More recently, Jay Bruce’s homer and Drew Stubbs’ catch that same game, the Mat Latos trade and Homer’s no-no. Buster Posey’s grand slam.
It’s time to add another painful memory to the list: The day the Reds made the discouraging choice to keep Aroldis Chapman in the closer role.
And the organization’s reasoning is as obsolete as a 1950s magnesium filament.
Since the onset of Chapmania, everyone who has watched Aroldis Chapman pitch recognizes his immense natural talent. As a dominating left-handed ace, he would tremendously boost the Reds’ chances to win the World Series the next few years. Ace starters are really rare. Left-handed ones even more so. Bryan Price likes Chapman’s chances to become an effective starter, but no one is saying it’s a certainty. The Reds should give Chapman a legitimate look and find out. If it doesn’t work, they can move him back to the pen.
That’s it. The rest of the argument is window dressing.
The greater value of starting pitchers is convincingly proven by the size of the contracts that starters earn compared to those of elite relievers. The strategic importance of the role of closer itself has been fundamentally questioned by research covering decades of ninth-inning outcomes.
But in this case, no one is saying the Reds should do without a closer. The team has three other veteran pitchers who have been or could be successful closers. You think Sam LeCure couldn’t close? In a non-bizarro world, we’d be seriously talking about whether J. J. Hoover is ready to be the team’s closer. The Reds’ bullpen is so stacked the club may not take Hoover with them to Cincinnati, even though he has struck out 14 batters in 8 innings, with only one walk.
The “if it ain’t broke” argument for Chapman in the bullpen is the most brain-dead of all. Like most clichés, it’s utterly wrong. Remember the NLDS?
Dusty Baker managed the NLDS like the regular season, holding Chapman back for his carefully proscribed closer role. The Cuban Missile stayed holstered against the Giants, waiting and waiting for a small lead in a ninth inning to protect. The Giants, on the other hand, urgently and creatively deployed every arm in their arsenal, with devastating effect. They used Tim Lincecum out of the bullpen. Twice. The soon-to-be world champions got their best arms in the game when it mattered.
Try this counterfactual. Aroldis Chapman starting Game Four. Then tell me there wasn’t something broken in the Reds’ thinking.
The Giants won the World Series using a closer who had three saves going into 2012. The Cardinals, who faced the Giants in the NLCS, relied on a closer who had only 13 saves prior to last season. So yeah, established closers are essential.
Overall, the Reds’ front office has made fabulous strides – in financial commitment and assembling talent – that have propelled the team to the top of the NL Central and into MLB’s circle of premier clubs. Ownership and the G.M. deserve huge praise.
But a messy smudge now taints that big picture. Among elite teams, even the smallest edge can be decisive. By consigning Aroldis Chapman to 65 innings of work, mostly in games when the Reds are already ahead, the Reds are sacrificing a crucial competitive asset. You can’t play it safe and expect to beat the best teams, because they aren’t standing still.
The key players are all singing from the same hymnal now, but Dusty Baker’s role in this terribly mismanaged decision has been pivotal and public. Has there been a behind-the-scenes power struggle, with Baker coming out on top? Only the insiders really know. But outsiders can fairly judge that this process could scarcely have been handled any worse.
The most important take-away from this embarrassing and depressing episode though, is substantive, not procedural. It’s this: As long as the Reds continue to cater to Dusty Baker’s anachronistic ideas for assembling a team, they’ll never reach their full potential.
The acquisition of Shin-Soo Choo demonstrated that the Reds – at least for one season – ditched the archaic notion that the main quality for a leadoff batter is his ability to “create havoc” on the bases. In the Choo trade, they rightly paid a premium for a high on-base-percentage hitter.
With that move, the organization appeared finally to be breaking free of the crippling gravitational pull of old-timey baseball. But today’s Chapman decision profoundly calls that into question. Other teams are more modern about the closer’s role. A few of those – unlike Dusty Baker – have won the World Series.
But Walt Jocketty has won a World Series. And he’s the one person in the organization who is responsible for making sure the hard, up-to-date thinking about baseball gets done and implemented. That job is not on the owner, or the manager, or the players, pitching coach or scouts, or certainly not local Hall of Fame sportswriters. Practicing modern baseball falls squarely on the shoulders of the G.M. In this case, Walt Jocketty either made an awful decision or didn’t put his foot down.
We badly needed Walt on that wall.
Yes, yes, yes, the 2013 Reds are still a talented and exciting team. Barring a load of injuries, they’ll win plenty and may even be in it to the end. I’ll be there cheering all the way.
But because of today’s announcement, in the blink of an eye – one might say, in a flash – the Reds are greatly diminished.
Aroldis Chapman may have the best left arm in baseball. And the Cincinnati Reds just tied it behind the team’s back. What a self-inflicted waste of talent.
Yep, there’s the emotion … the adrenaline … and a new lasting, painful memory from when the Reds committed this act of unilateral disarmament.