A toxic narrative has developed that the Reds assigned Aroldis Chapman to the bullpen because of the pitcher’s mental weakness, a condition that disqualified him from being in the starting rotation. It’s a scurrilous notion that needs to be examined and, in my opinion, flatly rejected.
The root of the theory comes from a single statement the pitcher made through a translator that he enjoyed the excitement of closing. From there, some analysts (and then fans) immediately inferred that Chapman was communicating a reluctance to be a starter. It then followed that if the Reds assigned Chapman to the starting rotation he’d be uncomfortable with it. Chapman’s statement became viewed as a call for help, and people have come to darkly question whether Chapman has the “mental makeup” to be a starter.
New conventional wisdom: “The Reds know a deep secret about Chapman’s mental state that dictates he remain in the bullpen.”
But Aroldis Chapman didn’t say that he didn’t like being in the rotation. In fact, a couple months earlier, he said the opposite. Here, straight from the Missile’s mouth:
“I enjoyed being a closer, and I’m going to miss it, but I still like to be a starter,” Chapman said at the Reds’ fan fest. “I would love to do both, but my career is so short, and I always enjoyed being a starter. That’s what I want to do.”
Chapman subsequently expressed a preference for coming out of the bullpen. Fair enough. But if the “Chapman is mentally unfit to start” theory is premised on the idea that he didn’t like starting, then it’s pretty easy to demonstrate as false.
Second, are we to believe a pitcher has the mental makeup to be a closer, but not a starter? Please explain that. If anything, the closer potentially confronts more compressed, pressure-packed situations. Starters develop more routinized schedules and know well in advance whom they will face and the circumstances.
It’s certainly possible for a pitcher to have physical limitations (only one pitch, etc.) that warrant them being in the bullpen instead of the rotation. But it’s really hard to imagine a credible theory for a mental barrier.
Third, the theory of his unfitness for the rotation is belied by the plain fact that Chapman has been the best starter on the club in at least the past two spring trainings. Moreover, he was a successful starting pitcher in Cuba, for an authoritarian government that puts an intense spotlight on its baseball team. The idea that Chapman somehow doesn’t have the mental makeup for being a starter doesn’t really pass the smell test, based on his own history.
Finally, Chapman is just 25 years old. If a club isn’t sure whether a young pitcher has the sufficient maturity to be a starting pitcher all that means is that the pitcher is normal. So you send him out there and give him a reasonable trial period and find out. Then you give him another chance. And another. Especially when an athlete has the obvious potential that Aroldis Chapman has.
You know what you don’t do? You don’t give up on him being a starter at age 24 or 25 based on maturity or mental makeup. See: Homer Bailey and Mat Latos and Johnny Cueto and virtually every other successful starting pitcher who began with less maturity than they eventually developed.
Bottom line: The Reds organization simply calculated that Aroldis Chapman had more present value as a closer than as a starter. You can legitimately agree or disagree with that. But to take it a step further and say that the pitcher has an irremediable mental weakness is, like most speculation about the psychological makeup of athletes, complete nonsense.
And a quite unappealing brand of Chapmania.