We love watching Aroldis Chapman’s slender frame walk through that bullpen door. You can judge the intensity of the passion by the wild applause that accompanies his run to the mound even when there isn’t free pizza at stake. There are nights if you squint hard enough at the “54” on his chest, you’d swear it was the letter “S” instead. In those heady moments, as Aroldis Chapman gets set to close out the ninth inning of a Reds victory, all he’s missing is a cape.
But it’s not really his glorious dash onto the field that we crave. No, the sprint just marks the onset of our collective delirium. What really puts the ‘mania’ in Chapmania are the strikeouts. That’s our real obsession, the dominant whiff.
The hard truth is this: Aroldis Chapman’s ninth-inning strikeouts are baseball’s version of crack. Except it’s spelled with two (or often three) Ks.
As fans, we deeply enjoy experiencing those strikeouts. Dusty Baker did, too. Those helpless swings by our (often hated) opponents make us crazy happy. You could even say we’ve started to crave them. And like every psychological dependency, this one comes at a cost. Chapman’s strikeouts have become a powerful narcotic that desensitizes us to certain realities, like his league-average save rate.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Here comes another post about Chapman’s role. But you’d be wrong.
(Who would have ever thought we’d look back fondly to the days when we had issues to argue about other than the adjective in front of the word “great” in describing Joey Votto’s 2013 season? Those are wonderful, blissful memories.)
No, let’s not rehash the closer vs. starter debate here right now. There’s obviously a case to be made for leaving Chapman in the ninth inning and a case for moving him into the rotation. The Reds under new manager Bryan Price haven’t made their intention clear.
Instead, just for the moment — or in the blogging world, this thread — assume for the sake of discussion the Reds do break their ninth-inning Aroldis Addiction. Let’s analyze the alternatives.
The current free agent pool is full of veteran closers, terrifying and otherwise: Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Kevin Gregg, Joel Hanrahan, Joe Nathan, Chris Perez, Fernando Rodney, Jose Veras and Brian Wilson. Wilson was mentioned in a tweet this week by Yahoo’s Tim Brown as a possible candidate for the Reds in a post-Chapman scenario.
In signing a free agent, the Reds could use one of two approaches. The traditional, cautious route would pay big money to an “established” closer in a multi-year deal. The Reds signed Coco Cordero (4 years, $45 million) to that kind of contract. Or, they could sign a pitcher like Brian Wilson, who might be looking for a one-year contract ala Ryan Madson two seasons ago (1 year, $8.5 million), presumably with intact elbow tendons.
Another tried and true solution would be to promote an in-house pitcher that was a former major league closer, such as Jonathan Broxton, who is signed for two years. Lefty Sean Marshall, who has one year remaining on his Reds’ contract, closed for a while in 2011. Sam LeCure also returns to the Reds and seems to have the mentality to finish games.
But if I were Walt Jocketty and Bryan Price, I might choose a ninth-inning path less traveled. I’d call J.J. Hoover and tell him that he’s the guy.
Hoover is 26 years old and under team control until 2019. He definitely has “closer stuff” with a 93-mph fastball and dominating breaking ball. Hoover registered a strikeout rate above 9.0 in both 2012 and 2013 for the Reds. He has experience pitching the ninth inning, having recorded a handful (4) of saves in his roughly 100 innings of work for Dusty Baker and successfully closed 13 games for Louisville in 2012.
J.J. Hoover would simply need to be an average major league closer because — minus the Krack — that’s all Aroldis Chapman has been. Hoover’s numbers indicate he’d have an excellent chance to convert 37 of 43 saves (Coco Cordero’s four-year rate) or even 38 of 43 opportunities (Chapman, the past two years).
If Hoover works out, the Reds would have a closer pitching for league minimum salary in both 2014 and 2015 before becoming eligible for arbitration in 2016. If the goal is to compile a large enough stack of cash to acquire a splashy hitter, either by trade or free agency, saving $10 million/year on the ninth inning would be a good start. You’d have Broxton and Marshall to fall back on. And the Reds will certainly pursue other solid set-up relievers (read: less expensive) as well.
If not Aroldis Chapman, what pitcher would you like to see come through that bullpen door in the ninth inning come Opening Day?