The Cincinnati pitching staff had an excellent 2012 and tied for the lowest ERA in the NL despite…
Chapman will be leaving a crowded bullpen to go into a crowded rotation. Then again, a triple digit fastball can thin down a crowd tremendously. Still, Mike Leake is heading into his third professional season and did an adequate job as the five-man and with the conversion and the Reds will be losing a dominant closer they enjoyed after moving the Cuban Missile into the role during 2012.
The reason for the move is simple, electric stuff like Chapman's is a good reason to try and utilize it over more innings. The plan was to have him start since the Reds took a gamble on the Cuban refugee before the 2010 season. Last season they handed him the ball before a few spring training games but multiple injuries kept him in the pen. Now he's halfway through his six-year contract and has nary one MLB start on his resume.
First of all, it should be mentioned that Chapman was a starter on the Cuban National team so it's not unfamiliar territory. Adding him into a rotation with Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos could give Cincinnati a 1-2-3 punch that would stand up to any trio in the league. Add in cagey veteran Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey and opponents will never get a break as they cycle through their rotation. With all offseason trade activity, the Reds did retain all pitching talent and Leake is still around to take the bump if needed. A sixth starter was only needed once all of last season, but having the opening day quintet turn in 161 starts for two consecutive years is probably a bit too much to ask.
At first glance, Chapman is a tall, lanky southpaw and his physique gives concerns on durability. Then again, Randy Johnson was taller and lankier and he's now awaiting eligibility to become a Hall-of-Famer. Of course asking any pitcher to duplicate the Big Unit is unfair, but if he could do it for 22 seasons, there's reason to believe that Chapman can do it for three. It all comes down to his ability to adapt because changes will be needed if he's to be successful.
First of all, this past season Chapman incredibly struck out 44% of the batters he faced. If he's to log in the number of innings expected from a starter, that rate is not going to happen again. He averaged 15.3 strikeouts per every nine innings pitched. Johnson led the league in that stat nine times and never achieved a rate higher than 13.4/nine which is a single season record. His career rate of 10.6/nine is also tops on the all-time list. He was certainly a strikeout pitcher, and fanned 28.6% of the total batters faced during his career which was good enough to leave him behind only Nolan Ryan atop the career strikeout leaders list.
That's not to say that Chapman won't fan a bunch. When projecting his rate per nine innings, he's a double digit man for sure. However, using rough numbers of six innings per start and thirty outings estimates somewhere between sixty to one hundred batters he'll need to retire by other means. Sure it's more impressive to punch¬-out batters, but that creates higher pitch counts. Also, his command was solid last season, but if there's any hint of control issues like he had in 2011 hitters will increase their selectivity at the plate. Finally, the biggest difference between the rotation and relieving is the need for a starter to pace himself to go deeper into games and when he backs off it will increase contact rate.
There are some serious concerns that will need to be answered. Late last season Chapman was put on the shelf a couple of weeks due to fatigue. It did not turn out to be a serious injury and he looked sharp going into to post season. Still, that fatigue occurred when he pitched 72 innings and faced 276 batters which is approximately one third of the action that a starter sees over a season. When he's scheduled to take the hill every fifth day it will reduce the amount of warm-up pitches needed when making more appearances but make no mistake, learning to pace himself will be crucial to success.
In his favor is the opportunity to work with pitching coach Bryan Price. If overachievement from a staff is good reason to give out accolades, then Price would have a strong case for pitching coach of the year in 2012 if such recognition had been awarded. He withdrew his name from consideration for the Marlins' managerial vacancy and signed an extension, so it looks like he'll be around a while longer. Unfortunately no coach will connect with every single player. It's a lot to ask a young pitcher to refrain overusing an arm with God-given ability like Chapman's. However this is the majors and hitters will try ever means imaginable to prevent him from being successful. If he throws a lot of pitches early they will try to work deeper counts.
When looking at the overall picture, it's a move that they really have to try. Pitchers with raw talent like Chapman's don't come around very often and when they're able to refine their skills and become polished major league pitchers they usually don't hang around in small markets for a long time. The safe plan would be to leave him in the closer role where he'd likely increase his market value over the next three seasons above what the Reds could afford to pay for a reliever. The Reds made a great call locking in Cueto long term in 2010 and there have been recent rumors that they're interested in extending team control over Latos and Bailey. Still, let there be no doubt that if Chapman weren't currently under contract Cincinnati would have to butt heads with the big boys to keep him longer. Their window of opportunity for his services is limited and they have to utilize it to the fullest. A closer is important, but stuff like Chapman's isn't needed to effectively pitch one inning per outing.
Does he have to make-up to be a successful starter? Well, time will tell. A triple digit fastball is a good place to start and when he's effective at locating his slider over the corner he can make any hitter look helpless. MLB has a long season and there will be challenges. Chapman has a few years' experience under his belt which should help address them when they arise. Actually the Reds' depth will reduce the risk because should the worst case scenario rear its head, Leake is still available to plug any hole that might develop in the rotation. Chapman's 2012 performance gave Reds fans good reason to want to see more of him and if things don't work out they will know who'll be protecting ninth-inning leads for the next couple of years.
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