NASHVILLE - Aroldis Chapman is moving to the rotation, and in a press conference at the Winter Meetings on Monday, Dusty Baker said that Chapman has the type of stuff to be one of the team's best starters, and is a leader who will do whatever the team asks him to do.
There's always risk when it comes to moving pitchers to a new role, especially when that move is from the bullpen to the rotation, but for the Reds, who have always flirted with using Chapman as a starter, there's no time like the present for the experiment. The 2012 starting rotation -- Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo, and Mike Leake -- was the best starting rotation they have pieced together, as measured by Fair Run Average (FRA), since 1994. They also stayed healthy; four-fifths of their rotation pitched 200 or more innings, combining for 1019 innings, the most of any Reds rotation since 1985.
Saying that the Reds have talented pitchers would be an understatement. Even their weakest link, Leake, wasn't awful. In his press conference on Monday, Baker said that having six starters was a good problem to have, and he wouldn't indicate whether or not Chapman's transition meant that Arroyo or Leake, being, respectively, the oldest and weakest starters, are now trade chips. The Reds might wait until midseason to trade pitching for pennant-race reinforcements, and having a stacked staff mitigates the inherent risk in the Chapman experiment: the Reds really need Chapman to be just a fifth or even sixth starter next season, which is a much easier transition than if they were seeking an ace.
It's hard to fathom that Chapman could be more valuable to the team as a starter than he was as their closer given a 1.51 ERA and 15.2 strikeout per nine this season, but statistics show that starters are the most essential members of the pitching staff. Even though ERA tends to rise and strikeout rates fall during the transition from starting to relieving due to the mere fact of the pitcher throwing three times as many innings, they almost always provide more value for their teams for the same reason -- because 200 good innings can be as or more valuable than 60 great ones.
Recent reliever-to-starter conversions have been a mixed bag. C.J. Wilson was one of the most sought-after starting pitchers at this time last year after two seasons over 4.0 WAR with the Rangers. R.A. Dickey, who also converted in 2010, won the National League Cy Young this season for the Mets. Jeff Samardzija surprised everyone with an 3.81 ERA and an increased strikeout rate (9.3) for the Chicago Cubs this year, while on the Southside, Chris Sale went from late-inning relief ace to ace of the rotation, displaying one of the most wicked sliders you'll ever see.
Yet, for every success story, there are dozens more of pitchers who come so unglued they get demoted to the minors like Daniel Bard, or worse yet, the workload seems to cause injury (we can't ever know for sure), as it likely did for Neftali Felix this season.
Chapman was a starter in Cuba prior to signing with the Reds in 2010, but made just 16 starts in the minors, recording a 4.14 ERA. It's hard to extrapolate how Chapman will do as a starter based on his major league stats since we only have two full seasons of data, one very good and the other mediocre. Using Nate Silver's rule that relievers tend to add 25 percent to their ERA as starters, Chapman's estimated ERA would be around 2.92. This seems like an optimistic estimate, given his ERA in the minors.
When the Reds signed Chapman to a five-year, $25.5 million contract in 2010, they certainly viewed him as having the potential to pitch for them every fifth day. Nevertheless, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about next season, including injury, his pitch arsenal, and worries that a fastball pitcher with questionable command might not fare well in longer outings.
In late September of last season, Chapman was day-to-day with left-shoulder fatigue. He has a history of shoulder problems (including a 15-day DL stint in 2011), and moving to the rotation could worsen his condition. On Monday, Baker said that the Reds were still deciding how to manage Chapman's transition to the rotation, and weren't sure if they would watch pitch counts, number of starts, or set a drop-dead date as the Nationals did this season with Stephen Strasburg. "Or he could maybe relieve early," Baker speculated, "and stretch him out."
If the Reds do not trade one of their starters this offseason, they will have the flexibility to allow for fatigue, injury, or low pitch counts for anyone in the rotation given that they already have four pitchers capable of 200-plus innings. However, even if Chapman is healthy, there is little chance that he will reach 200 innings this season-it takes time to stretch a pitcher out that far; even Chris Sale and Jeff Samardzija, the most successful converts this season, didn't hit that number-they pitched 192.1 and 174.2 innings, respectively.
The biggest reason to be skeptical of the Chapman conversion isn't the potential for injury, but rather whether his pitch arsenal, or lack thereof, is too small. When asked about it on Monday, Baker responded, "Sandy Koufax had two pitches, but you've gotta have Sandy Koufax stuff." Baker argued that having more than two pitches isn't mandatory, while conceding that having more "just helps, you know what I mean?" Simultaneously, Baker said a pitcher could go too far in the opposite direction. "I've seen guys have eight pitches, and they might as well have two because they have too many pitches."
In Chapman's case, it helps that he already has four developed pitches -- a fastball, slider, splitter, and changeup -- but you can still consider two of them untested given that he's never had to use the split or changeup as a reliever. In other words, the pitches might not be as far along as the Reds hope. As a reliever, Chapman threw his fastball 88 percent of the time (98-m.p.h. average velocity), and has shown shaky command with his slider. As for the other two pitches, BrooksBaseball.net says that he's thrown a change-up only three times in the majors. Even though Baker described Chapman's splitter as "nasty," Chapman has thrown it exactly once in the majors. Since the splitter and change-up aren't as sharp, it makes since that he'd be encouraged to limit their usage, but just because Chapman has more pitches than originally anticipated, it doesn't necessarily mean it's a good arsenal, and there's still concern about his ability to throw off-speed pitches to left-handed batters, a huge weakness when facing platoons.
As this experiment continues, you'll hear Chapman compared to Chris Sale ad nausam, since Sale is a success story of a recently converted pitcher (both tall and left-handed), but it's a ridiculous comparison when talking pitch arsenals -- Sale already had pinpoint command of his slider and change-up; for Chapman, it's the other way around.
As a starter, Chapman won't be able to replicate his 15.9 strikeouts per nine innings, but even as that rate declines, he'll still likely be above league average. His career 4.5 hits per nine is also better than league average, but his walk rate could get him in trouble. This season, he walked just 2.9 batters per nine innings, but in 2011 he walked a whopping 7.4 per nine, which would be the death of him in the rotation. In April and May of 2011, he walked 20 batters in 13 innings, which meant a trip to the minors to work on his command. While he certainly showed improvement last season in this area, it could become an issue again -- and it would be painful to watch him morph into Dontrelle Willis.
There are many reasons to doubt this experiment will work, but the Reds have such a strong core rotation entering 2013 that it likely doesn't matter how well Chapman actually performs (unless he suddenly has an 11.54 ERA and a torn labrum), just that he can handle the workload and stay healthy. In the end, it's a gamble for the Reds, but it's easier to place large bets when you already have a full house.