I don't think we've properly appreciated how weird the Aroldis Chapman story is. First, he was a highly visible, highly touted, and highly paid prospect. When he went to the minors, he did the sort of thing you'd expect from a prospect with an arm forged by Hephaestus: He walked a bunch of dudes.
Yep. That's a standard start to the career of a live-armed fastball god. But he acquitted himself well in his initial September trial, and he opened the season on the Reds' roster. Nothing weird so far.
Then his velocity dipped. The short fastball was accompanied with unbelievable wildness; there's a difference between Rick Vaughn wildness and Steve Blass. Chapman walked 12 of the 19 batters he faced in four outings between April 30 and May 15 last season. He went on the Disabled List with shoulder inflammation less than 24 hours after his pitching coach said he was "fine." Our own Rob Neyer used the term "Dontrelle Willis" in an article about him. There are rules about using that comp in a baseball article, and they're explicitly laid out in the Geneva Convention. But it fit. Man, how it fit.
At that point, we were in a little bit of a weird spot. That kind of story usually doesn't have a happy ending. It usually ends with the pitcher's labrum escaping through his nose and calling the police. Sure enough, Chapman went to the minors on a "rehab assignment," and he was abysmal.
Then he came up to the majors on June 25 and struck out the side on 12 pitches. Poof. He was back. That's back to the weird part again.
After he returned to the majors, Chapman struck out 56 and walked 21 in 37 innings. That's the Rick Vaughn wildness, not the Blass variety. The Reds were encouraged. For whatever reason, Chapman improved dramatically after his dreadful assignment in Louisville, and he finished the season strong. I guess it's not that weird. Man loses mechanics, man regains mechanics.
Then as Chapman slept one night over the offseason, an angel came down from the heavens, plucked a lyre, and sang a song that revealed the secret to throwing baseballs where they are meant to be thrown. When Chapman woke up, he could throw strikes. If you have a better explanation, please have at it. I'm using Occam's Razor, here. Less than a year removed from irreparably broken Chapman, we had Super Chapman, devourer of worlds. He had the fastball of legend still, but now he could throw strikes with it. His gaudy strikeout totals jumped even higher. He became a Cy Young candidate.
This is ostensibly an article about how important Chapman is to the Reds. But the history lesson seemed necessary to remind you that things have been weird with Chapman before. And now his velocity is down again, with the Reds shutting him down and giving him rest before the playoffs.
There's a lot made about the value of starters vs. the value of closers, and how relievers can never match the value of even an average starting pitcher. According to Baseball Reference's wins above replacement, Joe Nathan -- having a fantastic season -- is about as valuable as Ricky Nolasco, who is having a perfectly mediocre season. More innings, more value. That's not really in dispute.
But the playoffs went in a funny direction last year. In the 18 playoff games the Cardinals played last year, the starting pitcher reached the seventh inning in only four of them. The Cardinals had a starting pitcher throw five innings in the NLCS only once, and even then he threw exactly five. It was a postseason of bullpens. The Rangers had a similar path, though not as extreme. Those two teams proved that it was possible to advance throughout the playoffs without dominant starting pitching. All they needed were unimpeachable bullpens.
This brings us back to Chapman. Because of all the relievers in all the bullpens in all the land, no one could be more effective in that super-bullpen role than Chapman. The Reds are loaded with good relievers, but Chapman is clearly the alpha-arm. He's had eight multiple-inning appearances. His line in those appearances: 0.00 ERA, 23 strikeouts, and 3 walks in 13⅔ innings.
It's not just Chapman pitching multiple innings that makes the bullpen better, either. It pushes everyone back, giving Dusty Baker to put Logan Ondrusek or Sam LeCure in the game an inning earlier if his starter is struggling. And, as a reminder, the Reds' rotation will likely have a struggling Johnny Cueto and I Can't Believe It's Not Bronson Arroyo! brand Bronson Arroyo substitute, which could turn into the real thing at any second. The Reds certainly might need to ape the 2011 Cardinals. Something that would help that is an Aroldis Chapman who could pitch more than one inning. Or an Aroldis who could pitch exactly one inning, but do it as well as he was doing for most of the season.
The Reds aren't worried, at least publicly. The good folks at Red Reporter aren't worried. Therefore, I'm not worried. Here's hoping that Aroldis Chapman is never weird again. It's too much fun to watch him pitch, and bullpens might be just as important this postseason as they were in 2011.