Aroldis Chapman‘s proposed transition to the starting rotation has arguably been the most polarizing Reds issue this offseason. While nothing is official just yet, the signing of Jonathan Broxton to a 3 year, 21 million dollar deal definitely signals a change. People all across baseball are speculating his move to the rotation and, more importantly, how successful it will be. There are some people out there, including MLB.com’s Jim Duquette, who feel that the risk is not worth the potential reward and that Chapman should remain a closer. However, there are also more optimistic people out there who point out the fact that Chapman was signed to start, has started in his career, and has the stuff to dominate as a starting pitcher.
I think the first things that we need to analyze in regards to Chapman are his numbers in Cuba as a starting pitcher. From Baseball America, here are Chapman’s Cuban League Stats:
The first thing that we should notice is that Chapman was incredibly wild in Cuba. For his career in the Cuban league, he posted a BB/9 of 5.57 (including a horrendous 9.33 BB/9 in 2005-2006). The wildest starting pitcher in baseball last year (with at least 150 IP) was the Blue Jays’ Ricky Romero, who posted a 5.22 BB/9 in 2012. This particular aspect was a big knock on Chapman early in his major league career but he seemed to fix his control issues last year (going from a 7.38 BB/9 in 2011 to a 2.89 BB/9 in 2012.) Another thing we should notice is his lack of innings. The most innings he pitched in one season in the Cuban League was 118, which doesn’t come close to what the Reds expect of him this year, even with an innings limit. As for his other stats, aside from 2006-2007, they really aren’t anything to write home about.
Now, let’s take a look at his numbers in the Reds minor league system. Here are the numbers, courtesy of Baseball Reference:
Chapman’s 2010 numbers in the Reds minor league system are a bit more encouraging than his numbers in Cuba, but not by too much. His walks were far better than they were in Cuba (4.9 BB/9) although they were still a tad high. His WHIP also could have been better, but all around the numbers aren’t bad. However, we have to consider that these numbers came from both being a starter and a reliever (as evidenced by the 39 games to 13 games started), not to mention that they are minor league numbers, and therefore should be taken with a grain of salt. Chapman will be facing much more intense competition in the MLB than he did in Louisville.
Finally, let’s take a look at some of Chapman’s major league numbers from 2012. He utilized his fastball over 81 percent of the time last year, according to Fangraphs. He was incredibly effective with said fastball, limiting hitters to a .132 average off of his fastball in 2012. His slider, which he threw about 12 percent of the time last year, was even more nasty- he held hitters to a minuscule .091 average off of his slider. His changeup, which he threw about 6 percent of the time last year, was a problem pitch. He got hit to the tune of .364 when he threw his changeup last year.
One has to consider that part of the reason that Chapman’s slider was so nasty was because hitters didn’t expect it. Chapman is known as being a fastball pitcher, and that’s what hitters come to expect when they come to the plate against him. When he drops the hammer on them, they are surprised, and he generated a 32.5% swing rate outside of the strikezone on it last year, with a contact rate outside of the strikezone of merely 18.5%. Simply put, if hitters expect his slider more next year, it could lose some of its effectiveness. This could become even more of a problem if he doesn’t improve his changeup.
In order to become an effective starter, he will need to stop throwing his fastball at an 81 percent clip. Here are the the starting pitchers who threw their fastball the most in 2012, along with average fastball velocity (at least 150 IP):
|Pitcher||FB%||AVG FB V|
|Phil Hughes (NYY)||65.50%||92mph|
|Clayton Kershaw (LAD)||62.50%||93mph|
|Jordan Zimmermann (WSH)||62.10%||93.8mph|
|Wei-Yen Chen (BAL)||59.60%||91mph|
|Mike Minor (ATL)||58.30%||90.3mph|
Notice that none of these pitchers came close to Chapman’s average fastball velocity of 98mph. In fact, the highest fastball velocity for a starting pitcher last year was only 95.8mph, by Stephen Strasburg. Chapman would have to reduce the velocity at which he throws his bread and butter, as well as tone down the velocity on it. This will not be an easy task.
Finally, I want to look at a successful reliever to starter transition, and a failed reliever to starter transition. First, let us consider Chris Sale. In 2011, Chris Sale threw his fastball an average of 94.9mph out of the bullpen, at a rate of only 43 percent. His secondary pitches are what gave him success in the bullpen, and even more so in the rotation. He was a success in his first year as a starter, as he was in the discussion for the AL Cy Young race.
Now, let’s take a look at Neftali Feliz. In 2011, he threw his fastball an average of 96.3mph and at a rate of 78 percent. Neftali Feliz‘s first season as a starter was a disaster. He missed much of the year with injury, pitching only 7 games, and really wasn’t the same pitcher afterward.
Which of these 2 pitchers does Chapman resemble more? The answer, of course, is Feliz. They threw their fastballs at similar rates and velocities, while Chris Sale (as well as other successful transitions, such as Adam Wainwright) didn’t throw his fastball so hard and threw it less than his secondary pitches.
With all of this being said, assuming that Chapman stays healthy enough to give the Reds 150 innings (which is a big if from what we’ve seen above), here is what I would expect from him in 2013:
Bottom line, I believe that the Reds can expect Chapman to be a decent number 5 starter next year, with the upside of ace status with a few years of experience. The transition will be difficult for Chapman, no doubt. If the Reds decide to pull the plug on the experiment when he struggles early on, they will lose a great opportunity for the future. However, do not expect Aroldis Chapman to be the staff ace of the 2013 Cincinnati Reds.