The Cuban Missile, Mr. Fireman, or simply AC, whatever name you want to call him, there is no debating that Aroldis Chapman is one of the best young pitchers in baseball. Last year at the stellar age of 24, Chapman finished with 38 saves and a 15.3 strikeout per 9 inning mark. With all that said, the Cincinnati Reds now face a monumental decision of whether to convert their 30 million dollar investment into a starter or to leave him as a dominating closer.
There are stellar arguments on both sides, but I believe some in-depth statistics and the current state of the Cincinnati roster should clearly light the path of the right decision.
So what do I mean by in-depth statistics? Let us take a look at an interesting study done by David Smith about late game leads in Major League Baseball. First off, one should know that up until 1969 saves were not even a statistic and that most managers pitched a different man almost every night in the 9th inning. With that taken into account, after researching late game leads from 1901-2003, Smith concluded that even though the 9th inning closer is supposedly one of the most important players on a team, the winning percentage of teams with late game leads has stayed almost exactly the same. In other words, even though teams pay the most money to closers and value this role more than many other positions, the closer has hardly done anything to change the eventual outcome of games. In 1901, teams entering the 9th inning with a lead won that game about 95 percent of the time and one-hundred years later in 2001, that rate was exactly the same.
So what does this mean for Aroldis? It means that there are other roles that he could be utilized in that would improve Cincinnati’s win total. For instance, if Aroldis was a starter he would be a lock to at least double his 2012 total of seventy-two innings pitched. That means seventy-two more innings where the Reds have one of their best players impacting the game. Then if the switch is made, with the late game experience of Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall the Reds should be just fine at the end of games.
Now I know the skeptics of Chapman as a starter will say, “He isn’t ready yet and he only has two pitches, no starting pitcher can make it with only two pitches.” To respond to that, I say look at the stats over the last three years. Chapman’s walks have drastically gone down, his strikeouts have gone up and his ERA and WHIP have both improved greatly. He has shown vast improvement every year and that means he is ready for a new challenge. Then to the two pitch cynics, I just point to Randy Johnson. Johnson finished first in the history of baseball in strikeouts per game and 22 all-time in total wins. Guess what pitches Johnson threw? He had a dominating fastball and a devastating slider, the same repertoire of young Chapman.
I am willing to compromise though, Chapman does not have to be a starter, but the Reds at least need to use him in the most valuable way. Take Goose Gossage for instance, three times in his career Goose finished with more than 130 innings pitched in a season. Gossage is a Hall of Fame reliever and often referred to as the best closer of all-time, but his managers weren’t afraid to use him when his team most needed him. If the game was in jeopardy in the sixth or seventh Goose would be in and most of the time he would finish what he started. In fact, Gossage in his career had more saves of two innings or greater than of the one inning variety.
Convinced yet? Well let me nail it home with one last example. Can you name the modern era team with the record for most consecutive years of winning a division? It’s the Atlanta Braves from 1991-2005, and their blueprint was a very simple one, dominant starting pitching. The Braves didn’t waste any of their stud pitchers in the bullpen and even held ten different relievers as their primary closer during their epic run. The Braves proved that the main emphasis should not be on who is closing the game, but rather getting to the last inning with a lead.
So in summary with Broxton, Marshall and the spectacular array of options already available in the Reds’ pen, it makes perfect sense to use Chapman in a much expanded role. Give him a spot start every two weeks, bring him in when the game is on the line and the bases are loaded in the 7th, but please oh please don’t let him be wasted in the 9th pitching with three or four run leads.
Vinny Carozza is a Major League Baseball columnist/writer for Rant Sports. Follow him on twitter @VinnyCarozza