COMMENTARY | It seems like an age-old debate, but it's only been a few months. Are the Cincinnati Reds making the right call by moving Aroldis Chapman to the starting rotation? A lot of Reds fans vehemently disagree with the decision. I'm not one of them.
The decision to move Chapman to the starting rotation is absolutely the right call. Make no mistake, there are a lot of questions surrounding the move.
How will he do as a starter?
Without a crystal ball, DeLorean DMC-12, or a deck of tarot cards, it's impossible to know for sure how Chapman will perform as a starting pitcher. But like anything in baseball, using the magical power of statistics, one can assess the past and estimate performance.
Before defecting from the Cuban national team in 2009 at age 21, Chapman was a starter and threw over 150 innings a couple of times, he said in an interview with John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Chapman has started for the Reds and its minor league affiliates since 2010, most recently in 2011. In his 16 starts as a minor leaguer, Chapman has accumulated a 4.14 ERA, 1.390 WHIP, and 12.0 K/9 over 108.2 innings.
Since then, he's done nothing but improve.
In 2012, Chapman put up the best starting numbers for the Reds in spring training: a 2.12 ERA in four starts, striking out 18, and walking two in 17 innings. We know the story from there: Ryan Madson got hurt and Chapman moved to the bullpen because he had experience and he threw hard.
But as Chapman was one of the best closers in the game last year, his role as a reliever was a deviation from the plan. The Reds didn't sign Chapman to be a reliever, pitching coach Bryan Price told Fay. Price also said that Chapman's two- or three-pitch arsenal is enough. While Price's opinion is important, I'll believe in a third pitch when I see Chapman get through an opposing team's batting order three times.
Chapman's conditioning and athleticism should not be a concern for Reds fans. Manager Dusty Baker, Price, and Bronson Arroyo have all commented that Chapman's athleticism is bar-none. If Chapman was built like some other relievers -- Jonathan Broxton, Heath Bell, or Jose Valverde -- I'd probably say that a fat guy like that wouldn't be able to walk up a set of stairs, much less throw 150 innings in a season.
Sticking with Chapman based on his 2012 performance could backfire. The performance of any closer is volatile. Last season, Chapman didn't allow a run until June 7 but then allowed runs in four of six appearances, blew two saves, and lost three games. He eventually got back on his unhittable track and never looked back. Losing "it" isn't atypical for any reliever: game-to-game or season-to-season.
Every year, the entire league sees an immense flux in closers. In 2012, just nine of the previous season's top 30 saves leaders made the list again. Craig Kimbrel, Chris Perez , Jonathan Papelbon, Joel Hanrahan, Valverde, John Axford, J.J. Putz, Carlos Marmol, and Bell were on the list in both 2011 and 2012. Further, over the last three seasons, 45 pitchers have had at least one season of 25 or more saves.
It would be naïve to assert that there is no chance Chapman could have a fall from grace next season in the closer's role.
Why try to fix something that's not broken?
Aside from the hiccups, Chapman was dominant in the closer's role. In 62 games, Chapman pitched 71.2 innings, amassing 38 saves (7th in MLB) with a 1.51 ERA (3rd), 0.809 WHIP (4th), and 15.32 K/9 (2nd).
Chapman was 'working' last season, but only for about one inning per game. The Reds front office isn't trying to 'fix' anything, it's trying make something work for more innings.
Chapman's move to the rotation is a matter of comparison. Rather than compare Chapman the starter to Chapman the closer, let's compare him to Mike Leake the starter, who he'll likely replace. Last season, Leake allowed a 4.58 ERA over 179.0 innings.
Based on rough, conservative projections, if Chapman pitches 150 innings as a starter and posts an ERA of 4.00, he could save the Reds 25 runs. My projections come with the stipulation that Chapman would pitch in four or five fewer games than Leake did, but that's why the Reds have Leake. If Chapman throws 150 innings and saves the Reds some runs, I have no problem with Leake finishing out the season as the 5th starter. In that event, Chapman could move to the rotation or be shut down.
To win a championship, risks need to be taken. Moving Chapman to the rotation is a calculated risk. The Reds have to try Chapman in the rotation, so here's to hoping it will pay off.
Andrew J. Roth studied journalism at Lehigh University and received his Master's from the University of Illinois. He has been following the Reds and Major League Baseball since he met Barry Larkin in 1993. For Reds and other sports tweets, follow him on Twitter @AndrewJohnRoth.