Commentary

Aroldis Chapman: Starter or closer?

Reds' fireballing left-hander a closer for now, but could be a starter next season

Originally Published: May 25, 2012
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It's become the coolest scene in the grand panorama of Cincinnati sports. Possibly even cooler than fans who catch two home-run balls in the space of about a minute and a half.

It's that moment, three or four times a week, when the bullpen gates open, and Rage Against the Machine starts blaring, and Aroldis Chapman begins to lope toward the old pitcher's mound.

[+] EnlargeAroldis Chapman
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireReds closer Aroldis Chapman is striking out a whopping 15.9 batters per nine innings this season.

When he picks up that baseball, and the swinging and missing erupts, and the radar guns start smoking, it's pure magic. It's David Copperfield dangling that baseball and telling the helpless dudes with bats in their hands: "Now you see it. Now you don't."

Clearly, they can't see it, they can't hit it, they can't even find it, because Chapman is heading for the most dominating season by any relief pitcher in the history of relief pitching. (More on that later.)

But as this 24-year-old Cuban defector unleashes all this domination, night after night, the debate still swirls around him:

Is this what a man with an arm like Chapman's should be doing for a living -- facing three hitters a night, pitching 80 innings a year? Or should he be dreaming of being Justin Verlander, Mr. Unhittable Game 1 Starter, when he grows up?

It's a debate that never ends -- not in Cincinnati, not in the entire sport.

"It's almost become second nature now, I've heard it discussed so often," Reds GM Walt Jocketty told Rumblings. "But I like it. It creates interest in our club, and that's all good. Everybody has a theory on it. Everybody has an opinion."

That "everybody" includes the general manager, of course, not to mention Chapman himself. And their unanimous opinion is that some day -- very likely as soon as next season -- Chapman is going to morph into a starter.

"It won't be this year, obviously," Jocketty said. "But he would like to start. His preference has always been to start."

And if the Reds had only been able to keep half of their bullpen out of the emergency room this spring, Chapman might very well be in this team's rotation right now. He was told after last season he'd get a chance to start. He built himself up all winter to start. And he was "our most dominating starter" in spring training, Jocketty said.

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So if other stuff hadn't forced their hand, it would have been fascinating to see what this team would have decided to do with him. Scouts covering the Reds this spring were forecasting a massive tug o' war between the front office, which wanted to start this man, and manager Dusty Baker, who has always enjoyed waving for a bullpen weapon who could throw the baseball about 950 mph.

But then the closer, Ryan Madson, had to go visit his friendly neighborhood Tommy John surgeon. And set-up workhorse Nick Masset's shoulder started throbbing. And that was the end of that debate. Off went Chapman to the bullpen, where he has pretty much saved the Reds' entire season, by giving up zero earned runs all season.

"If we didn't have him in our bullpen right now," Jocketty said, "we'd be in tough shape."

So the Reds have no doubts that what they did "was best for our team," the GM said. "But what's best for his career is probably to start him."

Let's just say, though, that not everybody in baseball agrees with that.

"He's a thrower, not a pitcher," said one assistant GM who has been expressing this opinion since he first saw video of Chapman in Cuba. "He's a two-pitch guy. He doesn't have a third pitch. So I just don't see it. I see a thrower, not a pitcher. And those guys belong in the 'pen."

"He should be just what he is right now -- a closer," a veteran scout said. "In this role, he's a strikeout pitcher, with two well-above-average pitches. I like guys who don't put the ball in play as closers. It's always an interesting question. But I just feel like it gives your team an air of invincibility if you've got a closer like Chapman."

Then again, who else exactly qualifies as "a closer like Chapman?" Friends, there has never been "a closer like Chapman." Ever.

Check out his numbers so far this season. You've never seen anything like them: 91 batters faced, 43 strikeouts, 7 hits, 7 walks, 0 earned runs.

So what other pitchers in history have ever rolled up more than six strikeouts for every hit they allowed in a season? None, of course.

The greatest ratio ever by a pitcher who even worked 20 innings or more? It was compiled by the mysterious Ed Cushman (4.7 strikeouts per hit -- 47 K's, 10 hits) of the 1884 Milwaukee Brewers of the old United Association.

The greatest since 1900? That would be Craig Kimbrel's 4.4 whiffs per hit for the 2010 Braves (40 K's, 9 hits).

Other than those two, only Eric Gagne in 2003 (3.7) and Billy Wagner in 1999 (3.5) even piled up 3.5 punchouts for every hit. But ladies and gentlemen, we should point out that Chapman is almost DOUBLING that rate.

But hang on. There's more. At this pace, Chapman would finish this season with 106 more strikeouts than BASERUNNERS (162 K's, 26 hits, 26 walks, 4 hit batters). And the only pitchers in history who ever did that in a season were starters:

Pedro Martinez, 2000: 284 strikeouts, 174 baserunners
Pedro Martinez, 1999: 313 strikeouts, 208 baserunners
Randy Johnson, 2001: 372 strikeouts, 270 baserunners

Chapman, on the other hand, is on pace to do this just by ambling out of the bullpen and facing three or four hitters a night. Insane.

So can he possibly be as dominating as a starter as he's been in relief? Even Jocketty isn't ready to go that far.

"I think he'd be dominating, but I don't know if he'd be quite THAT dominating," Chapman's GM said. "It's hard to say, when you're talking about him pitching seven or eight innings versus one or two innings. I don't know if he'd be putting up the strikeouts in that role that he's putting up in relief. But I still think he'd be a … dominating impact starter."

Well, Jocketty will be happy to know that we did find one executive who seconded that motion, a guy whose team pursued Chapman following his defection from Cuba in 2009 and said: "I think he could be the second coming of Randy Johnson."

"Remember," this exec said, "when Randy Johnson first got to the big leagues, he was just fastball-slider, and he was even wilder than this guy. … So if, in a year, [Chapman's] command continues to improve the way it already has and he can get a feel for the change, I think he can be a big-time starter. But that's the biggest question: Does he have the feel?"

There are other questions, too, obviously: How many innings could Chapman pitch as a starter after spending nearly his entire stateside career in the bullpen? Can he hold runners? Can he field his position? Can he maintain his velocity for six, or seven, or eight innings a night? And, most of all, how could he make his greatest impact -- as a potential No. 1 starter or as one of the most untouchable closers who ever lived?

"That," Jocketty said, "is the old debate. And I don't know the answer. I remember early in my career, when we'd try to put together clubs, we'd ask that question: Which do you need more -- a great starter or a closer? If you don't have good starters, you never need the closer. But if you don't have the closer, you can lose your club in a hurry. So what I've always tried to do is have both."

But what happens if you have the SAME pitcher who can be both? That's the question the Reds will be kicking around all summer, maybe all winter and possibly beyond. At least they'll be thrilled to know that the entire sport of baseball will be kicking it around with them.

Ready to Rumble

• It could be a very weird trading deadline. An executive of one team that would love to add offense complained this week: "If the races stay like they are, nobody is going to be able to add anything, because nobody will be out of it."

Denard Span
Span

But SOMEBODY has to volunteer to be a seller come July. And other clubs are beginning to speculate that the first team that could light the "For Sale" sign is the Twins.

Twins officials have already told teams that began kicking tires that they're not likely to move Justin Morneau. When clubs have asked about Denard Span, on the other hand, one exec reports they've been told the Twins aren't interested in dealing him right now, but at some point they're likely to at least listen if they're offered enough. So get ready to revive those Span-to-the-Nationals rumors that kept us all busy last July.

• Another reason to be on the lookout for rumors connecting the Nationals to any and all potentially available center fielders is that the Bryce Harper center-field experiment hasn't gone so well. Harper has started fewer games in center (six) than he's started at either of the other two outfield spots. And one scout who spoke with the Nationals brass says the club has already concluded that Harper isn't going to be The Answer in center -- "even short-term."

• Rumblings out of San Diego suggest that Steve Cohen may be having second thoughts about making a serious bid for the Padres and may want to wait for a team in a bigger market to become available. If so, an official of one club says he believes the group fronted by Tony Gwynn and Hollywood moviemaker Thomas Tull would become "the odds-on favorite."

Adam Lind
Lind

• Scouts and executives from three teams told us this week they wouldn't touch Adam Lind, no matter how available the Blue Jays have made him. Said one scout: "He's gotten so passive. He's not making any adjustments. He's been a very confused-looking kid for the last couple of years."

• Teams that have checked in with the Braves say their offense has been so good that, barring injuries, they're more likely to shop for an impact starting pitcher in July than a bat. But GM Frank Wren says: "We have a guy internally who's probably better than any arm who will be available, and that's Kris Medlen. He's never thrown over 120 innings in a season, so we've got to be careful with his innings. But if we feel we need a guy late in the season, we wouldn't be afraid to take him out of the bullpen and transition him into the rotation." In case you hadn't noticed, Medlen has the lowest WHIP (1.04) in a very talented Braves bullpen these days.

• If the Phillies were ranking their top five biggest worries, Roy Halladay probably wouldn't make the list. Still, after watching him Tuesday against Washington, one scout said: "I've never, ever seen him pitch like that -- not since the Blue Jays sent him back to the minor leagues [in 2000]. He had no command of his fastball, and he didn't even want to use his fastball. I've never seen his command that off or his pitch selection that bad." In 2010, Halladay averaged 40 fastballs a game. In his start Tuesday, he threw just 14 all night. People keep speculating that "something's up." But Halladay remains adamant that he's healthy.

• As their interest in Roy Oswalt indicates, the Orioles would like to add starting-pitching depth. But that's not all. Clubs that have spoken with them say they'd still like to upgrade at first base, third base or both.

Mike Scioscia
Scioscia

• Two sources close to the Angels' brass say suggestions that Mike Scioscia's job is in any sort of jeopardy, in the wake of the firing of his close friend Mickey Hatcher, are way off base. Remember, Scioscia is under contract through 2018. What Hatcher's firing as hitting coach does say clearly, though, is that the power structure in the Angels' organization has changed drastically, because Arte Moreno has empowered new GM Jerry Dipoto to make many of the big decisions that used to be largely Scioscia's call.

"If the GM had tried to fire Mickey Hatcher five years ago, or even two years ago, he could never have done that," one source said. "But Arte has made it obvious that he's going to let Jerry do what the GM is supposed to do, what the guys who came before him could never do. And that's a big change."

• Zack Wheeler, the smokeballer the Mets got in return for dealing Carlos Beltran last summer, ranked "only" 16th on Keith Law's list of the top 25 prospects currently in the minor leagues. But one scout who covers the Mets' system calls Wheeler "the best pitcher I've seen in the minor leagues this year. … I don't put a 'No. 1' on too many guys -- but he's a '1.' He could pitch up there right now."

• Finally, are all these funky shifts that teams play making the art of keeping score more irrelevant than ever? If a guy can hit a fly ball to medium-deep right field and have it caught by the THIRD BASEMAN, for a P-5, does the scorecard tell you anything about what the heck happened on that play? Well, that's exactly what went down twice in Tampa Bay this week, when the Blue Jays shifted third baseman Brett Lawrie into medium right field with Luke Scott up, and Scott flied out to Lawrie two different times.

"Here's my question," laughed one scout who was in attendance. "What does that do to his Range Factor at third base?"

Tweets of the Week

• It turned out it wasn't just Hal Steinbrenner who was denying reports this week that the Yankees were for sale. So, at least fictitiously, was his late, great father, via the miracle of the @Ghost_of_Stein Twitter account:


• Meanwhile, the always-amusing host of Weekend Update, Seth Meyers (@sethmeyers21), apparently has been keeping close track of Josh Beckett since Beckett's messy little golfing escapade this month, as evidenced by this important Twitter bulletin:

Headliner of the Week

Finally, this just in from our favorite goofballs at theheckler.com:

REPORT: 67 % OF CUBS RUNS ARE REPLAYS

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com