Aroldis Chapman experiment risky, but worth trying for Reds
One of the big storylines to watch this spring is the potential conversion of Aroldis Chapman to the Reds rotation. The team considered converting the wiry fireballer last spring, but when closer Ryan Madson went down with a torn ulnar collateral ligament just before the season began, it moved Chapman back to the bullpen. At first, he was setting up Sean Marshall, but by mid-May, Dusty Baker began calling Chapman's number for the ninth inning, and while he experienced some hiccups, he finished the season with 38 saves, a 1.51 ERA and an eye-popping 15.3 strikeouts per nine innings — the second-highest rate in the majors behind Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel (16.7) and the highest rate ever for a lefthanded pitcher.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati's rotation ranked as one of the league's best, ranking fourth in the league in ERA (3.64) and third in quality start rate (60 percent) despite toiling in a park that increased scoring by about seven percent. None of the team's five starters missed a turn in the rotation; only for the nightcap of an Aug. 18 doubleheader did the Reds need a sixth starter. Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and Bronson Arroyo all threw at least 200 innings with ERAs at least 10 percent better than the park-adjusted league average — the first team to do so since the 2005 White Sox, and the first NL one to do so since the 1997 Braves. Thanks to that rock-solid rotation and a dominant bullpen, they allowed fewer runs than any other NL team, no small feat while playing in a park that inflates scoring by about seven percent.
Instead of taking an if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it approach, the Reds are revisiting the Chapman experiment after re-signing midseason acquisition Jonathan Broxton to serve as closer, even though it's clear that not everyone in the organization — particularly some of his teammates — is on board. Given that a pitcher throwing 200 innings can provide more bang for the buck than one throwing 60 or 70, this is worth trying. Chapman won't come close to reaching 200 innings this year given that his stateside professional high is 109 innings in 2010; before defecting from Cuba the year before, he reportedly threw 118 1/3. A target of 150 or 160 innings is more likely, and as we saw last year with the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg, such a limit could threaten his availability late in the year, leading to an unending controversy.
The success of an individual hurler moving from reliever to starter depends not only on stamina but the depth of a pitcher's arsenal, and that's an open question for Chapman as well. According to the PITCHf/x data at Baseball Prospectus, during his 135-inning major league career he has thrown his four-seam fastball 85 percent of the time and his slider 14 percent of the time. He's thrown a third pitch, a changeup, only five times in three years. Despite his awe-inspiring velocity — as fast as 105 mph, with an average of 98.8 mph, the highest of any NL pitcher with at least 500 pitches — he'll need more than heat if he's facing batters more than once in a game, something he's never done in the regular season; his career high is seven batters faced in a game. Whether it's a changeup, a curveball or a cutter, he'll need another go-to pitch to survive. He won't be able to maintain quite that level of breathtaking velocity across a 100-pitch outing, either; the fastest starters last year, Stephen Strasburg and David Price, were at 96.5 and 96.4, respectively.
Last year saw a handful of teams attempt similar bullpen-to-rotation conversions, and the results were decidedly mixed. Here's a quick look at five of them.
Chris Sale, White Sox: A first-round pick in 2010, Sale rocketed to the majors by August of that year after working exclusively as a reliever, but after 90 professional appearances out of the bullpen (including just 11 in the minors), the team moved him to the rotation. The results were revelatory. Sale earned All-Star honors while striking out 192 hitters in 192 innings; his K rate, 3.05 ERA and 5.7 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version) ranked fourth in the league, while his 142 ERA+ ranked third.
Sale's violent mechanics had many observers skeptical that he could survive the transition, but between pitching coach Don Cooper and trainer Herm Schneider, the Sox had already demonstrated a strong track record of keeping pitchers healthy; from 2002-2011, their hurlers spent fewer days on the disabled list than any other team. Rather than shut Sale down as the Nationals did for Strasburg, they gave him an extra day of rest a couple of times in the first half and skipped his turn a couple of times, once just before the All-Star break and once in early August. His ERA and home run rate rose over the final two months, but he still made seven quality starts out of 11 in those months. On the whole, this one was a tremendous success.
Jeff Samardzija, Cubs: A 2006 draft pick who excelled at football as well as baseball at Notre Dame, Samardzija worked almost exclusively as a starter in the minors until 2010. He struggled to get a foothold in the majors, making five starts and 48 relief appearances for the Cubs from 2008-2010 but getting bombed for a 5.95 ERA due to control issues. He established himself at the major league level out of the bullpen in 2011, making 75 appearances totaling 88 innings, and the Cubs went forward with the plan to convert him last year.
His season had its ups and downs; the 27-year-old righty put up a 3.13 ERA through his first 11 starts, then was bombed for a 12.27 mark over his next four, none of which lasted more than 5 1/3 innings. He rediscovered his form with a season-high 11 strikeout performance against the Braves on July 2, and pitched to a 2.58 ERA with a 4.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his final 13 starts before being shut down following a Sept. 8 complete game against the Pirates. He ended the year with a 3.81 ERA across 174 2/3 innings, good for 1.6 WAR. His 9.3 strikeouts per nine ranked second among ERA qualifiers, while his 2.9 walks per nine was a drastic improvement over the previous year's 5.1. Count this one as a solid success.
Lance Lynn, Cardinals: Almost exclusively a starter in the minors, Lynn made a pair of spot starts for the Cardinals in early June 2011, and after a brief return to Triple-A, he moved to the big club's bullpen, where he made 16 appearances from late June to mid-August before being sidelined by an oblique strain. He returned for the team's postseason run, then began last year in the rotation due to the loss of Chris Carpenter. The 25-year-old righty put up a 2.42 ERA through his first 13 starts, struggled for a couple of weeks, but earned All-Star honors on the strength of a 3.41 first-half ERA with 10 quality starts out of 17. When he scuffled in July and August, with a stretch of just one quality start out of six, he went to the bullpen, but took four turns out of the rotation from mid-September onward. He finished the year with very similar numbers to Samardzija: a 3.78 ERA and 9.2 strikeouts per nine (third in the league) in 176 innings, good for 2.0 WAR — another solid success.
Neftali Feliz, Rangers: After debuting at the tender age of 21 in 2009, Feliz served as the Rangers' closer in 2010 and 2011, saving 72 games for a team that won the pennant twice; he was one strike away from closing out the World Series in the latter year when all hell broke loose in Game 6. The Rangers experimented with him as a starter in the spring of 2011 before pulling back, and while they went ahead with the plan last year, he made just seven starts (and one relief appearance) before going on the disabled list with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament on May 19. After experiencing discomfort during his rehab assignment, he wound up undergoing Tommy John surgery on Aug. 8, and won't be back until later this season.
It's quite possible that the Rangers will limit Feliz, who will be 25 by that point, to the bullpen as he works his way back, though with Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria under contract, they're well-stocked for closer options. Given his health as a reliever and lack of same as a starter, he may struggle to escape pigeonholing. So far this is a failure.
Daniel Bard, Red Sox: A starter when he was first drafted in 2006, Bard struggled so mightily with his delivery – 9.4 walks per nine in 22 starts in 2007 — that Boston moved him to the bullpen. Thanks to improved mechanics, he rocketed to the majors by mid-May 2009, and soon emerged as a top setup man; from 2009 through 2011, he struck out 9.7 per nine. The Red Sox decided to try him in the rotation last spring, but his control woes reemerged; he walked seven in his second start, and four or more in five of his first 10. After walking six in 1 2/3 innings against the Blue Jays on June 3, the Sox sent him and his 5.24 ERA back to Triple-A. He returned in late August, but pitched sparingly, and walked six in 4 1/3 innings across six appearances, and finished the year with a 6.22 ERA and 6.5 walks per nine, compared to just 5.8 strikeouts per nine. He's healthy and throwing well so far this spring, but it remains to be seen if he can rediscover his form. Until he does, this one has to be considered an utter disaster. While reliever-to-starter conversions have been fairly common throughout baseball history, the increased scrutiny on pitch counts and injuries — not to mention the closer myth — seems to be making it harder for such conversions to take. Last year's results show almost no middle ground between success and failure, at least among these high-profile cases. Within this small sample size, it appears the risks outweigh the rewards, because the pitchers for whom it hasn't worked out have yet to get their careers back on track. The upside is certainly there, as the White Sox, Cubs and Cardinals have shown, but given such worst-case scenarios, the Reds may well be tempted to abandon their experiment, and Chapman could wind up pigeonholed as a reliever. Stay tuned, because it's far from clear how this will turn out.