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Aroldis Chapman's Rotational Velocity

Chapmania (Reprise).
Chapmania (Reprise).

In Mark Sheldon's notebook, he quotes Walt Jocketty as saying Chapman's transition to starting again "was the plan all along -- give him one more year in the bullpen and then stretch him out." Given the talk last offseason, it's a little hard to swallow that this has been a long-term vision - or one that was widely agreed-upon. But Chapman's shipping off to Instructional League Friday and we're all better for it.

When Chapman was signed, the Reds committed to him a minimum of $30.25M (spread over 10 years), including $8M over the next two seasons ('12-'13) and potentially $3M on top of a arbitration raise in 2014. Teams shouldn't be entrapped by money that cannot be unspent, but the kind of outlay and accounting ju jitsu the Reds unleashed, at the very least, spoke to Chapman's incredible upside. Still just 23, with only a half-season of starting in AAA under his belt, the only sane move is to give the fastest thrower in radar gun history another trial. Reds Country, baseball history, fans of stuff cool stuff happening and Chapman himself deserve the chance.

It's hard to know what to expect from Chapman the Starter in 2012. He's pitched just 63.1 major league innings to 108.2 in the minors - 13 of which were a rehab outing. Add it up - or rather, cobble it together - and it's the rough-hewn, numerical equivalent of a season of starting pitching. Yet only 13 starts comprise those 172 innings, which also marked the very beginning of Chapman's pro career. Given the size and context of the sample, we might throw the numbers out entirely. But observational scouting, combined with Chapman's statistical tendencies shown over his entire pro career may be more informative.

At the simplest level, Chapman is a pitcher who has been defined be the three true outcomes: high strikeouts, high walks, almost no home runs. In fact, you can list the major leaguers who have hit home runs of Chapman on one-half of one hand: Albert Pujols and Luke Scott (a tiny, but controversial group).

Team K/9 BB/9 HR/9 H/9
Cincinnati  12.8  6.5 0.3 4.7
Louisville (AAA)  12.0 4.8 0.6 7.6

Chapman's MLB walk rate was thrown out of whack to an extent by his yip session, yielding 12 BBs across 4 outings (1.1 IP) in late April and May this season. (They were real, but they were also an anomaly. Chapman never walked more than two in an appearance the rest of the season.) Still, Chapman's control problems are clearly his most urgent concern as a pitcher to date. Just 40.7% of his base runners have reached base via hit against Chapman.

These tendencies are, of course, colored by the fact that Chapman has spent all of his time in the majors as a relief pitcher. Stretch him out again and he'll almost certainly become more hittable out of the necessity to pace himself.

Here are five common criticisms I noticed from observers who watched Chapman makes starts in the first half of 2010 for the Bats:

  • Wildness
  • Problems with pacing and stamina, leading to drop-off in velocity
  • Lack of meaningful secondary stuff beyond his slider
  • Strategic difficulties with pitch selection and game-planning
  • Inconsistent mechanics

So it's reasonable to assume Chapman's #1 priority to work on in the off-season is control - the need, if not to eliminate wildness, then to become "effectively wild." But his control will have a complex interaction with the other elements of his game: pitch repetoir, pacing, mechanics and game plan. As his 2011 numbers might suggest, if Chapman can stay in the strike zone, it's going to be very difficult to get on base - let alone get multiple bases - off him.

His stuff will only remain effective in the zone if he can maintain his velocity, which also keeps hitters' timing out of whack when he throws his slider. And he'll only be able to keep his velocity high if he can pace himself. Of course, pacing himself - and deceiving hitters over 100 pitch outings - requires a different approach than throwing a fastball 75% of the time and a slider the rest. Chapman threw a changeup 5% of the time in 2011. He's going to have to work that pitch to greater effect as a starter and possibly add a fourth one for show. It also requires consistent mechanics, which will be challenge by fatigue, to bolster the deception. 

It's all very complicated. I'm going to plead ignorance on which problems above can be significantly addressed in the offseason - which is why I'm not a pitching coach, much less a coach any kind (although I do sit in coach).

For whatever it's worth, Randy Johnson - Chapman's lefty comp par excellence - struggled mightily with control through his Age 28 season, walking over 6 batters-per-nine in two straight seasons prior to his 303 strikeout season in 1993. It's going to take a while for Chapman to develop toward whatever his ceiling might be as a starter. If he starts next season in the majors, the Reds have Chapman under team control for five more seasons. He has time. And he has the raw ingredients to be an overpowering starter. To my mind, the only major realization in his two pro seasons is that he's not going to be Randy Johnson out of the box. Neither was Randy Johnson.