Aroldis Chapman would prefer not to start. If a baseball team were run like the office in Herman Mellville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," the Reds would let him stay out in the bullpen as much as he liked and he would slowly reduce his role until he was throwing one pitch every few weeks. And then they would move their stadium, rather than trade him.
But we're living in reality. Or a form of it. And Aroldis Chapman is not some freelance graphic designer who gets to make up the title on his business card. And he's being paid a pantload of money. So are Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall, for that matter.
I don't blame Chapman at all for having his opinion and voicing it. I would imagine watching him close gave me only trace amount of the exhilaration a pitcher gets from dominating the ninth the way Chapman did last year. And it was really fun to watch.
But it's ultimately not up to him where he pitches, as he acknowledged the other day:
"I would like to be the closer," Chapman said via translator Tomas Vera. "But it’s out of my hands."
Walt Jocketty knows this too:
"It would certainly be considered but we don't let every player tell us how they want to be used," Jocketty told MLB.com.
So the brass has decided to get together and hash out a decision in the next few days (maybe even today). While I could see, for instance, the plan for limiting his innings needing to be ironed out, it seems genuinely puzzling to be re-thinking the whole closer-or-starter thing at this stage.
They were committed to Chapman starting last spring, until injuries to other late-innings relievers intervened. In the meantime, he found his control and turned in perhaps the most dominant season of relief in Reds' history. Then they gave Jonathan Broxton $21M, on top of Marshall's escalating salary and Masset's $3.1M.
This should all be done and Dusty'd by now.
Maybe they've seen a fatal flaw in Chapman this spring that they didn't notice before. Maybe Bryan Price has newfound misgivings, or Walt wants to give full consideration to Chapman's wishes or Dusty's vehement opposition to the idea.
There's nothing in his spring performance - at least nothing obvious - that says he should be losing out to Mike Leake. He's thrown 177 pitches, 8.0 innings, in addition to 3 scoreless innings in a side gig against some minor leaguers. Next to Broxton, Chapman has the best numbers of any Reds' pitcher who's thrown at least 5 innings this spring.
That doesn't mean he has the stamina to be a starting pitcher. He hasn't gone more than 4.0 innings yet and his strike percentage dipped below 62% after his last outing. But there's nothing so far that would give cause to yank him back for the second spring in a row and scrap the experiment - possibly for good. Which, by the way, would give the Reds' bullpen three lefties (Chapman, Marshall, Parra) and at least one grossly overpaid 7th inning reliever.
In honor of the possible end to our long regional nightmare of will-they-won't-they, Ross'n'Rachael pitching drama, here's another look Chapman's prospects for success. With comps.
The SlydePress Comps
I wrote an article for Joel Luckhaupt's SlydePress Reds Annual, which you've already bought. In it, I tossed a bunch of Chapman-related pseudoscience against the wall, including trying to find comparable pitchers.
I won't give away the farm, even if it's my farm, but I came up with a pretty short list. Since 1950, there were only 24 seasons by lefties under age 26 who had power stuff (at least 10.0 K/9) and were in also in Chapman's general height range (6'1" or above).
Only a small handful were below league average. Only four had gone from reliever to starter in the majors. So I widened to include righties and got a list of seven guys, which included the likes of Ron Villone and Chris Sale. What I found was basically a wash - for every Chris Sale, there was a Daniel Bard. It's an eclectic group that basically signals we're in uncharted waters.
The Pavlidis Comps
I also came across a Harry Pavlidis article in the Hardball Times from 2009. It was about the now-unthinkable idea of making Joakim Soria into a starter. Soria is a cautionary tale on his own - and proof that relief pitching is hazardous too. Looking at just the Tommy John list from last year, there are plenty of bullpen casualties: Soria, George Sherrill, Todd Coffey etc.
Pavlidis tried to size up the history of relief-to-starter conversion, but without the physical/K-rate blinders I used. He found 16 guys through 2008, from Gary Bell to Danny Graves (hey whatsup) to Ryan Dempster and compared their relief year to their starting year:
For the most part, the moves worked out well for the teams. The average gain was 2.2 wins, with winners beating losers 11-3 (Myers was a wash). But look closely, and you'll see only two pitchers had a "year 1" WAR better than Soria's: Gossage, who cost his team a few wins by moving to the rotation, and Swift who barely improved, in terms of WAR, as a starter. Swift also had more experience in the major leagues as a starter.
Pavlidis' criteria didn't include Adam Wainwright - and definitely didn't include Randy Johnson - two examples that are easy to glom onto if you're in the #LetHimStart camp like me.
The big caveat is that, if you're starting from a high threshhold of value as a reliever, it's generally going to be harder to improve as a starter. Great relievers like Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera, who can be above 3.0 WAR at their peak, have skills specific to closing which could not be replicated as a starter. Their value would almost certainly take a dive if they'd tried to start games, even in their mid-20s.
Chapman was above 3.0 WAR last season. So the question might be whether the trend that Pavlidis found means anything for him. The more age/height/stuff-specific comps I found suggest that predictive power breaks down once you pass the event horizon of Chapman's talent level.
So I don't think anyone has more than hunch here about how this experiment would turn out. But the question I'm left with is the same that will linger if he returns to the bullpen: do you really want to stay in the dark forever?