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Updating the Top 100: Aroldis Chapman

That which smashes off my eye socket but doesn't kill me only makes me stronger.

Inning for inning, the greatest pitcher the Reds have ever seen.
Inning for inning, the greatest pitcher the Reds have ever seen.
Norm Hall

Aroldis Chapman surrendered a home run in his second appearance back from a potentially devastating facial injury suffered in spring training.  That was the last one hit off him this year.  Chapman's strikeout rate, already at beyond-elite levels, rose by nearly 2 K per 9 innings this season, from 15.8 to 17.7.  He had been tough to hit; batters were hitting .154 for his career coming into 2014, but only managed a .121 batting average against him in this season.

He's pretty good.

What's fun about Chapman is that he not only possesses an otherworldly arm, he gives every impression of knowing how to pitch as well.  Back in the day, the Reds had another fireballing closer named Rob Dibble.  Dibble was prone to falling in love with weaker secondary pitches or concentration lapses, giving the viewer the impression that his ceiling was so much higher than his actual (and considerable) value.  Chapman, on the other hand, has the greatest fastball the planet has ever seen, but what blew me away this year was the fact that he has developed a 90 mph change-up with movement, which he flashes just enough to enhance the effectiveness of the Number One.  He's a pitcher more than he is a thrower, and he's really good, and perhaps coming into his peak (according to the FIP metrics, 2014 was Chapman's most effective season).

So for the purposes of this article, we will take it as a given that Chapman is a quality asset.

There are two items tangentially related to Chapman's residency on the ball club which I wish to explore.  The first is with respect to his salary.

Let's start with some history: Chapman was signed prior to the 2010 season with a guaranteed contract worth $27 million.  Said contract had locked-in salary payments through the 2014 season, and leaves Chapman with a $5 million player option for 2015, which he will turn down.  That doesn't make him a free agent, however; Chapman will enter his second year of arbitration eligibility and will be likely to receive a salary significantly higher than the $5 million option.  The math: Chapman was a 2.0 win player in 2013, and a 1.9 win player in an injury-shortened 2014 season.  He's pretty solid to project as a 2-win player in 2015, no?  The free agent market yielded about $7 million per win last off-season, and 2nd-year arbitration eligible players tend to get about 60% of the free agent rate, so: 2 x 7 x 60% = $8.4 million.

That's a lot of money in most contexts, but by definition Chapman is still cheaper than what he could get as a free agent.  Given that the Reds' bullpen struggles last year and the lack of imminent in-house options to fill in the pen, Chapman is a near-certainty to stick around.  The discussion about closer roles notwithstanding, his salary represents value, and will continue to for two more seasons.  One could make the argument that Chapman doesn't present more relative value than if the Reds simply stocked the bullpen with a ton of young pitchers who are really really cheap and really really unproven.  But: they won't, and perhaps they can't, given how much the pen struggled this past season.  One could also make the argument that there is basically no way that Chapman is here beyond 2016 and so every effort should be made to increase his inning count into the triple digits in the next two seasons.  I would concur.  That there wasn't much effort to do so this year may be a function of Chapman's injury at the beginning of the year, or perhaps the fact that the Reds were never highly competitive this year, or perhaps that no manager in this era is going to use a relief ace in that way.  Either way, I'd love to see what would happen.

The second item on Chapman is littered with conjecture and speculation, which makes it perfect for an unaccountable blog such as this.  Consider: this era of Reds is likely to have rostered the player who will eventually be considered the franchise's greatest first baseman.  That assumes Votto gets his sea legs back, but I'm assuming that presumption comes with little controversy.  A bit less supportable but well within the realm of possibility is the idea that we are also seeing the greatest rightfielder in team history.  To get to that point requires pigeonholing certain players in specific positions (namely, Frank Robinson in LF), and also assumes a basic level of longevity and quality beyond what this past season would suggest, but again-it's not hard to envision.  And finally, the Reds currently have a relief pitcher in Chapman who might contend for the greatest such player in team history.  Indeed, Chapman easily outpoints John Franco on quality, but is unlikely to match Franco in total value, since Franco routinely pitched considerably more innings.

Like I said, there's a fair bit of speculation and optimism contained in the above paragraph, but the point is not to make specific projections, but instead instigate a thought exercise.  Three players, each of whom can plausibly project as the franchise's best ever at his specific position and each of whom has reasonably overlapped the others in terms of peak seasons.  Notwithstanding the counterargument that at least two of those positions have not been historically strong points for the organization (RF, especially), if you were told that a team would house together for 5+ years the greatest first baseman, rightfielder, and relief pitcher in their long and illustrious history, wouldn't you expect better results than what we've seen to date?  Perhaps you want to point to the (not incorrect) maxim that the postseason is a crapshoot and that in an alternate universe the Reds are coming off multiple recent championships.  Perhaps.  But in only one of the past five years have the Reds been considered a favorite to win even one series.  This is not an erstwhile dynasty.  And we're hoping on multiple bounce-backs to be able to re-create the modest success seen since 2010.

One of the things a person hears with annoying frequency is how the hated Cardinals are a model franchise.  It's absolutely true.  We've seen the team draft and develop with skill, make value-accretive trades, and appropriately cut bait on popular iconic players.  Their timing is impeccable and their roster management abilities are enviable.  Ready to puke yet?  The idea I've been considering in response to the Redbird-praising is that the guy that we have in charge is the same guy that St. Louis jettisoned specifically because he didn't see eye to eye with the organization.  The best run organization in sports, who have been to the playoffs five times, won the pennant twice, and won the World Series once in the seven years since Walt Jocketty was fired.

I've made some pretty bad investment decisions in my life.  One of the things I've learned from these mistakes is that they don't become less bad the longer you hold steady on your wrong position, faithfully waiting for reality to unwind itself all because you still, truly, believe.

The paradox here is that the Reds have enjoyed great relative success under Jocketty's tenure.  Don't bite the hand that feeds, and all that.  Nonetheless, the odds are increasingly strong that we will someday wave goodbye to Aroldis Chapman, best inning-for-inning pitcher the team has ever seen, without ever having him seen him throw the final victorious pitch of an October series.  It might be time to question the approach.

With the team since 2010, Aroldis Chapman has logged 252 innings in his career and has saved 113 games, good for fifth best in franchise history.  Chapman has 430 strikeouts in those 252 innings, and his 2.32 ERA is good for an ERA+ of 169.  Chapman climbs from #221 to #171 on the all-time list, and he also makes his first appearance on the list of top 15 relief pitchers in team history, showing up at #7 and displacing Harry Gumbert, who pitched for the Reds in the late 1940s.

Top 15 Relievers in Reds history


John Franco


Clay Carroll


Danny Graves


Pedro Borbon


Tom Hume


Rob Dibble


Aroldis Chapman


Ted Power


Joe Beggs


Jeff Shaw


Scott Williamson


Norm Charlton


Scott Sullivan


Francisco Cordero


Jeff Brantley