Aroldis Chapman threw 42 pitches for the Chicago Cubs in Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday night, the 8 outs he recorded being something he never once achieved in any of his 324 career appearances as a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds. In fact, only once in his Cincinnati career did Chapman ever exceed that number of pitches in a single appearance: July 19th, 2015, when he threw 44 pitches in an extra-innings game against the Cleveland Indians and manager Terry Francona, as fate would have it.
I don't want to turn this into another "LET HIM START" debate, nor do I wish to ask you to eat some member berries and re-conjure your dreams of seeing him as more than just a 9th inning closer while with the Reds. No, this is meant to be more forward thinking, more an acknowledgement that what we saw from Chapman last night and from Cleveland reliever Andrew Miller all month may well be the next stir of the drink in the copycat league game that is Major League Baseball.
Hardball Talk's Craig Calcaterra said something this morning that put that front and center in my mind.
Watching Chapman and Miller in the World Series makes Buck Showalter's decision not to use Britton seem like it was 100 years ago.— Craig Calcaterra (@craigcalcaterra) October 31, 2016
That's in reference to the 2016 AL Wild Card Game, of course, when Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter opted against using Zach Britton and his 827 ERA+ against the heart of the Toronto Blue Jays' batting order in large part because Britton was their closer and, well, it wasn't a save situation yet. Ubaldo Jimenez instead took the mound with the game on the line and promptly served up a season-ending dinger to Edwin Encarnacion.
After the game, FOXSports.com's Dieter Kurtenbach took Showalter to task, and did so rather emphatically.
But not pitching the closer in a non-save situation is a tried and not-so-true holdover from a previous era of baseball. A dumber era of baseball. Relievers are not used by inning or concrete situation anymore, they're used according to leverage.
Kurtenbach also called Britton not just the Orioles' closer, but their stopper, a term often kicked around by those who have long wished managers would eschew traditional bullpen roles in favor of matching strength against strength. In Miller, Francona has found and used masterfully his stopper, bringing in the talented lefty to face the thump in the opposition's batting order in big spots whether it was the 5th, 8th, or whatever inning, trusting that the lanky former starter could not just get big outs against big bats, but could also pitch long enough to not prompt the exhaustion of the rest of the team's bullpen.
It's a wrinkle we've not seen on such display in quite sometime, and it's interesting in a larger spectrum considering both Chapman and Miller were once part of a different copycat scheme. Both, you'll recall, were part of the New York Yankees at the beginning of the season, partnering with Dellin Betances to form a lock-down bullpen cerberus that was assembled in large part due to the success seen by the Kansas City Royals in their runs to the World Series in both 2014 and 2015. The phenomenal success of Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Ryan Madson effectively shortened the need for starters to go deep in games, which - in theory - indirectly meant that throwing the large dollars necessary to sign starting pitchers capable of such things wasn't as important as teams had long thought. So, that became the Yankees' focus last winter (before their unsuccessful run resulted in both Miller and Chapman being dealt at this year's non-waiver trade deadline).
Just 15 MLB pitchers threw over 200 innings in 2016, down from 42 back in 2002, 38 in 2007, and 31 as recently as 2012. I've not poured through the data and run definitive regressions, but I think it's pretty safe to assume that the active limiting of pitches thrown by starters has begun to have a significant impact on the ability for those starters to throw bulk innings. Combine that with the increasing willingness for teams to lean on younger (read: not yet injured and not yet expensive) starters instead of pricey, weathered starters, and it appears that some teams are altering the way games are pitched in two definitive ways: asking less of their starters and asking more of their relievers.
I mentioned that this wasn't supposed to be a 'what-if' piece on 6 seasons Aroldis Chapman spent with the Cincinnati Reds. It's meant to be a lens to use when looking ahead to what Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen may well provide for the Reds going forward, something that manager Bryan Price himself has been trying to figure out, according to The Enquirer's C. Trent Rosecrans earlier this month.
The two, perhaps with an addition of a third pitcher, could be used as what Price has called a "hybrid" bullpen, meaning no set closer and the possibility of Iglesias, Lorenzen and perhaps another pitcher pitching multiple innings more often.
There has long been the tried and true saying that starting pitchers are inherently more valuable than relief pitchers, and that's been largely factual based entirely on quantity. And while this continued trend of asking more of relievers than previously asked in the era of "closers" will alter the quantity of innings they pitch, it seems clear that the quality of innings they're asked to pitch will get rewritten in the process, too. That's the leverage component Kurtenbach mentioned before, the at bats in the 6th or 7th innings of 1-run games with Manny Machado at the plate and runners on the corners.
If Iglesias, Lorenzen, or other newfangled Miller clones are able to be tasked not only with getting those big outs but also with being durable enough to add another inning to those appearances, they effectively will perform in the role of both stopper and middle reliever, killing two birds with one stone. Over the course of a full season, that's insanely valuable, valuable enough to make me much more comfortable losing them from the starting rotation if it also helps answer the potential durability questions. It's a more flexible, more competitive concession than just sticking them in the last chair of the bullpen and telling them you'll check back with them in 2.5 hours if the team actually still has a lead at that point.
Playing the copycat game in baseball won't work if the theory doesn't have the personnel to back it up. In the Reds' case, however, they just might have the exact pieces in place to make it work. Hell, it might even get Lorenzen a few more at-bats.