Considered the best amateur pitching prospect available this side of Stephen Strasburg a few years back, Reds lefty Aroldis Chapman enters a pivotal season in 2012. The Cuban defector armed with triple-digit velocity has whiffed 90 batters out of the bullpen in 63.1 MLB innings, but a total lack of control (46 walks) and a shoulder injury last season leave him lacking innings and polish.
Now, the Reds must decide whether to deploy their $30.5 million investment in the 'pen or take the more patient approach by letting the 24-year-old Chapman develop as a starter. While Cincy's offseason moves -- trading a total of seven youngsters for Mat Latos and Sean Marshall, and signing Ryan Madson -- were made to win now, ESPN's Jim Bowden thinks the Reds should send Chapman to start at Triple-A (Insider subscription required):
In order to develop his off-speed stuff and refine his command, he needs innings. Remember, his 101 mph fastball is supplemented only by an inconsistent slider, which at times can be devastating but he doesn’t have command in the zone. He had a forkball when he pitched in Cuba and a changeup he rarely uses. Therefore, to eventually earn the $30.5 million he’s being paid, starting in Triple-A and getting the innings to refine those secondary pitches could be the best thing for him and the Reds.
Personally, I agree with Bowden. The Reds could let Chapman keep flinging fastballs in the seventh inning, hoping he'd overpower hitters enough to compensate for all of the free passes, but there's more long-term value in Chapman as a starter. Here's a to-do list for Chapman if he does start 2012 in the Louisville rotation instead of the Cincy bullpen:
Keep his second-half form
Chapman's control was disastrous before his DL trip in mid-May and stint in the minors, locating just 37% of his pitches within the strike zone. The lefty missed wide to the glove side often:
Upon his recall in late June, however, Chapman put his nasty stuff in the strike zone 46% of the time. Even the pitches that weren't technically in the strike zone were awfully close:
Chapman's improved control led to more pitcher's counts and more swings from batters. Before his DL stint, Chapman induced hitters to swing 37% of the time and got strikes 54%. After his recall, opponents swung 46% of the time and Chapman got strikes 62%.
Develop his secondary stuff
Everyone knows that Chapman possesses a killer fastball. His heater, averaging 98.1 mph and registering a record 103.4 mph at its most sizzling, made hitters miss 31% of the time they offered at it. Vinnie Pestano, Tyler Clippard, Jonathan Papelbon and Craig Kimbrel were the only relievers with a higher fastball miss rate.
But that was the only pitch in his arsenal. He threw the fastball about 79% of the time, rarely going to an errant upper-80s slider and low-90s changeup:
|Pitch||Pct. Thrown||Zone Pct.||MLB Avg. for RP|
Chapman's zone percentage with his fastball improved dramatically after his recall (48% after, 37% before), but it stayed the same with his slider (41% after, 41% before) and declined on his changeup (20% after, 29% before). A dominant, whiff-tastic fastball goes a long way, but he'll need more than one pitch to survive MLB lineups multiple times.
Build up innings
Between the majors and the minors, Chapman threw all of 63 innings in 2011. It may take a couple of years to fully stretch him out, but it will be worth it if he can eventually post an above-average ERA while tossing 150+ MLB frames. Even if the Reds pull the plug sometime this year, at least the starting experiment will have given him the chance to work on his secondary pitches and become a more well-rounded reliever.