Home MLB'Weekly' Hit Ground Ball Weekly Hit Ground Ball: the Chapman conundrum

Weekly Hit Ground Ball: the Chapman conundrum

by Matt Smith

To start or not to start, that was the question being pondered by Aroldis Chapman and the Cincinnati Reds.

The Cuban pitcher came into Spring Training preparing to be moved into a starting pitching role, just as he did a year ago.

As in 2012, that decision has been reversed and Chapman will once ago serve up his flame-throwing act in the ninth inning of games, rather than taking a spot in the Reds’ starting rotation.

The decision, announced on Friday, was not a surprise as Chapman had revealed a week earlier that his preference was to continue as the team’s closer.

The Reds stated in response that a decision would be made in the best interests of the team, not solely determined by the player, and that was emphasised again by General Manager Walt Jocketty when he confirmed Chapman’s role for the season ahead. However once the pitcher was sure enough that he was prepared to state his preference publicly, it became difficult for the Reds to do anything else.

Whilst no team wants to be seen to bow to the whims of an individual player, it isn’t a sign of weakness to take their views into account. Manager Dusty Baker stated “you want a guy at a comfort level” and although that applies to some extent to every player, a good manager will know which players are particularly sensitive to this.

It’s common across all team sports. Kevin Pieterson has been criticised in some quarters over the years for preferring to bat at 4 rather than 3 for England in Test cricket, but he’s a mercurial talent, capable of winning a game virtually single-handed when at his best. If batting at 4 is where he’s happiest, for whatever reason, it’s counter-productive to cloud his thinking by putting him in a different spot. What’s ‘best for the team’ is to get the best out of your best players.

If Chapman really wasn’t convinced about starting – maybe, away from what he would admit publicly, he doesn’t have confidence in his secondary pitches, for example – then forcing him into it wouldn’t help anyone, other than the Reds’ opponents.

The mystery with this argument – if true – is that this is the second time in two years that the Reds have pushed ahead with the plan to convert Chapman into a starter. They aborted the idea last year predominantly because Ryan Madson, who they had brought in to become their new closer, suffered a season-ending injury before throwing a pitch for the team.  They signed Jonathan Broxton to a three-year/$21m contract this winter, once again as a clear intent to fill the closer role with another pitcher.

It doesn’t immediately make much sense to act in this way unless Cincinnati were confident that Chapman was fully on board with the plan. Deciding to keep him as the closer because he’s comfortable in that role is justifiable, but coming to that conclusion little more than a week before the new season begins is strange to say the least.

Cincinnati have been criticised for their decision because there’s a convincing argument that a good starting pitcher, throwing 200 innings, is more valuable to a team than a closer pitching only 70. Many applauded the Reds’ initial plan to convert Chapman into a starter precisely for this reason and therefore the way they have backtracked leaves them – and the perception is that it’s mainly Baker that wanted to keep him as the closer – open to the claim that they are failing to appreciate the worth of a starter compared to a closer.

That claim may be completely off-base. It could be the worth of a starting pitcher that made the Reds try to coax Chapman into letting go of his misgivings once again. In that scenario, the signing of Broxton can be seen as the Reds trying to focus Chapman’s attention on becoming a starter and perhaps more could have been done to reinforce the message.

As with every roster decision, ultimately it will be judged by how the team’s season turns out.

Cincinnati had the most stable starting rotation in the Majors last season. Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake together started all but one of the Reds’ 162 regular season games, the other outing being a Major League debut for 27-year old Todd Redmond in the second game of a day-night doubleheader on 18 August.

All five of the main pitchers are with the Reds again this season – it was presumed that Leake would be the man to make way for Chapman – and they should form a quality rotation again. With Chapman and Broxton at the sharp-end of the bullpen, the Reds will have a strong core to their pitching staff.

Keeping Chapman as the closer may not be the optimum strategy, but the Reds are still in a good position heading into the season and if they have the lead in a deciding World Series game, Reds fans will be glad to be able to call on their Cuban Missile.

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