It seems like every winter since Joba Chamberlain made his debut, the discussion of whether or not to move a reliever back into the rotation takes place. Chamberlain was a special talent. For a couple of months during the 2007, he was the most famous relief pitcher in the game. He fist pumped, celebrated, and, most importantly, dominated batters during his 19 appearances, which spanned 24 innings. He was a starter of the future for the Yankees, but since he didn’t have many innings left in his predetermined innings cap, the Yankees brought him and put him in the bullpen.
The worst thing that could’ve happened to Chamberlain was the fact that he was so dominant as a reliever. The second worst thing also happened to him: the Yankees mishandled the whole thing.
All along they said that Chamberlain was going to be a starter. The infamous Joba Rules were put into place so Joe Torre wouldn’t be able to overwork his newly found dominant reliever. The debate began because Chamberlain was seen as the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera. He was part Goose Gossage and part Al Hrabosky on the mound. He threw hard, he struck batters out, and seemed fearless. He looked like the ideal closer.
But, the Yankees had a plan, albeit a flawed plan that ultimately cost Chamberlain much of his promise. They wanted him in the rotation for the 2008 season, but started him in the bullpen. In 2009, he was made a full-time starter, but with odd innings limitations. After his most dominant stretch of the season, Chamberlain was shut down and then re-started. That’s when all of the injuries began to mount, ultimately ending in Tommy John Surgery for the big right hander.
Why would the Yankees go through all of that? Why would the Yankees take a dominant reliever and make him a starter? Why do most teams go through this? The reason is simple: starting pitchers are more valuable.
An above average starting pitcher is always more valuable than a dominant reliever. That doesn’t diminish the skill of getting outs late in games, but 200 above average innings are always more valuable than 70 dominant innings. It is simple math, which is why dominant starters tend to make nearly double what a dominant closer makes. There is more value in what a starter does.
Since Chamberlain, many teams have brought up starting pitcher prospects and used them out of the bullpen for a short period of time. And, other teams have tried to take dominant relievers and put them in the rotation. The most recent successful case would be CJ Wilson who was a former closer before returning back to the rotation during the 2010 season.
But, there have been many failures. Boston tried to put Daniel Bard in the rotation despite the fact that he was dominant as a reliever and had a poor track record as a starter in the Minor Leagues. Bard lasted 17 starts before being banished to the Minor Leagues for most of the season. The Rangers insisted on putting Neftali Feliz in the rotation. He performed well, but wound up having to undergo Tommy John Surgery.
The idea of moving a reliever into the rotation can work. It has in the past. Johan Santana spent a couple of seasons as a reliever for the Twins before winning his Cy Young Awards as a starter. But, the Twins used him more as a long reliever, never really using him for one inning stints. There was an emphasis to use more than one pitch. Santana went about attacking hitters much like he would when he would become a starter. And, every once in awhile, he would start a game. It can work if it is done correctly.
But, it has to be done correctly. The Yankees have the blueprint in how not to do it. A pitcher should not be yo-yoed from the bullpen to the rotation within a season. There are simply too many differences between the conditioning and expectations of a late inning reliever a starter. Going back and forth simply does not work. Most importantly, the pitcher does need to have the proper arsenal and skill set to succeed as a starter. It appears that Daniel Bard didn’t, which made the Red Sox decision suspect at the time and downright awful now. The Rangers executed the plan well with Feliz, but he wound up on the operating table. It is difficult to know if the same would’ve happened had he remained in his dominant closer role. It’s possible.
This winter, the Cincinnati Reds are having their annual discussion about moving Aroldis Chapman back into the rotation. When the Reds signed the Cuban southpaw, he was a starting pitcher. He worked in the minors as a starting pitcher for 13 games. But, the Reds, like most teams, worked him out of the bullpen to save his innings. He was brought up to the Majors that season too and made another 15 relief appearances. In all, he made 54 appearances his first year in professional baseball with just 13 starts.
The Reds started Chapman back in the Minors for the 2012 season where he made 9 appearances and 3 starts. They brought him back to the Major Leagues and he worked 54 games out of the bullpen. This past season, he spent most of the year as the Reds closer, pitching in 68 games, compiling 38 saves in 71.2 innings of work while allowing just 35 hits and striking out 122 batters. His 1.51 ERA and 1.55 FIP just capped the resume of being one of the most dominant relievers in baseball at the age of 24. Averaging 98 MPH with his fastball and 87 MPH with his slider, Chapman used his two pitches to simply carve up National League lineups in the late innings.
Now the Reds are having that debate again. They’ll talk about having Chapman work out in the offseason to prepare to be a starter just like they did last winter. They may even start him early on spring training. But, the plan is once again flawed. In his three professional seasons, he has made just 16 starts and none since early in 2011. His career high in innings pitched was the combined 105 he threw during his rookie season. If the Reds wanted to stretch him out as a starter, the most he could even remotely safely throw would be around 100 to 120 if they wanted to be extreme. As studies have shown, pitchers who have extreme innings jumps tend to get hurt. CJ Wilson is once again the exception.
Then there is the question of arsenal. Chapman has been an exclusively two pitch pitcher for the past three years. Granted, those two pitches are elite level pitches, but the majority of starting pitchers, especially the successful ones, have more than two pitches. Major League lineups eventually zone in on two pitches. Chapman could have dominant starts, but on nights when his fastball isn’t quite hitting 98, which could be quite a few more as a starting pitcher, the velocity difference between his fastball and slider won’t be great enough to fool hitters. If Chapman were to return to being a starter, he would have to work on his changeup and perhaps even add another pitch.
His track record is also a question. In the Minor Leagues, he averaged 4.9 BB/9 and 5.5 BB/9 during his two seasons. In 2011, he averaged 7.4 BB/9. 2012 finally saw his control become adequate as he walked just 2.4 batters per nine innings. Perhaps 2012 was about Chapman getting his delivery in order after three years of professional coaching. But, given his size and his stature, his delivery is, for lack of a better word, complicated. Perhaps the shorter outings and working from the stretch more have allowed Chapman to be more concise with his delivery and be more accurate in the strike zone.
There is more than a legitimate chance that his control problems come back if he is forced to repeat his delivery 100 times or more during a game.
If the Reds had developed Chapman as a starting pitcher from the beginning, there is a chance that he could’ve been an elite starter, as dominant as Stephen Strasburg. But, Chapman doesn’t have Strasburg’s complete arsenal or, most importantly, his development. The Nationals never used Strasburg out of the bullpen. They didn’t alter his preparation or veer off course in the name of competing. The Reds chose to use Chapman now, as a weapon, rather than let him develop as a starting pitcher. They weren’t wrong for doing that and may have actually put him in a role that he is suited for.
To move him into the rotation now would be irresponsible. He hasn’t been developed as a starter and is already entering his fourth professional season. He has been used and conditioned as a reliever. His two pitch repertoire is best suited for a late inning reliever. His delivery is more concise and consistent as a reliever, which does limit injury possibilities. And, the Reds don’t really have a great need in their rotation as they have a solid rotation from top to bottom.
A starting pitcher is always more valuable than a reliever. But, developing a starting pitcher takes time and patience. The Nationals have shown that patience with Strasburg even as the entire free world was screaming at them to use him differently. The Reds, like the Yankees of 2007, chose Chapman’s path. They should, however, learn from the Yankees’ mistakes. A responsible organization cannot condition a pitcher for one role and then expect him to succeed and stay healthy in another one. It simply doesn’t work.
The Reds should view Chapman for what they made him to be, a dominant late inning reliever. Perhaps they could alter his role to be a multi-inning reliever, but that is as far as they could stretch it given their three year use of their prize left hander. There is value in his role as few relievers in the entire sport possess his strikeout ability. Few relievers can make batters swing and miss on pitches in the strike zone.
They have a weapon. He isn’t as valuable as he could be, but the Reds chose his path. To try to make him into a starter would be dangerous and could lead to the worst possibility of all, not having him at all. The Rangers lost Feliz for this year. Daniel Bard looks lost. And, the ultimate example, Joba Chamberlain is a shell of his former self, trying to rediscover that late inning dominance six years later. Maybe he finds it. Maybe.
The Reds can’t afford to make Aroldis Chapman a maybe.