The Cincinatti Reds curious decision to keep superstar pitcher Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen for the foreseeable future is a curious one indeed. Now, I used curious twice in that sentence, but what I really want to convey here is just how mind-numbingly/earth-shatteringly stupid this decision is, and what better way to highlight such staggering ineptitude than to draw a parallel between lousy front-office management and repetitive, mildly lazy writing. Worse still, the Reds do not even use him properly as a relief pitcher!
We can infer how painfully overrated the closer is in baseball given that the main statistic associated with the role, the save, is perhaps the most misleading/useless statistic in baseball. The average closer in baseball throws around 70-80 innings in a full season. Of those, how many are stressful and deserving of a special accolade, namely the ‘save’? We can define stressful as a tie game, one-run game, seventh inning or later, in which the pitcher makes an appearance. Saves are a meaningless’statistic’, occasionally descriptive but more often misleading, since a save can be earned if a pitcher successfully records one out with a three-run lead. ‘Ending’ the game would be a significantly more accurate description than ‘saving’ in this scenario.
The trick with every baseball player is to maximise his value, to get the most out of him, and this is done in a hundred different ways, from defensive substitutions late in games to platooning lefties/righties. Simply put, a manager’s goal should be to take a baseball player’s greatest strengths and utilize them to the team’s greatest advantage. It’s unbelievably simple, but atonishingly, this is not being done with Aroldis Chapman, arguably the best pitcher in baseball.
Before you can maximise a player’s value, you need to know how to quantify it, and the value a pitcher brings to the team can best be expressed by how many meaningful innings they throw. By virtue of quantity, starting pitchers throw signigicantly more meaningul innings than a relief pitcher does. It’s undeniable. For relief pitchers, a close game is more important than a game separated by a wide margin, since their input will likely dramatically impact the outcome in the former but not the latter. So, to explain this as if I’m talking to someone in the Reds Organization, a starting pitcher is way more valuable than a relief pitcher, and relief pitchers exhibit their greatest value when they pitch in close games.
In 2012, Chapman put up some seriously impressive numbers. In 71 innings he allowed only 35 hits and struck out 122 batters. His WHIP (walks + hits/Innings pitched) was .081, which is beyond sensational. But how valuable was his actual contribution? A game-by-game analysis of the 2012 season shows us that in his 68 appearances, he entered the game with his team holding a lead of 3 runs or more a total of 22 times, 1/3 of his total appearances. If you add on games in which he entered with his team holding a lead of 2 runs, it’s an additional 16, for a total of 38 appearances out of 68 in which Chapman came into the game with his team holding at least a lead of 2 or more runs. This does not take into account the very few games he entered in which his team trailed by 2 or more runs.
Of course every inning is meaningful, but in baseball, situations should dictate specific action. Again, as if I’m explaining this to the men and women in the Reds organization, baseball strategy is best implemented situationally, not structurally. Leaving your best pitcher to throw the ninth inning of a game in which your team is leading by multiple runs is just plain silly. A below average pitcher will successfully record three outs before yielding the tying run in that scenario. Your best relief pitcher should always and only be used in close games regardless of the inning. Why is the ninth inning more valuable than the fifth? A tie game with runners on second and third and one out in the fifth is substantially more perilous than the ninth inning with a three run lead and nobody on base.
Aroldis Chapman was used so poorly last season he made only 30 appearances totaling roughly 30 innings the entire season in a situation deserving/necessitating an above-average pitcher. The Reds threw a total of 1,453 innings in 2012. Their best pitcher contributed above-average value to about 2% of the Reds season. In the April 7th game this season, Chapman ended the contest against the Nationals with a 101 MPH fastball to punch out the batter and earn a save in a 6-3 game, a situation in no way deserving of his talents. The Reds learned nothing from last season, they’re still wasting Chapman’s abilities. Imagine the value he would bring if he threw 68 innings in games in which the score was tied or there was no more than a one run lead. Going the logical next step, imagine if he was a starter and pitched 200 innings, or 14% of the entire workload for the Reds 2013 season?
It shouldn’t be shocking that a team managed by Dusty Baker (a man who doesn’t understand the value of on-base percentage or pitch counts) would so badly mismanage a pitcher, but surely someone in the front office has eyes and a calculator. I really don’t understand how anyone in that organization still has a job.
A montage of Chapman’s incredible talent.