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Will Aroldis Chapman Succeed as a Starter?

Aroldis Chapman‘s bid to join the Cincinnati rotation is fascinating for two reasons:

  1. He’s such a unique player with very few good comparables
  2. He was extremely valuable as a closer (his 3.3 WAR was the third-best by a RP in the last seven years)

I’ve been highly critical of Chapman over the last few weeks, questioning whether he had a diverse enough repertoire to make it through a Major League lineup two or three times. As a Red Sox fan I had the displeasure of watching Daniel Bard flame out in grand fashion last year as his mix of electric fastball, devastating slider, occasional change-up didn’t translate well to the starting rotation. Of course, Bard walked 15.5% of the batters he faced — twice the league average of 7.4% — so he wasn’t doing himself any favors, but how can news of Chapman’s transition not remind you a bit of Bard?

On the other end of the spectrum is Chris Sale, and anyone who’s read more than two articles on our site has undoubtedly heard me explain why Sale succeeded where Bard did not. Even when he pitched out of the bullpen in 2011, Sale worked batters with four pitches he threw at least 9.0% of the time. His 95.3-mph fastball wasn’t unhittable, but he used it effectively to set up his slider and change-up, both of which were well above league average.

So now whenever it’s announced that a reliever will try to become a starter, PitchFX is the first place I go. And that’s where I went today to try to better answer the question, “Will Aroldis Chapman succeed as a starter?”

Varying your pitches matters

Using the PitchFX data provided by Fangraphs, I looked back at each season from 2008-2012 and grouped starting pitchers into five categories based on how many different pitches they threw at least 10% of the time. Then I found the ERA- (ERA compared to the league average for each season) for each group to see exactly what effect having an expanded repertoire had on a pitcher’s success.

Only starting pitchers with at least 140 innings pitched in a season were included.

10 percent

The results are rather straightforward. Pitchers that threw five or more different pitches at least 10% of the time, regardless of the quality of those pitches, had an average ERA- of 91.7. In last year’s baseball climate when the league average ERA was 4.01, these pitchers would have averaged a 3.68 ERA. As you begin to take away pitches though, each group’s performance starts to tail off. Pitchers that lacked variety, throwing just two pitches at least 10% of the time, were 2.7% worse than the league average. Last season they would have pitched to a 4.12 ERA.

In an attempt to look at the data differently, I also grouped pitchers into three groups based on how many pitches they threw at least 20% of the time. The idea here was to eliminate pitches that they throw just to say they threw another pitch, instead focusing on pitches the pitcher actually specializes in.

20 percent

These numbers show even more variation with the pitchers who evenly mix three or more pitches posting an ERA- of 88.9 (3.57 ERA in 2012) with the pitchers who threw only one or two pitches with great frequency performing significantly worse.

Aroldis Chapman’s repertoire

First, it should be noted that the numbers below represent how Chapman pitched as a reliever. It’s entirely possible — actually, it’s extremely likely — that they will vary once he becomes a starter, but it’s not unreasonable to think that his final 2013 pitch selection will resemble what we see here.

Courtesy: Fangraphs.com

Courtesy: Fangraphs.com

According to the definitions used in the previous section, Chapman is just a two-pitch pitcher. I’d expect that when he joins the rotation he’ll add a third pitch, which will likely be his change-up.

I do have my concerns about his change-up, though. Last year it was a below average pitch (-0.57 RAA per 100 thrown), and that’s because he wasn’t able to get good separation in velocity between his change-up and fastball. It doesn’t matter if your fastball averages 98.0 mph (which Chapman’s did) if your change-up averages a robust 93.2 mph (again, which Chapman’s did).

From analysis that I’ve done on the up-and-down play of Francisco Liriano, I’ve come to the conclusion that a pitcher really needs at least a 7.5-mph gap between their fastball and change-up for the off-speed pitch to become effective. At just 4.8 mph, Chapman is well below this mark. He’ll need to make some serious improvements if he hopes for it to become a plus pitch.

And seeing as he hasn’t even attempted a pitch aside from his fastball, slider, or change-up in the last three years, I find it hard to believe that he’s going to immediately mix in a brand new plus, or even league average, pitch with the required regularity.

Update: Thanks to some educated Reds fans in the comments section, I took a deeper look at exactly what Chapman’s “change-ups” really are — mislabeled fastballs from his dead arm period. In fact, according to BrooksBaseball.net, Chapman has only thrown three true change-ups in his major league career (shown below). That means he’s the definition of two-pitch reliever, throwing exactly two pitches. This doesn’t change any of the conclusions reached in this article, but I appreciate the information!

Courtesy: BrooksBaseball.net

Courtesy: BrooksBaseball.net

Does Chapman have any comparable players?

Not really, and that’s what makes projecting him hardest of all. But in my research I did find a few players that closely resemble Chapman, so they’re the best case studies we really have on the subject.

chapman comparables

These are all the pitchers who in the last five years have had a season where they fit the following criteria:

  1. They threw their fastball or slider at least 80% of the time
  2. Their fastball averaged at least 93 mph
  3. They only threw 2 or 3 pitches greater than 10% of the time

Those three criteria accurately describe Chapman, which makes these five pitchers (plus an extra season from Jackson) the best comparisons I think we can statistically find. Three of them had below average years while three of them had above average years, and those three above average years (Santana in 2008, Johnson in 2009, Jackson in 2009) were very above average.

If Chapman was to finish the year with an ERA- of 80, he’d end up with an actual ERA around 3.20 (depending on the league average). On the other end of the spectrum, if Chapman was to finish the year with an ERA- of 110, he’d end up with an actual ERA around 4.41. Obviously that’s quite the gap, but what we can really take away from this is that it is possible to be successful with the type of repertoire we expect from Chapman.

Will Chapman succeed?

To a degree, yes, I think he will. I’ve already gone on record projecting Chapman for a 3.69 ERA over 167 innings this year. Since we’ve been using ERA- all day, that 3.69 mark would equate to an ERA- of around 92.0, pretty much in line with the average ERA- of the five comparable pitchers we looked at and noticeably better than the groups of pitchers Chapman would likely fall into (just 2 or 3 pitches 10% or 20% of the time).

I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt because of the talent that he has; his arm is so much livelier than just about any other starting pitcher’s in recent memory. I’ve said several times that Chapman doesn’t have a real comparison because of the velocity he can attack batters with, but after this season that won’t be an excuse any more. Chapman’s breaking the mold, and from now on he’ll be the example we use when trying to determine if high-velocity relievers can hack it in the rotation.

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About the author: Bryan is the co-founder of Baseball Professor and works as a consultant specializing in operational metrics and efficiency analysis. When he’s not working, blogging, or tending to basic human needs, he enjoys pondering the vastness of the universe, rewatching episodes of Breaking Bad, and avoiding snakes. (@BaseballProf)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • http://brewtalk.weebly.com/ Ike

    “He was extremely valuable as a closer (his 3.3 WAR was the third-best by a RP in the last seven years)”

    Hate to be a bother, but I saw this and immediately wondered who the top 2 were.

    As a Brewer fan, I’d rather have [insert any pitcher from the Reds organization] than Chapman in the closer role. They will almost certainly be easier to hit than Chapman, and, with Chapman in a starting role, he won’t be able to sustain that all-out power that he showcases in a one inning role.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=11315053 Bryan Curley

      No problem, Ike. Bother away, it’s nice knowing people pay attention to what we write!

      The other two were Craig Kimbrel last season (3.6 WAR) and J.J. Putz in 2006 with the Mariners (3.6 WAR, 4-1, 36 SV, 2.30 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 104 K, 11.95 K/9, 1.49 BB/9)

  • Zac

    I am a die hard Reds fan and I think he is going to end up back as closer, I just have the feeling, even though we signed Broxton to a pretty big deal for a reliever.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=11315053 Bryan Curley

      Does the Daniel Bard semi-comparison worry you? And if you had to guess, how long until he gets moved back to the bullpen?

  • http://twitter.com/dougdirt24 Doug Gray

    I don’t really like the Bard comparison. Bard started in the minors and was TERRIBLE. Not bad, but flat out TERRIBLE. There were signs that he was not good at that role, for whatever reason (I am sure there were plenty).

    Chapman, at a much higher level in the minors as a starter, had a whole lot more success.

    He had some struggles with control and command at the time, and it was years ago too, but it was also his first taste of professional baseball in a country where he didn’t speak the language, had no support system aside from random strangers he had literally just met months earlier and at AAA.

    There are reasons to be concerned. His over reliance on his fastball at times, his inability to throw his slider in the strikezone with consistency and his essentially non-existent (at least in games) change up.

    With that said, the Reds have one of the best pitching coaches in the game. Chapman has one of the best pure arms in the game. I don’t know if he will stick as a starter in the long run or not, but I am glad that the Reds are finally going to actually look at it instead of just talking about doing it one day.

  • pinson343

    Chapman threw fewer change ups in 2012 than indicated here. When his shoulder gets tired, which it did a few times last year, his fastball drops below 95 mph, and pitch trackers think it’s a change up.

    Spring training can’t be taken too seriously, but Chapman was the Reds best starter in 2012 ST. Many observers, including the Reds excellent pitching coach Bryan Price, felt his slider was his best pitch. When he throws it, hitters seldom even make contact (you can look it up). And when he was throwing it with regularity as a starter, he was throwing it consistently for strikes.

    Chapman does need a 3rd pitch to show hitters, and will surely work on his change up (Price feels it can be an effective pitch for him). But he might be able to dominate without a plus change up. In games where he is healthy but a little tired, his fastball has been nearly unhittable at 95-97 mph, because it has so much movement. Hitters all say the same thing about his fastball: it’s not the velocity that makes it so tough to hit, it’s the movement.

    In any case it’s next to impossible to project how Chapman will pitch in 2013, as the Reds are going to limit his innings, and they haven’t even decided how yet. Doubt that they will repeat the Nationals’ 2012 folly with Strasburg.

    A question: How often did Randy Johnson throw a pitch that was other than a fastball or a slider ? (Not a rhetorical question, I really want to know).

    • pinson343

      PS Good analysis, Professor ! Just adding my two cents.

    • baseballprofessor

      Thanks for the kind words. As per your question about Johnson, it depends where you look (just like we saw with Chapman).

      According to PitchFX provided by Fangraphs (available only for Johnson’s 2008 and 2009 seasons) he mixed in a splitfinger fastball about 5% of the time and a change-up about 7-10%.

      According to BrooksBaseball.net (which has data for 2007-2009), Johnson threw a 4-seam fastball 45% of the time, a slider 35% of the time, a splitfinger 14% of the time, and a change-up 6% of the time.

      According to another set of pitch data on Fangraphs (I’m not sure who tracks it but its available for seasons as far back as 2002), Johnson was solely fastball/slider save for change-ups 5% of the time and splitfingers about 3% of the time. It then shows a drastic increase in his splitfinger usage in 2007 to about 12-14%, which jives with what we see on Brook Baseball.

      My conclusion: During his prime he was simply fastball/slider and then added one or two pitches as his stuff deteriorated. I’m glad you mentioned Johnson, too. I wanted to include him but using him as a case study would have been purely anecdotal because the pitch selection data didn’t really come out until his last few seasons when he was a shell of his former self.

      • pinson343

        Thanks for the well-researched reply. The data, such as it is, for Johnson from 2002 thru 2006 sounds similar to what we might expect from Chapman, if you replace the splitfinger by fastballs: 60% fastball, 35% slider, 5% change-up.

  • Hksdhsk

    Pinson’s right; Chapman scrapped the change-up after he moved to the bullpen and I’d go so far as to say he’s never thrown one in the major leagues. All of those pitches that registered as change-ups are just fastballs he threw on an off night, so that’s pretty irrelevant data.

    • pinson343

      Yep, I agree that he’s never thrown a single change-up in an official major league game. He didn’t in 2012. When his mechanics are off and/or his shoulder is hurting, his fastball has dropped as low as 91.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.swinehart.96 Michael Swinehart

    Chapman’s career would me much longer and more successful if he continued to close games. If he throws 100 pitches every fifth day throwing 98-100 as often as he does, he’s going to burn out his arm really quick. Moving him to the rotation is a real head-scratcher for me.