The playoffs rage on, and while I have to remember to add “took absolutely all breathing room out of playoff schedule” to my list of grievances against Bud Selig, I’m thoroughly enjoying it all. I want to take a moment, though, in defiance of Selig’s haste, to ponder some important decisions three teams will be making this winter about men who were instrumental in their ascendances to contention. The Reds need to make their final decision about Aroldis Chapman’s role this winter; the Rangers have rotation holes to fill; and the Orioles have a maddeningly high-ceiling southpaw who demands some definition of his role.
Too Far Gone?
Aroldis Chapman could start in the big leagues. Scouts seem to agree on that fact all but unanimously. With a fastball that needs no hot gun to hit 100 miles per hour and a slider left-handed batters speak of in hushed tones, and although he struggled with his command in brief stints as a starter (mostly in the minor leagues), he would succeed as an MLB starter if given the chance.
That, at least, is true in a vacuum. Major League Baseball is not a vacuum. Not even the Reds’ pitching staff is a vacuum, despite the presence of J.J. Hoover (get it?). In reality, the following things are true, and relevant:
1. Chapman has made only 16 starts since defecting from Cuba.
2. All of those were in the minors, and 13 were in 2010.
3. Each of the past two winters have seen the Reds wrestle with the possibility of transitioning Chapman back to starting, but abandon that ambition in light of spring arm trouble.
4. Chapman has not proven himself especially durable, even for a relief pitcher. His fastball velocity has faded during periods of heavy use, and the Reds have shelved him on occasion in the hope of helping him bounce back from that fatigue.
The most important fact among those is this: Chapman hasn’t been used as a true starter since mid-2010. It’s simply too late to move him back to the rotation without building in what amounts to a lost season during which he might re-condition himself as a starter must. Given the expectations the Reds have created with their moves over the past year, and given Chapman’s proximity to free agency, that’s not an option. Chapman, in my opinion, should actually stay in the bullpen at this point.
The risk-reward balances might say otherwise. It’s self-evident that a pitcher, even one with the electricity and dominance potential Chapman has, is more valuable pitching 210 innings than pitching 70, even accounting for the leverage of the selected innings they would pitch en route to 70. The questions truly at issue are whether said pitcher can stay healthy; how big a hit the pitcher will take in terms of stuff and performance when forced to pace himself; how much the progressive advantage batters gain each time they face a starter would dent the hurler’s dominance; and in the case of a left-hander, how having the platoon advantage in a little over half the percentage of batter confrontations they would have in relief would affect their overall effectiveness.
In Chapman’s case, it’s clear he would struggle with health, consistency and command as a starter. Batters would not gain much progressive advantage against him, though, because of his raw stuff. Nor does much platoon adjustment needs to be made, because managers have feared having their lefties face Chapman from Day One of his career. He’s faced 375 right-handed batters in the big leagues, and just 159 left-handed ones. Righties have a .543 OPS against him. Lefties are at an almost unfathomable .358.
Chapman need not be a one-inning, 75-appearance reliever. At this point, though, the Reds are best served by letting him be a bullpen weapon and worrying about something else entering this off-season–like their two offensive sinkholes, shortstop and center field.
In the wake of the Rangers’ bitter end to this season, a number of players and coaches gave quotes that seemed to be posturing for certain roles in the organization next year. Alexi Ogando made the most intriguing pitch: He wants to head back to the rotation in 2013.
Ogando’s is a mash up of the dozen weirdest, sleaziest true stories you have ever heard about Latin America and professional baseball. He signed with Oakland 10 summers ago, as an outfielder with every tool, though none in spades. Entanglement with a human trafficking ring earned him a five-year ban from stepping on U.S. soil while he was yet a teenager, and he changed organizations while still in exile, in late 2005.
The Rangers saw a pitcher in the making, and Ogando figured out quickly that he could throw a very good sinker-slider combination without a ton of refinement. He got back Stateside in February, 2010, and ended up pitching in the big leagues before the year was out.
In 2011, Ogando underwent his first test as a starter. He was very good in the first half, quite bad in the second, relegated to relief work in the playoffs, and sent onward as a reliever for 2012.
With Ogando, it’s very difficult to build the argument that a move back to the rotation would not be worthwhile. Everything that works against Chapman actually works for Ogando:
1. We have a substantial track record of Ogando as a starter, and he was good for at least half a season.
2. Health is a non-factor. Ogando is a low-investment 28-year-old whose formative years in terms of large-muscle growth in the kinetic chain used for pitching were mostly spent in the outfield. If he gets hurt, he gets hurt, but there couldn’t possibly be fewer red flags.
3. Ogando showed surprising command even during his time in the rotation, striking out nearly three batters per batter walked in that role.
4. As a right-handed pitcher, he can expect to enjoy the platoon advantage about as often (45-50 percent of the time) as he does in relief. This is a point we too often fail to notice. Right-handed pitchers get by much better in the rotation than do lefties, assuming equal true talent.
With Colby Lewis’ health an unanswerable question and Neftali Feliz not due back until than tail end of the 2013 season, Ogando offers a cheaper reinforcement of the suddenly thinning rotation than any similarly skilled free agent would. Start him!
Whither Brian Matusz?
The Orioles stayed alive a bit longer than they deserved to this fall, in part because they found an unexpected source of some left-left match-up outs in high-leverage spots. Brian Matusz, after a season and a half of miserable starting pitching and on the brink of finally fading from the ranks of promising young pitchers, moved to the bullpen and started mowing people down.
He’s a lefty. That’s part of this story. As established above, lefties are disproportionately disadvantaged when they start, especially if they have a large platoon split. Clayton Kershaw, for example, had the platoon advantage just 19 percent of the time this season; Justin Verlander had it 44 percent of the time.
Matusz has allowed a .652 OPS to left-handed batters in his career. Against righties, the same number is .869. One major reason to think the shift to the bullpen catalyzed his revival is that split data, paired with Buck Showalter’s selective usage of Matusz after the switch.
Now, a pitcher used as Matusz was down the stretch should succeed almost no matter what. If the Orioles believe he can even be a fourth or fifth starter, they should let him try. Honestly, though, if I’m Baltimore GM Dan Duquette, I use Matusz’s positive exposure to deal him this winter, to whichever team values his skills most highly. They call them ‘tweeners, outfielders who are slightly too slow to play center and not quite the hitter one must be to hold down a corner outfield gig. Brian Matusz is the pitching version of that. He’s either going to be a below-average player in a valuable role, or a very good one in a thoroughly unimportant role. Sell high!Next post: Two Game Fives
Previous post: Notes on a Quadrupleheader, Pt. II