Yesterday, the transformation from setup man to closer came full circle for Aroldis Chapman, as he protected a three-run lead for the Reds in earning his second career save. With the move, Sean Marshall has been consigned back to his former role of setup man. Marshall’s early failures however, don’t mean that he doesn’t have closer’s stuff.
The last straw for Marshall came on Saturday. Brought on to protect a similar three-run lead against the Bombers, Marshall allowed four of the five batters he faced to reach base, and allowed the potential tying and winning runs to reach base. Since Chapman had already pitched at this point, Jose Arredondo was brought in to clean up for Marshall, and clean up he did, as the Reds won. Still, the meltdown led Reds manager Dusty Baker to make the switch on Sunday. Yet, while Marshall did not serve in the closer’s role on Sunday, he was inserted for the Reds’ highest-leverage plate appearance of the game when he struck out Robinson Cano in the bottom of the eighth, proof that Baker still has faith in him. And really, there isn’t any reason not to.
Marshall’s Saturday meltdown was his fourth of the season, which may seem like a high number, but really isn’t when you scan the leaderboards. Marshall is just one of 22 relievers to suffer four meltdowns this season, and 18 pitchers have had more than four. Is it on the low end of the spectrum? Sure, but it’d be a stretch to say that those four meltdowns preclude Marshall from ever succeeding as a closer in the future. The pitcher that the Reds signed to close this season — Ryan Madson — had between seven and 16 meltdowns every season from 2004-2010 before adorning the scarlet “C” in 2011. And Marshall doesn’t need to be used as a LOOGY either. He has come out of the gate slowly against righties this year, but in the past two seasons when he was used exclusively as a reliever, right-handed batters only generated wOBA’s of .258 and .269 off of Marshall. He will come back around, assuming Baker gives him the chance.
Of course, that Baker will now have the option of using Marshall as a LOOGY rather than his closer is thanks in large part to Chapman’s dominance (yes, Baker could split closer duties, but he doesn’t want to do that, saying yesterday that it “makes my job harder”). Chapman has yet to allow a run in any of the 22.1 innings he has pitched, and while his BABIP of .189 is absurdly low, his .242 mark last season wasn’t exactly high. Perhaps most impressively, Chapman has harnessed his command without losing too much velocity. While his Zone% was below average the past two years, he has hurdled league average this season, getting more than 50 percent of his pitches in the strike zone. As a result, his BB/9 is down to the respectable level of 2.82. Sometimes, it’s just that easy.
But that begs the question — if Chapman has finally learned to harness his stuff, should he be getting a shot at the starting rotation? It is too late for him to make the transition this season at the Major League level without some creative management from Baker, which if you read the quote above you know is never going to happen. But the change of roles may make it even more difficult for Chapman to ever transition to a starting role.
First, Baker is unlikely to use his closer in more than a three-out situation, limiting Chapman’s ability to get stretched out. In Baker’s first four years at the helm of the Reds, his closer was Francisco Cordero. In those four seasons, Cordero made 282 appearances, and recorded more than three outs just nine times, or three percent of the time. Chapman has been used for four outs or more far more frequently up to this point — 16 times in 87 career appearances, or 18 percent of the time. Perhaps Baker will continue to use Chapman in this fashion, knowing that the pitcher can handle the added workload. But if he turns him into a three-out pitcher, it may slow any transition to the rotation.
There have been many who have questioned whether or not Chapman ever should transition to a starter, but there is no questioning that the Reds would be well served to give it a try. The Reds’ primary strength right now is its bullpen, and that one of its main weaknesses is its rotation (it would also be great if Drew Stubbs, Brandon Phillips and Chris Heisey snapped out of their slumps, but that’s a post for another day). While Chapman is a big part of why the Reds’ bullpen leads the Majors with a 2.93 FIP, he isn’t the only reason. Along with Chapman and Marshall, J.J. Hoover, Alfredo Simon and Arredondo all have FIP’s of 3.22 or lower, and Sam LeCure and Bill Bray are better pitchers than they have shown thus far. There is also the hope that Nick Masset will return to form when he comes back in the picture to further bolster the ‘pen.
The rotation, meanwhile, has underwhelmed. Mike Leake and Homer Bailey in particular, have been cuffed around, thanks in part to both seeing large decreases in their K/9. The Reds are locked in to their rotation to a certain degree, but if either Leake or Bailey can’t turn things around by the end of the season, they shouldn’t stand in Chapman’s way come 2013. If not them, then Bronson Arroyo and his modest $6.5 million salary for 2013 would likely attract some suitors. Either way, the Reds need to find a way to improve their lot — currently, their starters have a 4.13 FIP, which ranks just 22nd in the Majors. That will have to improve if the team wants to legitimately contend, and moving Chapman to the rotation may be the easiest road to improvement.
Aroldis Chapman is a very fine pitcher, and he should handle his transition to closing splendidly. Sean Marshall is also a fine pitcher, and still has the profile to succeed in the closer role should he be given another opportunity. But while the team’s short-term goals may align with Chapman closing games, moving him to the ninth inning — and only the ninth inning — may not be the club’s best long-term solution.