Reds Doing the Earl Weaver with Chapman

If starting pitchers are more valuable than relievers, then why do we frequently see teams place some of their best young pitchers in the bullpen? We’ve seen it so many times during the past few years. The Yankees brought up Joba Chamberlain, just a year after drafting him, to solidify a shaky bullpen. The Mariners moved Brandon Morrow there. The Braves brought up Kris Medlen in a relief role before moving him to the rotation. The Mets brought 20-year-old Jenrry Mejia to Queens with them — though they have finally sent him to the minors to start.

This week we heard of another such case. On Wednesday John Fay reported that the Reds would “look at [the] bullpen” for their $30 million man, Aroldis Chapman. Sure enough, Chapman pitched his first game in relief that night, allowing one run in two innings against Toledo, striking out three to one walk and two hits. The Reds will likely keep him in this role, giving him multi-inning appearances in the minors before possibly calling him up to fortify the major league bullpen. The question we’re always asking is of whether the switch is a prudent move.

The main issue here is development. The Reds invested heavily in Chapman knowing that he was a raw pitcher who would need plenty of seasoning before becoming a finished product. Hence, he did not break camp with the team, but instead was assigned to Louisville of the International League, whrer he could work on repeating his delivery.  But, as Keith Law observed in spring training, his mechanics seem in order. Before the season started it sounded like Chapman would be starting for the Reds at some point this season.

His results, however, have not exactly impressed. While he’s been able to, unsurprisingly, strike out plenty of AAA hitters — 79 in 67.2 innings — he has had plenty of trouble with his control. His walk rate, 5.45 per nine, certainly needs improvement. Again, it’s one of the reasons the Reds assigned him to a minor league affiliate. The problem hasn’t improved recently, either, as he has walked 29 in his last 10 appearances, which cover 46.2 innings. The wildness is something he is going to have to continue to work on, and the Reds apparently believe that could happen in the bullpen.

How will the new role affect his development? Opinions abound. Craig Calcaterra thinks that turning him into a one-inning reliever will “do his development a serious disservice.” The Reds want him to be a starter long-term, and therefore they should keep him in that role and allow him to learn to be a starter by starting, where he can aclimate himself to the schedule, to the pace, and to using all of his pitches. On the other side, both Chad and Bill from Redleg Nation love the move. Chad calls it, “a stroke of genius,” noting that it serves the dual purpose of limiting his innings and getting him experience against major league hitters. Both cases have merit, and I’m not sure there is any one objectively correct move. The team has to decide for itself which is the best path for its player.

While there are certainly developmental concerns, I do buy into the notion that breaking young pitchers into the league as relievers is a sound strategy. As we’ve heard so often, Earl Weaver did this with many pitchers and with success. We have also seen many current players spend time in the bullpen before entering the rotation. Chad Billingsley started the 2007 season in the bullpen and made his first 23 appearances there. He then moved to the rotation and was successful. The Yankees moved Phil Hughes to the bullpen last year after he produced mediocre results as a starter. He returned to the rotation this year and has been quite the success himself.

There are two advantages of using young pitchers in the bullpen. First is the obvious, that they gain experience facing major league hitters. Many young pitchers are just too good for the minors and need to test their mettle against elite hitters. Why not, then, put them in the major league rotation? That brings us to the second point. By pitching in the bullpen they receive constant feedback. Relievers pitch in games more often than starters, which means more opportunities to gain feedback on their performances. You can read a few academic articles on feedback here, here, and here. If the pitcher can put this feedback to good use, then he might be ripe for the rotation in the following year, or even perhaps later in the same year.

The one place where I get hung up on this issue relates to innings. Young pitchers need to build up their innings from year to year, just like runners must ramp up their distances when training for a marathon. No one goes from the couch to a 26.2 mile run, just like no one goes from high school to 200 innings. Chapman’s case becomes a bit more difficult because he pitched in Cuba, which is a different baseball environment than America. He did throw 118.1 innings in 2008 for Holguin, but how much do we really know about those innings? There is also the question of how many innings he pitched internationally. By the sheer numbers it looks like Chapman could pitch around 150 innings this year. Since he is at 67 now and has moved to the bullpen, though, it looks like he won’t get even close to that mark.

Developing young pitchers is as subjective as it gets in baseball. Each pitcher requires different tactics to help spur growth. Teams have to determine, on a case-by-case basis, which will work best. The Reds have chosen the bullpen path for Chapman, and they certainly have their reasons. I’m not sure if it’s right or wrong; I don’t think anyone can be wrong. But I think the arguments in favor of the move are compelling enough to justify it. Long-term, Chapman’s value lies in his ability to work out the kinks in his control and become a top-end starter. But for now, a move to the bullpen might be what he needs to achieve success as a starting pitcher.

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

32 Responses to “Reds Doing the Earl Weaver with Chapman”

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  1. Shaun says:

    A good example of “breaking in a starter in the bullpen” would also be Adam Wainwright. The Cardinals brought him up in 2006 as a reliever and eventually installed him as closer for their title run. Since 2007 he has been a starter, and a fine one at that.

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    • Joe Pawlikowski says:

      Disappointed in myself for missing that one. Clearly I was going off the top of my head. Any serious study of the effect would have to include Wainwright front and center.

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      • Jon says:

        Johan and Liriano started in the pen as well.

        I sorta agree myself with this philosophy. If a starter has proven his worth in the minors, but is missing that little bit to put him over the top and become a successful starter in the minors, stick him in the pen and make use of him. It’s worked before, it will work again.

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      • Bryz says:

        @ Jon: I think the difference with Johan though was that he was a Rule 5 pick, and putting him in the bullpen allowed the Twins to avoid giving him important innings while being able to keep him on the major league roster.

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      • Bill@TDS says:

        I don’t think that’s true about Johan, Bryz (you might say that it’s, um, “off the mark” :)). In 2000, sure, but they kept him in the bullpen well into 2003, long after his Rule 5 status mattered. I think Johan was the actual modern impetus for this trend.

        At the time, I hated it. I was firmly in the Aaron Gleeman “Free Johan!” camp. But in retrospect, I think they did it mostly right. The key was that he was never really a one-inning reliever; he was like a swing man, getting occasional starts and lots of 2-3 inning relief appearances (but not usually the low-leverage mop-up work that the swing man is usually stuck with). I think they stuck with it for way too long, but the idea was solid.

        So I think Craig’s right that it’s a terrible idea to make him a one-inning guy, but I do think that stretching him out for 2-3 innings at a time could do him a lot of good.

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      • Mr. Sanchez says:

        No mention of Feliz either? Neftali Feliz is another now closing that has been discussed as a possible starter going forward.

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      • Bryz says:

        @ Bill: Wow, thanks for catching that. My mistake.

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  2. CesarV says:

    I love the feedback argument, my issue would be with the performance of the pitchers used as examples in the minors. Guys like Wainwright, Billlingsley, and Hughes had very good numbers in the minors before coming back up. I think the most analogous situation would be that of Brandon Morrow, I think Chapman has his same profile, and maybe the Reds will try the Seattle then Toronto approach.

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    • Damaso's Burnt Shirt says:

      Agreed. The Reds would be much better off to follow the Toronto approach than the Seattle approach.

      I think the Mariners screwed up Brandon Morrow’s head more than anything by putting him in the pen first. I can see why he was so inconsistent. Early this year, he pitched like a reliever during his starts. Everything seemed to be power stuff from 95-98 mph fastballs or power curve and didn’t pace himself. Led to too many walks and many times an early exit.

      Now Morrow is thinking like a starter and pitching. He’s using a 90-92 mph two seamer to get ground ball outs and lowering his pitch count per game. He’s also mixing in the offspeed stuff better, staying in the strike zone and only rearing back when he needs it (and Jose Molina’s helping to keep his mental “stuff” together.) He is a totally different and much more effective starter than what he was just two months ago.

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  3. CircleChange11 says:

    David Price is probably the most comparable player. How’s he doing? *grin*

    Wainwright was huge, as we can all still visualize his “posterization” of Beltran (2007) with the deuce. 2 years later (2009), he had his best season and was n the hunt for the CYA.

    David Price followed the year after (2008), and is now havng a dominant season (2010)as a starter.

    So, the Reds are in first place, and Chapman is being utilized in the bullpen, with hopes that he can be in the majors in 2010 and contribute in the playoffs.

    What the problem is?

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    • RonDom says:

      I wouldn’t say dominant for Price.

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      • RonDom says:

        Cliff Lee, Francisco Liriano, Jered Weaver, Ricky Romero, Jon Lester, Felix Hernandez, …..(6 more pitchers)…… Zack Grienke, Phil Hughes, Brandon Morrow, then David Price.

        So….. good definitely, dominant? I think otherwise.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        I would say that 11-3 2.44 (bear with me for using traditional numbers) is pretty dominant for a kid in his 2nd season a a starter (given the division he plays in as well).

        I concede some luck on HR/FB, LOB%, … but he’s on pace for, at least, a 4 WAR season.

        Given his age and experience, I think that’s pretty dominant … especially in the context of evaluating whether pitchers used in the bullpen as ‘phenoms’ become quality starters soon after.

        A K-rate of 7.59/9 is 18th in the NL, and his walks don’t hurt him as much due to the lowish HR/9.

        Regardless, I think he serves as a good example, and the best comparison to Chapman, of how a move like this can … and does … often pan out.

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  4. oompaloopma says:

    If the Reds were not in contention for first place I would then put Chapmen in the pen. However, Reds, you are in FIRST place battling the Cardinals everyday which does not happen very often. Go out and get a real bullpen guy, two if you need them. If you want Chapmen on cleanup duty in the bullpen then thats okay, but I would not put my future starter with a 5.45 walk rate in your first place bullpen.

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  5. CJ says:

    Sure, using a potential starting prospect in the bullpen can work, and it certainly has its advantages for the right pitchers and the right circumstances. Sometimes pitching in a few relief appearances allows the young pitcher to get the jitters out of the way and feel more comfortable in a big league game, so that he can move on to starting after a couple of weeks in the pen.

    However, I have my doubts that Chapman is a good candidate for the bullpen. His control is weak, and that flaw becomes magnified when he comes out of the pen and pitches for a short period. Chapman won’t be a good choice to come into the game with runners on base, since he may load the bases. The Reds are in a pennant race and they really can’t afford to let Chapman take his lumps in the bullpen. Suppose he begins the 7th inning in a tie game, and then proceeds to walk the first two batters. If he is left in the game, he might strike out some batters and work his way out of it. But the manager may not want to take that risk with 2 on base and no outs. So, he removes Chapman without Chapman learning how to get out of the jam. Chapman gets feedback that his control is bad, but he probably already knew that.

    I tend to agree with Calcaterra on this one.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      … or sometimes you just want to have all of your talent on the field.

      It looks like a possible pattern is that mega-talented young pitchers used in the bullpen become good tarters within a couple of years.

      The exception would be Joba, who has CLOSER written all over him. Lotsa K’s and full intensity on every pitch.

      Price was big in the 08 playoffs, and his control was “suspect”.

      You guys are forgeting the most important characteristic of a reliever … the ability to strike batters out (outs without contact).

      The Reds could be looking at the NL version of Matt Thornton here (go with me), if Chapman can K a lot of batters.

      Again, in terms of relief, walking a guy is from the worst a reliever can do.

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    • Mike K. says:

      Part of the issue is *why* is he walking lots of batters. For example, if he can’t throw his breaking-stuff for strikes, he’ll walk a lot of guys. But pitching 1-2 innings out of the bullpen, he’ll probably be able to rely mostly on his fastball, which perhaps he controls fine.

      Of course it may be the opposite, and he may indeed be in for a rough ride. But going *just* by his BB-rate in the minors isn’t sufficient.

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    • Zack says:

      “The exception would be Joba, who has CLOSER written all over him. Lotsa K’s and full intensity on every pitch.”

      Not this again.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        I’m not starting the debate, only saying he is a different “type” of pitcher than the rest listed.

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  6. philosofool says:

    Aroldis Chapman has plenty to learn from minor league hitters, including how not to walk them. His strike out rates and his walk rates are not separable things. He’s going to get hit more at the minor league level when he starts throwing in the zone. If I were the Reds, I would absolutely leave him in AAA and tell him that control is a barrier to reaching the MLB level right now. Feedback is good, but so are incentives. When a pitcher walks almost 6 batters per 9 innings and you promote him, your incentive structure is all wrong.

    A difference between all the pitchers you mentioned and Chapman is that they had for more success at the minor league level than Chapman has had. Joba is back in the pen after an mediocre full season of starting, so I think the Joba model may not be the one to adpot here.

    As fas as I can tell, the Reds are making up a story about pitcher development with fantasies of Chapman being another Jason Heyward/Stephen Strasburg type rookie that provides a lot of value to the club right out the gate. Is the guy’s secondary stuff good? Does he throw it for strikes? Is putting him in the bullpen going to correct that?

    If the costs of doing that were small, I would understand the choice. A good way to think about the opportunity cost of bringing Chapman up is that it is the faction of his service time they lose using him in the pen. In a way, you can think of the money they paid to sign him as an advance on that service time, which means they’re paying $5m a year for him to play. At that rate, I would strongly advise the Reds to find another bullpen arm (for less) and stop confusing their desire to win, their desire to develop Chapman well, and their desire to see Chapman succeed now.

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  7. nycredsfan says:

    As an (obvious) Reds fan, I’m opposed to this, mainly for the developmental reasons. Most of the pitchers people cite as having been successfully introduced to MLB from the pen were much more polished than Chapman is. He could probably get by 1 inning at a time with just his fastball, but that won’t help him in the long run. Also, he really needs to get up to 150 innings this year, at least.

    Having said that, your article acts like it’s a done deal, but I wouldn’t assume that. Jocketty says stuff like this all the time, and John Fay with the Enquirer seems so desperate for Chapman to get the call-up that he’s treating it as a given. I could see it happening, but probably not before August. (which would be a much better situation, IMHO)

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Let’s not forget that David Price was a major asset in the playoffs due to his fastball (he also walked some guys). The biggest thing a reliever can do is come in the game and get outs without the batter making contact.

      Following his (Price) playoff success, he did not make the club the following season and started in the minors. Now, he’s a good starter.

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  8. Jilly says:

    I think many of you are missing an obvious and important point. Breaking starters into the major leagues is a solid idea, one that I feel very strongly works. However, usually those guys are good minor league starters who are major league ready. Chapman has poor control and only one pitch that’s consistently good. If he comes out of the bullpen this year, he just might dominate, but he’s pushing back his time before he can join the Reds’ rotation. If he’s coming out of the bullpen he’s not going to get his change and his slider nearly as much work as starting, and so the same problems he has now are still going to be there next spring.

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  9. Andrew says:

    Quick correction: Kris Medlen was brought up as a starter last year (before Tommy Hanson!) before being moved to the bullpen.

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  10. Kyle says:

    With their recent bad luck with pitching injuries(not all Dusty Baker’s fault), this is a smart move. Look at Bailey, you don’t think he might have benefited from 15-20 appearances out of the bullpen?

    Pitchers with major league stuff can usually handle coming out of the bullpen for half a season.

    Another example is Derek Lowe. I know he’s not an ace aside from two great seasons, but since becoming a starter in 2002, he’s 128-84. Some guys aren’t ready to be starters, and the only time this has backfired when a guy is a phenom is Joba Chamberlain.

    Josh Johnson also didn’t start when he first came up… Halladay, Carpenter, and other ace pitchers already mentioned spent time in the bullpen working on their stuff(usually control.) It’s also easier to let the pitcher adapt to throwing 200-230 innings a season.

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  11. Jason says:

    If anybody gets added into the Reds shaky bullpen for the stretch run, it would probably be Edinson Volquez, even if Homer’s shoulder is completely shot.

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    • Kyle says:

      You’re right… I wish they’d trade Bailey to the Cardinals, Braves or Phillies. Or at least have him work with someone like Maddux, his mechanics are pretty erratic when he struggles.

      For a guy with outstanding stuff, and 3 plus pitches… so far he’s had an ominous start to his career. The end of 2009 he looked like he was about to take the next step to a quality starter at least(maybe an ace even.)

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  12. Dan says:

    Shouldn’t we also be concerned about whether or not Aroldis Chapman can actually be a good bullpen guy, rather than only looking at the long-term pros and cons? Because the latter is remarkably subjective, and you can’t really say definitively whether or not the Reds are doing their $30MM investment wrong.

    But you can objectively say that Chapman walked almost five and a half batters per nine in AAA, and is only going to find more patient hitters in the majors. I just don’t think he’s a guy you want in your playoff-contending bullpen right now.

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  13. There are good arguments both for and against starting guys off in the bullpen, but one possible con that I haven’t seen mentioned is that if a guy has excessive bullpen success, he may never leave the role. I suppose for an operational standpoint it isn’t a big deal because teams can do as they please, but from the fan perspective I always tend to be weary of minor league starters being brought up in Major League relief roles because of the possibility that the team may never allow them to start again or may not give them an extended opportunity to start. Joba fits that description, as does Joel Zumaya in Detroit, who was an outstanding minor league starter and had such a great rookie year in the bullpen that any hopes of him ever starting again essentially disappeared.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      There have already been mentioned guys that had bullpen success, and are now really good starters.

      I don’t think that is a concern.

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  14. CircleChange11 says:

    I like it for a couple of non-historical reasons.

    [1] You get to see how he fares against ML competition. That’s valuable. First-hand experience. Not projections, not guesses.

    [2] You get to see what he has that works against ML batters. That’s valuable. Chapman also gets the confidence of knowing he has some major league ability.

    [3] You get to see whats needs improvement, and so does Chapman. You (team) have a better assessment of him; Chapman knows first-hand what did not work well.

    [4] You get to see his attitude and ethic at the ML level.

    Seriously, there are a lot of marginally effective bullpen pitchers in the ML, that have stuff much inferior to Chapman.

    One needs to ask of the concerns listed in his thread …
    [1] he implodes
    [2] he walks far too many guys,
    [3] he’ll become the nex Ankiel if he does bad,
    [4] they’ll keep him as a reliever,

    … are even realistic. IMO,none.

    I think a different “concern” will be that he does very well in a small sample, and then refuses to go back to the minors (or goes back with a “I shouldn’t be here” mentality). In other words he lights batters up for one inning or less for a handful of gmes, maybe even a playoff game … an then feels as though that’s an indication of how he’ll be a “lefty strasburg” if he starts in 2011.

    One of the “right” (IMO) reasons to keep in the minors would be to keep his ego & focus where it “should” be during this part of his development.

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  15. Greg says:


    My first “post” here. I know this thread is pretty old … but if you check the numbers since Chapman went to the pen in AAA they look pretty damn good to me.

    Since the Reds seem sure at this point to put him in their pen after Sept 1 … I guess we’ll see how this turns out.

    Given Leake is probably shutdown … Wood just got hammered … I’m wondering if they don’t wish they had kept Chapman on a starter schedule even if they were going to bring him up as a middleman.

    Being a Reds fan since birth … and being old enough to have gone to see the Big Red Machine of the 70’s … this year is a special year. I have my doubts that the Reds are true contenders until really 2011 or 2012.

    Harang in the rotation scares the hell out of me.
    Arroyo is ok.
    Cueto … ok.
    Bailey might be ok.
    Wood scares me some but that’s mostly due to his recent pounding.
    Volquez seems up and down (and that’s understandable given his TJ)

    If the Reds do win the division (which seems at least probable) … it’s likely the Padres will have the best record and therefore get the wildcard team. This means that the Reds would most likely face the NL East winner (which would be Philly or Atlanta) and a 5 game series. I’m not liking the matchups with either teams top 3 SP.


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