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.