At best, Aroldis Chapman is unstable. A manageable sort of loose cannon. At worst, he’s violent, a danger not only to himself but to others. There’s a lot to try to handle here — more than we want to have to handle when we’re dealing with baseball players and baseball trades. We don’t want to have to consider this stuff, but here we are, and it can’t be avoided. Aroldis Chapman has been traded to the Yankees, for Rookie Davis, Eric Jagielo, Caleb Cotham, and Tony Renda. Chapman would’ve been a Dodger by now, or maybe a member of the Red Sox, but for an off-field incident involving alleged violence and gunfire. Chapman wasn’t arrested, but he might still be suspended under MLB’s new domestic-violence policy. That part of this story is front and center. Were it not for the incident, Chapman wouldn’t be on the Yankees. Were it not for the incident, Chapman would’ve commanded a higher price.
I can’t tell you how you’re supposed to feel. I can’t tell you what Chapman did or didn’t do. At this point I bet even the parties involved couldn’t tell you exactly what Chapman did or didn’t do, given the memory’s tendency to warp. All that’s known is there was something ugly, and Chapman was in the middle of it, and the details caused some teams to back off. If you love the trade for the Yankees, that’s fine. If you don’t want to root for Chapman anymore, that’s fine. If you feel like it’s getting harder and harder to be a sports fan these days, that’s fine. The more we know our athletes, the more we know them as real people, and real people are complex, where sports are supposed to be simple. This isn’t what a lot of us signed up for.
Your job is to figure out how you feel. And how you want to feel, if it’s different. My job is to tell you about the baseball. I’m not qualified to do the other stuff. And here’s the reality of baseball: no team likes off-the-field concerns, or potential pending suspensions. Every team wants its 25 players to be saints. But character is only part of it, and when the talent level is high enough, teams will overlook everything else. Aroldis Chapman is one of the greatest per-inning pitchers on the planet. Of that there is zero question. There are questions about his character, but teams know this stuff blows over. And beyond that, you could say Chapman’s off-field problems created a market inefficiency. Just ask Brian Cashman:
“Given the circumstances that exist, the price point on the acquisition has been modified,”Cashman said. “We felt this was an opportunity to add a big arm to our bullpen.”
There you go. Sometimes executives are reluctant to share the whole truth. Cashman is more of a straight shooter, and that excerpt tells you everything. Chapman’s got some troubles. Those troubles scared off other teams. And that made it appealing for the Yankees to strike. As far as roster management is concerned, Chapman’s incident is practically a good thing. Value value value. Below, I’m going to write more about baseball. After all, there’s a transaction to analyze, and I have a job to do. Read, or don’t. I’m not here to judge you or anybody. I’m here to judge statistics, and Chapman has some awesome statistics.
No one who reads FanGraphs needs to be told what Chapman has accomplished in Cincinnati. He’s famously been the most overpowering reliever in the game, a man armed with a ligament I damn near want to rip right out of him when he sleeps so I can submit it for inspection. Chapman has been stupid-good, and he’s not even 28, so he ought to remain stupid-good for the short-term future.
Stupid-good, like Andrew Miller. Stupid-good, like Dellin Betances. Some weeks back, when the Dodgers were close to acquiring Chapman, I wrote about what it would look like to combine Chapman and Kenley Jansen. With those two, the Dodgers would have two of the five or so best relievers in baseball. But in my heart, I was disappointed, because I was hoping for insanity. Back then, Chapman was going to Los Angeles, and the Yankees were rumored to be shopping Miller around. I wanted Miller, Chapman, and Betances all in the same place. And now, here we are, for an unprecedented bullpen experiment.
It’s not much of an experiment, I guess, because the results shouldn’t really be in any question. How will they combine? Probably a lot like an elite-level starting pitcher, only somehow even better, and with practically every inning and every plate appearance being higher-leverage. This assumes, of course, the Yankees keep all three, and Chapman isn’t dealt a super-long suspension. But this could be silly. You don’t even need to root for Chapman or the Yankees. You don’t need to be emotionally connected. You can just be someone who appreciates ridiculous numbers. By all indications, those numbers are on the way.
What the Yankees wanted to do was find some cost-controlled starting pitching, because they’ve acknowledged there are a bunch of questions in their starting rotation. But you’ve seen what the starter market has been like. The Yankees didn’t want to mess around with that, despite being the Yankees and everything. So the Yankees have improved their rotation by improving their bullpen, thereby limiting the responsibilities the starters will carry. It’s not like every single inning can be given to one of the Big Three, but they’re going to preserve most leads, and get the most big outs.
How much do the Yankees have to lose? They lose some prospects, but they’re not losing any of their real top prospects. And though the Chapman stuff is bad PR, and the New York press can be rough, how much damage can really conceivably be done to the Yankees brand, because of an off-field incident that didn’t result in an arrest? People are going to pay to see the Yankees. They’re the Yankees. The Yankees went international ages ago. Their brand is almost untouchable. That doesn’t have to be a nice part of reality; it can be just part of reality.
Chapman, Miller, and Betances had three of baseball’s four highest strikeout rates last year. Based on Steamer projections, they’re pegged for three of the five lowest FIPs in 2016. Here’s what’s at the top of our current team bullpen projections on the WAR page:
Bullpen projections are hard, and there’s a lot of uncertainty, but there’s no getting around that. The Yankees are projected in first by a massive amount. There have been teams before that have had multiple good relievers. There are teams right now that have multiple good relievers. But as far as I can tell, no team has ever had three relievers like this, at one time. The Orioles love having Zach Britton, Darren O’Day, and Mychal Givens, and they should. The Royals love what they’ve got. The Red Sox love what they’ve got. The Yankees are at the top of the class. They have the on-field value and the name value. They’ll flaunt it. It’s classically Yankees.
I do want to note a few other things. It’s easy to get carried away, because the very notion of this Yankees bullpen is absurd. But while this should look dominant, it shouldn’t look wildly unfamiliar, because just last year the Yankees had Betances, Miller, and Justin Wilson, and they were outstanding. Wilson finished with a WPA of 2.58, while Chapman finished with a WPA of 2.59. Wilson, now, is gone. Chapman’s an upgrade, but not an overhaul. And then there’s this: under Joe Girardi, since 2008, the Yankees rank first in baseball in bullpen WPA, at +56. The Rangers are in second at +36. That’s a 20-win difference in eight seasons, showing that the Yankees have an established history of great relief. This isn’t like if the Tigers put this together. For the Yankees, this is luxury, but they’re accustomed to liking their bullpens.
And just for the hell of it, here’s 30 years of bullpen WPA and bullpen WAR:
Sometimes there are a few too many bad pitches at the wrong times. It’s possible for a bullpen to be superficially great yet unclutch. Let’s take that 6.6-WAR projection from Steamer. Over the past 30 years, of the teams whose bullpens have finished with a WAR between 6.1 and 7.1, those bullpens have finished with WPAs ranging from +1.8 to +13.9. There’s very little chance the New York bullpen will be bad, but it might not be totally automatic.
To say nothing of any injury risk. There’s always injury risk. It helps that this is a one-year deal, unless Chapman is suspended for so long that the Yankees get another year of control. My guess is that’s unlikely. Chapman, I imagine, will be a free agent next offseason, and he should get a qualifying offer, and then the Yankees would be positioned to get a compensation pick. If he were to leave. Lots of assumptions.
And speaking of compensation picks, there’s the matter of the Reds’ return, here. They’re not walking away with nothing. We can assume the package they would’ve gotten from the Dodgers was superior, but there’s some value here, so it’s not like this is a salary and headache dump. The prospects are led by Jagielo and Davis. Jagielo, to me, feels like the equivalent of a compensation pick. The kind of player the Yankees could pick back up in a year and a half, if things went down that path. Jagielo was taken 26th overall in 2013, and he’s shown real power, but his strikeouts are elevated, and a leg injury has done nothing for his defense at third base, which was already questionable. So Jagielo is bat-first, with injury issues. Davis is a decently hard-throwing righty starter who last year cracked Double-A. He showed good improvement in his command in High-A before getting promoted, and he could have a definite future. Observers have said good things about his curveball, and even if he were bumped to relief, his heater could get to the high-90s.
Cotham is a tweener-prospect because he’s already 28. But he’s a big-league-capable reliever with a fastball and a slider, and this past season he adjusted well to the bullpen. He should throw plenty of innings for the Reds in 2016, and perhaps in the years beyond that. Finally, Renda is a second baseman with six career home runs. He’s more of a bat-control type, but it seems like any future is on the bench. He’s the clear fourth piece, and you can’t expect much from a fourth piece in a trade for a one-year player.
Obviously, the Reds didn’t get what they would’ve liked. They didn’t get what they could’ve gotten were it not for the off-field story. But there was nothing for them to do about that, so they decided to move on and sell Chapman for what they could. With the market diminished, the Yankees moved in, with little to lose and plenty to gain. Again, if it weren’t for the incident, this would set the Yankees up for a wildly entertaining bullpen project, the likes of which we’ve never seen. All that stuff is still true, but our perspective is complicated, and maybe this seems less entertaining than it could’ve. Maybe eventually it comes out that Chapman didn’t try to hurt anybody, but I don’t blame you if you’re something less than jazzed. However you feel is justifiable. However you feel next summer will be justifiable. Don’t feel bad because you think everyone else has it all figured out, because none of us do. We all just try to deal with the news.
Today, there’s big Aroldis Chapman news. The Yankees are responsible for it, because they feel like, in time, it’ll be good for them. They’re probably right. That’s sports.
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