May 31, 2012
On the Beat
Fireballer in the Hole
When Sparky Lyle strode from the bullpen the mound at Yankee Stadium during his days as a premier relief pitches in the mid- to late 1970s, organist Eddie Layton would play "Pomp and Circumstance." That probably wouldn't work as a ballpark song these days, but to hear Dusty Baker tell it, perhaps the traditional graduation accompaniment should be played on the sound system at Great American Ball Park when Reds reliever Aroldis Chapman takes the hill.
Chapman, the Cuban left-hander with the fastball once clocked at 107 mph, has moved into the closer's role. As Baker, the Reds' manager, put it: "He's graduated to his position."
It took Chapman less than two years to earn his degree. Perhaps that just adds fuel to the fire of those who believe the position of closer is more valued by major-league executives and managers than need be, that a pitcher needs just an associate's degree to handle the job.
Regardless, Chapman is the man Baker plans on calling on most of the time to get the final out. With the way Chapman has pitched so far this season, he certainly should be used in high-leverage situations; he has allowed only one run in 26 innings, and that run was unearned. In addition to his 0.00 ERA, he has a 0.74 FIP and 0.78 FRA, while his 1.2 WARP is second on the Reds only to first baseman Joey Votto's 2.5.
That Chapman has been dominant isn't surprising. He sparked a big bidding war following his defection, and the five-year, $30.5 million major-league contract he signed with the Reds before the 2010 season was the largest ever awarded to a Cuban player.
There were questions surrounding Chapman coming into spring training, though. While he had struck out 12.8 batters per nine innings in 63 2/3 career major-league innings, he had also walked 6.5 per nine. Furthermore, he was not able to play winter ball because of a sore shoulder. Yet Chapman has been nearly perfect through the first two months of this season. Baker attributes the success in large part to the Cuban Missile's ability to throttle back at times.
"This year, when he gets behind in the count, he will back off and not worry about hitting 100 mph on the radar gun," Baker said. "He's learning to pitch instead of just throwing as hard as he can. He understands now that he can take a little off his fastball, have better command of it, and it will still be too much for most hitters to handle. I feel comfortable and confident with him pitching in any situation. He's graduated to his position. He proved that he is ready for this."
Baker made his major-league debut as a player in 1968 with the Braves, so he has seen many great pitchers over the years. While Baker stops short of saying Chapman has the best arm of any pitcher he has ever seen, he does compare him with one Hall of Famer and another future Hall of Famer.
"When Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson came up, they had great stuff, but they had a hard time putting the ball over the plate," Baker said. "Once they learned how to throw strikes, they were as good as anybody. Chapman is the same way. Now that he's learning how to throw strikes, he can be as good as anyone."
Which leads to the question of why the Reds aren't using Chapman as a starting pitcher? The Reds did stretch out Chapman as a starter in spring training, but when Ryan Madson, signed as a free agent over the winter to serve as the closer, needed Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery that cost him the season, general manager Walt Jocketty and Baker felt they needed Chapman to add depth to the bullpen. Chapman's services as a reliever were needed even more when top set-up man Nick Masset was forced to begin the season on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation, a condition that has kept him from throwing off a mound for more than two months.
"I definitely can see him as a starter, but right now our need is in the bullpen, and he's been great," Baker said. "Who knows what will happen next season? If Madson is healthy and we can re-sign him, then we would probably try Chapman as a starter. You have to weigh everything out, and a lot depends on the makeup of your roster. Time will tell what happens next year."
Time will also tell if the Reds can remain in first place in the National League Central. However, the bullpen has gone from question mark to strength despite the losses of Madson and Masset.
Left-hander Sean Marshall, acquired from the Cubs in an off-season trade, began the season as the closer and has a 2.49 FIP. While Logan Ondrusek has posted a 4.29 FIP in taking over Masset's set-up role, right-handers J.J. Hoover (2.39), Alfredo Simon (2.74), and Jose Arrendondo (3.70) have all preformed well. Hoover was acquired from the Braves in a trade for third baseman Juan Francisco, and Simon was claimed off waivers from the Orioles during the final days of spring training.
"I really like the production we're getting from the group," Baker said. "What I really like, though, is how we were able to reload our bullpen with Simon and Hoover. It's nice to be able to use the other side of your bullpen. You can't just use one side of your bullpen. The Braves did that last year, and their guys really tired out and the whole team faded down the stretch. We're not overusing our guys, and they should be good to go all season."
Baker feels Chapman will continue leading the way for the bullpen, especially now that he has achieved a comfort level in his third season in the United States.
"I've been to Cuba," Baker said. "The people down there don't really like Americans. The people in charge of putting out the information, the propaganda, don't have very nice things to say about Americans. I think Aroldis is still getting to the point where he feels comfortable with the culture, with trying to learn the language and with the people. You can see a big difference him in this year. He's starting to really fit in with his teammates, and I think that comfort zone is carrying over to the mound."
Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz: "He has a great sinker, but he gets in trouble when he falls in love with it. Hitters start taking it when they know it's coming because it drops out of the strike zone. They force him to bring the pitch up in the zone, where it's hittable. When he's mixing in his curveball and changeup, especially in hitter’s counts, he is as good as just about anybody."
Orioles center fielder Adam Jones: "He's starting to grow into the face-of-the-franchise role. You can tell by the way he's handling himself on the field that he knows it's his team now, and he's willing to put it on his back and carry it. He's raising his all-around game and becoming an elite player."
Rangers right-hander Alexi Ogando: "For me, he's the biggest piece of their bullpen. He can come in and overwhelm hitters for two or three innings. He's just filthy."
Rays center fielder B.J. Upton: "He's been a lot more aggressive this season. He isn't letting as many hittable pitches go by. On the other hand, he isn't turning on balls the way he's capable of. He seems like he's just trying to flip the ball into the outfield for singles. But that's B.J., one step forward and one step backward. You just keep waiting for it to all click in for him."
A few minutes with Mariners designated hitter/catcher Jesus Montero
On getting the news that the Yankees traded him in January despite being considered their top prospect: "I was real surprised. I wasn't expecting it at all, and I was disappointed at first. Then (Mariners general manager) Jack Zduriencik called and told me how excited he was that I was going to be playing in Seattle and that made me feel better. Now that I'm here with my new team, I'm very happy. I feel very comfortable here. It's a good group of guys. We have a lot of young guys with talent."
On being the centerpiece player the Mariners are building their offense around: I'm excited about being here. I wanted the chance to play in the major leagues every day. With the Yankees, maybe I would have got that opportunity this year, but maybe I wouldn't have. Here, I know I’m going to play every day. That's not pressure. That's fun. I love to play baseball."
On the knocks against his defensive ability: "I know that some people say I'm not going to be an everyday catcher in the big leagues, but I know I can be. I've worked very hard at my defense over the years. I know I still have a lot to learn to be a good a big-league catcher, but I've got a veteran catcher to learn from in Miguel Olivo. We talk about catching every day in the clubhouse before games. I know I can be a starting catcher. I know I can do it."
This week's Must Read is by Tom Verducci, who takes a compelling look at a player who used steroids and the effects it had on him and his former teammates in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated.