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August 13, 2009

Defection Alert

How Good is Aroldis Chapman?

by Clay Davenport

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There's been another defection from the land of Castro. Aroldis Chapman is a 21-year-old Cuban emigré-and we're more certain about that than we are for most Cuban players-who walked out of a Dutch hotel in July while playing in a tournament. Given the likelihood of a bidding war as frenzied as the one involving Jose Contreras, he's someone you should have on your radar as a pitcher who may well attract as much interest as the top free agents available to your friendly neighborhood ballclub.

He's a bit of a stringbean at 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, and he throws left-handed, which is always attractive, but what puts him truly over the top is that he throws 100 mph. Here are his actual stats in Cuba for the last four years:


Aroldis Chapman   Born: 9/11/1987 Age: 21   Bats: L  Throws: L  Height: 6'3"  Weight 185
Year Team    Lge   G  GS   IP   H    R  ER  HR  BB  K    W  L SV   H/9 HR/9 BB/9  K/9   ERA  PBRA
2006 Holguin CBA  15  15  54.0  48  33  26   5  54  56   3  5  0   8.0  0.8  9.0  9.3  4.52  5.19
2007 Holguin CBA  23  12  81.1  59  26  25   4  50 100   4  3  7   6.5  0.4  5.5 11.1  2.90  3.79
2008 Holguin CBA  16  16  74.0  55  36  32   3  37  79   6  7  0   6.7  0.4  4.5  9.6  3.49  3.05
2009 Holguin CBA  22  20 118.1 109  56  53   7  62 130  11  4  0   8.3  0.5  4.7  9.9  3.19  3.17
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
         Minors   66  63 327.2 271 151 136  19 203 365  24 19  7   7.4  0.5  5.6 10.0  3.74  3.81

That number on the right, PBRA, is a runs-allowed esimator called Pitcher Base-Run Average, and basically evaluates the pitcher's rate of runs allowed by accounting for everything he gives up or generates, interpreted to a league where the average runs-allowed mark is 4.50. The statistics are pretty impressive, but there is a big 'but' you need to know in evaluating them. Holguin is one of the 16 teams that forms Cuba's top league on an island with a population of about 11.5 million. That's only slightly larger than the Dominican Republic (9.5 million), and about the same size as Ohio. They may be baseball-crazy, but that's only about 1/14 the ratio between the US population and major leagues, (300 million for 30 teams), and ignores the fact that the US majors draw from more than just the US, and that many of the best players have left Cuba for the US. We would expect the level of play in the Cuban league to be lower than the US.

By comparing the statistics of players who have left Cuba and come to the US-such as Yuniesky Betancourt, Kendry Morales, and Alexei Ramirez-in terms what they've done there and then once they reach the majors, we can get a good idea of the level of play in Cuba. The changes in their statistics suggests that the Cuban level of play is similar to the Low-A leagues here in the US, so something like the South Atlantic or Midwest leagues.

Alowing for that level of play, here is what those stats translate to as far as a US major league line:


Aroldis Chapman   Born: 9/11/1987 Age: 21   Bats: L  Throws: L  Height: 6'3"  Weight 185
Year Team    Lge   G  GS   IP   H   ER  HR  BB  K    W  L SV   H/9 HR/9 BB/9  K/9  NERA PBRA
2006 Holguin CBA  15  15  47.1  54  53  19  64  45   1  4  0  10.3  3.6 12.2  8.6  8.75 11.31
2007 Holguin CBA  23  12  69.2  76  63  24  61  88   2  6  6   9.8  3.1  7.9 11.4  5.68  7.75
2008 Holguin CBA  16  16  70.1  64  43  14  45  65   3  5  0   8.2  1.8  5.8  8.3  6.78  6.20
2009 Holguin CBA  22  20 107.1 115  80  25  73 105   4  8  0   9.6  2.1  6.1  8.8  6.29  6.46
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
         Minors   76  63 294.2 309 239  82 243 303  10 23  6   9.4  2.5  7.4  9.3  6.66  7.60

For a quick explanation, NRA stands for Normalized ERA, and accounts for a pitcher's run-prevention skill after adjustments for league, park, and period in history; NRA operates on the same scale as modern-day ERA and a NRA mark of 4.50 is considered average. So, taking that into consideration, Chapman's work isn't nearly so impressive... yes, he's a hard thrower, but one with little idea where it's going; he doesn't give up a lot of hits, but when he does he gets crushed. We have 30 years of minor league translations available for comparison, and I went looking for other 21-year-old pitchers with similar stat lines. These are his closest dozen comparisons, statistically:

  1. Adam Bostick, 2004 Greensboro: he was switched to relief this year, and is currently at Triple-A with the Mets.
  2. Ted Langdon, 1984 Cedar Rapids: He topped out at Double-A.
  3. Joe Young, 1996 Hagerstown: He topped out at Double-A.
  4. Brian Fuentes, 1997 Wisconsin: He switched to relief, and you should know him today, because he's closing for the Angels.
  5. Kevin Franchi, 1986 Macon: He topped out in A-ball.
  6. Andy Sisco, 2004 Daytona: A Rule 5 pick in 2004, he pitched a few years in the majors in relief before getting hurt.
  7. Mike Gonzalez, 1999 Lynchburg: He's a successful major league reliever.
  8. Oliver Perez, 2003 San Diego: Chapman's only top comp in the majors at 21 from among his top 30 comparables, and the only one who remained a starting pitcher.
  9. Ken Dayley, 1980 Savannah: He had an 11-year major league career, 90 percent of it getting spent pitching in relief.
  10. Jose DeJesus, 1986 Ft Myers: He spent two decent years as a starter with the Phillies before injuries hit.
  11. Scott Linebrink, 1998 Shreveport: Another pitcher with a successful major league career after switching to relief.
  12. Carlos Hernandez, 2001 Round Rock: Another career derailed by injuries, but he's still pitching in the Rays' system.

Of his twelve best comps, only Oliver Perez has had a reasonably succcessful career as a starting pitcher. Four have had solid careers as relievers, three were were derailed by injury after reaching the majors, and four never made it that far (although Bostick is still trying and has a shot). Just eight of his top 12 comps were lefties, even though I wasn't controlling for handedness in making the comparison.

So where does that leave us? With a drool-worthy fastball sure to excite some enthusiastic bidding, but a performance record that's short of the sort of excellence that might help us propel Chapman to the same level as this winter's top free-agent pitchers, whether we're talking John Lackey, the more fragile Erik Bedard and Rich Harden, or veteran hurlers such as Jason Marquis and Jarrod Washburn. Because of the promise of that fastball, however, don't be surprised if the bidding tops that four-year, $10 million deal that put fellow defector Dayan Viciedo with the White Sox last winter, because if there's one thing that holds true, it's that Cubans are like catnip for big-league GMs.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Related Content:  CBA

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