When the Reds signed Aroldis Chapman to a $30.25 million deal, they shocked legions of baseball fans more accustomed to seeing expensive international talent inked by big-market clubs. The often-penurious Cincinnati ballclub wasn’t seen as a likely destination for the fireballing 21-year-old Cuban, but much to the delight of Reds fans everywhere, Aroldis and his 100 mph heater are headed to Great American Ballpark. Still, despite his sky-high ceiling, Chapman remains a relatively unknown commodity. To learn more about him, Baseball Prospectus checked in with the club’s senior director of scouting, Chris Buckley.
David Laurila: How much scouting history do you have with Aroldis Chapman?
Chris Buckley: We’ve had nine different scouts see him at various times either in game situations, private workouts, or in public workouts. We started watching him in the WBC, and then in a number of workouts after that.
DL: Nine is a pretty fair number of scouts.
CB: Yes, we knew pretty early that the money was probably going to get way up there, and you want to have as much support as you can when you go to your general manager, who then needs to go to the owner when you’re working on a project. And those were all veteran guys that saw him, guys that have been scouting a long time and have seen a lot of good players over the years. We felt that was the best way to go out and do this.
DL: Reports on Chapman have run the gamut from “best thing since sliced bread” to “way overrated and nowhere worth the risk.” Did your own scouts likewise have a variety of opinions on him?
CB: Over the years, I’ve heard a number of people knock the Cuban market as far as pitchers going to the big leagues, and I would tell anybody… I think that El Duque has got four World Series rings; I think Livan Hernandez has two, and Contreras has one. Those guys were varying talents. And there was a lot of pressure on Aroldis when he came to pitch in the WBC, knowing that he was wanting to defect. There was an awful lot of pressure. Now, can you get excited and maybe try to do too much at times? You know, it can be a very unusual situation when you’re scouting a guy. When we scouted Mike Leake, we saw him in games at Arizona State University, or at Cal State-Fullerton, and can a guy sometimes be excited when you see him pitch? Sure. I see amateur pitchers do that all the time. But there was nothing in Aroldis’s delivery that concerned us. We also saw plenty of DVDs, and there were all kinds of things that we could watch in workouts, and we were all comfortable with him. But when you’re talking about an international player, or really any player, there are very few consensus players that any of us ever scout. I mean, in my career, the one consensus guy might have been A-Rod. With any player, there is something you can question. Mickey Mantle struck out a lot. So, there are no perfect players, but when you have a left-handed pitcher who throws close to 100 mph, who is a really good athlete, and is young and hasn’t pitched for but three or four years-boy, that’s a great place to start.
DL: How much knowledge do you have of him beyond what you’ve seen on the mound?
CB: Our Latin American scouting director [Tony Arias] is Cuban-American and he talked to a number of people from Cuba. We did as much research on Aroldis as we could, as I’m sure that other teams did, and nothing came back to us that was anywhere near a red flag. I just spent the last day and a half with him, and he’s an impressive young man. I mean, he’s shy. He doesn’t speak English, but we knew that because we met with him before all of this came together. He’s very impressive.
DL: Do you have a program set up to help him both learn English and acclimate to an entirely new culture?
CB: Yes, we have a very good player development system, and on our big league staff, two of our starters are Latin, our closer is Latin, and our catcher is Latin. Our minor league field coordinator is Latin. So we know that there is a big transition. I think that a lot of teams have learned from the earlier guys who defected, whether it was Contreras, El Duque, or Livan Hernandez. For all of these guys, the first year is a transitional year where the player will need a lot of support. We’re developing a strong Latin program here and we think we have plenty of support for Aroldis.
DL: It is obviously difficult to quantify injury risk in a young pitcher, but do you see anything at all in his mechanics that gives you pause? From what you said earlier, it sounds like you don’t.
CB: No, we haven’t. We had our big-league pitching coach watch DVDs of him, and he didn’t see anything. We had Jerry Walker go see him in Houston. Jerry was a big-league pitcher and a big-league pitching coach, and he’s a very good scout when it comes to pitching, and he really liked his delivery. None of the nine guys we had see him had an issue with his delivery.
DL: Some scouts have questioned Chapman’s command. Do you see an issue there?
CB: Well, I could probably say that about most young power pitchers. I was in Toronto with Halladay and Carpenter, and you would have said that about them when they were that age, too. It took those guys awhile to become big leaguers. There’s a learning curve for young hard-throwing pitchers. There’s a history of that. Usually, it takes the harder throwers a little longer to harness everything and become outstanding pitchers. Aroldis just needs to get out there more and more, because this guy hasn’t pitched as much as a lot of guys have. Like I’ve told people, this guy knew that he wanted to defect, and that’s a ton of pressure. He was trying to impress everybody, and there were public workouts with 100 scouts there, and it’s not easy to do that. It’s not like throwing for four scouts, which is obviously a lot more comfortable situation.
DL: How would you describe Chapman’s delivery and arm action?
CB: That was the thing that was so impressive to all of us: the quickness of his arm and how easy it is. You don’t think that he’s throwing as hard as he is until you look at the radar gun and whatnot. He throws easy and the ball just jumps out of his hand. And he’s a very good athlete. When you see him in his uniform… when you get up close to him, he’s a bigger guy than you think he is.
DL: Can you talk a little about his repertoire?
CB: Well, the fastball is his big pitch at the present time; he’s a lefty who throws from 93 to 100. And we see his slider as having a chance to be well above average. His changeup is a pitch that has to develop. When you throw that hard, and you’re as young as he is and haven’t pitched for a long time, you might think that you can just go out there and pump fastballs by guys, but he’s going to need, as he progresses and gets closer to the big leagues, to learn to change speeds better. That’s what the minor leagues are for. So, his changeup is a work in progress. He has also shown us a feel for a curveball, so we’ve seen the makings of four pitches, with both his fastball and slider having a chance to be well, well above average.
DL: Where do you see his fastball sitting over the course of an average game?
CB: When you see a guy throw 100, that’s not in a seven-inning stint, usually. You’re airing it out when your coaches, or manager, tells you that you’ll be in there for two, maybe three innings. We saw him pitch at 94-95 and jump up higher when he needed to, but from the left side… well, we always hear people say, “He has an average fastball.” Well, an average fastball in the major leagues is 90-91, and for a left-hander, it’s closer to 87. If you grade pitches out, on the same scale, lefties do not throw nearly as hard as righties. If you’re 96-97, you’re well, well above average.
DL: Is Chapman’s future definitely as a starter, or might he ultimately profile better as a short reliever?
CB: We absolutely see him as a starter. The guy has really not been pitching that long in the grand scheme of things, and he’ll improve as he pitches more and gets coached more. We see a really good athlete, and there’s nothing we’ve seen in his delivery that should hurt his command a bunch. We see him as a starter for sure.
DL: As we speak, at which level would Chapman be best served to start his professional career?
CB: The only answer I can give is that we’ll know better after spring training. He’s going to start pitching, in a program that we’re going to set up for him, next week in Arizona. I don’t know that any of us are quite sure, but the answer you’re getting from the Reds is that we’ll know better after spring training.
DL: A lot of money was invested in a relatively unknown commodity with this signing. How much pressure is on you, as the scouting director, to have this work out for the Reds?
CB: Something like this goes way past who I am, or what I’m capable of. That goes for any scout. This was a total organizational decision. Like I said, we had nine scouts see Aroldis, and the reason for such a high number is that we figured out very quickly, after his defection, that this was going to be a very high-dollar signing. All nine guys have been scouting for a long time, and you just have to collect all of the information and put it on your general manager’s desk. This goes way past me being the scouting director.
DL: That said, you are the head the department, and I have to believe that Walt Jocketty looked you in the eye and asked, “Is this guy worth the investment?”
CB: Absolutely. I mean, it’s a fair question, but the dollars in our entire business have changed, and there are times in the amateur draft when you say, “Geez, I’m not quite sure about this,” but you do what you think you have to do. There are many levels of our front office, from Walt to Bob Miller to Bill Bavasi, involved in all of this. Cam Bonifay saw this guy pitch; he’s a former general manager. Jerry Walker saw this guy pitch. We tried to cover all of our bases as far as the evaluation. Are there some unknowns? Yeah. I mean, none of us spoke to Aroldis when he was playing for the Cuban National team. Players here are scouted differently. We took Mike Leake in the amateur draft in June, and he’s a guy our scouts have known since he was a junior in high school. So, every market in scouting is different. I see a lot times where people will try to compare the amateur draft market to the Latin America market. Well, they’re pretty different. In Latin America we’re scouting 16 year olds, while here most of them are 17, 18, or 21, so there is different knowledge we have of these players. It’s easy to say, “Where would this 16-year-old from Venezuela go in the amateur draft?” but that’s not their market. We’re not seeing the 16-year-old kid from Venezuela playing in the Area Code Games. But do I think that Aroldis Chapman is worth a lot of money? Absolutely, but so do eight other people on our staff.
DL: You took Leake eighth overall last June. Had both he and Chapman been available with that pick, which would you have seen as having the most value?
CB: Oh, Aroldis Chapman. That’s no knock on Mike Leake, who we think is going to be a heck of a pitcher, but Aroldis Chapman’s physical ability is… the one big thing about this is, most of the time when we see a pitcher with his type of stuff, he’s a right-handed pitcher. Stephen Strasburg had huge, huge stuff; Josh Beckett had huge, huge stuff. Mark Prior had huge, huge stuff. Most times that you’re talking about a power pitcher, like this guy, it’s a right-hander. Then I look at the playoffs and the World Series. Do the Yankees win without CC Sabathia? Are the Phillies where they are if they don’t get Cliff Lee, or if they don’t have Cole Hamels? I think that Walt said it at our press conference yesterday: this type of talent is pretty difficult for the Reds to obtain. It’s hard for us to get this type of talent in the amateur draft, and would be able to sign a CC Sabathia in big-league free agency? Is there risk? Sure. There is risk in many things that we do in this game, but a great starting place is a 6-foot-4 lefty that throws close to 100 mph.