Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman has mesmerized Major League Baseball fans lighting up the radar gun with triple digit heaters since joining the Reds August 31, 2010. All of his work in the majors has come out of the bullpen. When he was signed, the intention was to develop him as a starter. He opened his career in Triple-A, starting for the Louisville Bats. His first 13 appearances came as a starter. After those 13 starts, the Reds opted to shift him to the bullpen so that he could be ready to help them on their quest to capturing the National League Central crown, which they did.
As a starter, Chapman’s results varied wildly from game to game. He posted an outstanding 10.43 K/9, but because of his struggles consitently throwing strikes, he also had a 5.49 BB/9. He pitched to a 4.16 ERA and 1.52 WHIP before being turned loose in the bullpen. He excelled in that role for the Bats in 2010 seeing his walk rate drop to 3.72 BB/9, while his strikeout rate improved to 14.28 K/9. Both his ERA and WHIP improved dramatically as a result of his control gains and bump in strikeouts with them sitting at a 2.48 ERA and 1.00 WHIP respectively. His bullpen success followed him to the majors that year, setting the table for a decision to be made prior to this past season.
Coming into spring training this year, the Reds had the luxury of too many starters for their five man rotation, which in turn allowed them to stick Chapman in the pen once again. His season was very much a roller coaster ride, and saw him demoted late in May after walking 20 batters in 13 innings. He responded well at first after his recall in late June. He threw just two innings in June, and followed in July with 15.2. Over those 20.2 innings he walked just five batters and struck out 30. In that same time span, he allowed just three earned runs. Unfortunately for the flame throwing southpaw, he couldn’t finish the season on such a high note. His control once again evaded him in August and September. In those two months he walked 16 batters in 19.1 innings.
The question becomes, what will the Reds do with him in 2012?
Most would assume a pitcher that has only thrown fastballs and sliders in the bigs would be destined to bullpen duty. However, that may not be the case with Chapman. The organization has decided to send him to the Arizona Fall League (AFL) to get stretched out so that he can start in winter league games. He is expected to make a few appearances in the AFL throwing two-to-three innings in each appearance before heading to Puerto Rico and starting games there. His first game action came October 24, but surprisingly, he threw just one scoreless inning out of the bullpen. In his scoreless inning he walked one and struck one out.
His effectiveness pitching in winter ball will likely go a long way in aiding the front office’s decision as to how to use him this season. He doesn’t need to set the world on fire to assure himself an opportunity at starting, but he’ll need to show some ability to throw strikes regularly, and keep his pitch counts low enough to go deep in games (even if he’s not awarded the opportunity to actually go deep in games in the winter). As a starter, Chapman would warrant a bump up fantasy cheat sheets as he would have more upside there than as a late inning non-closing reliever. His combination of a great strikeout rate and high groundball rate (57.3 percent groundball rate for his career) are incredibly desirable and should help mitigate concerns about his homerun amplifying home ballpark. The ability to show a third pitch would help him greatly starting games, but may not be necessary right out of the gate thanks to a fastball that averaged 97.9 mph this season according to his FanGraphs player page, and a devastating slider that resulted in whiffs 23.4 percent of the time he threw it according to Texas Leaguers PITCHf/x data.
With as much notoriety as Chapman has, it’s likely any strong play in winter league ball will get the hype machine fired up. If he follows up with a good spring, it will be difficult to turn a profit in drafts as someone is almost always willing to pay a price that requires a breakout in order for them to break even. For now, file his name away in your memory, and keep tabs on his offseason work.
Josh Shepardson is a staff writer for FantasyBaseball365.com. He also writes about baseball for The Hardball Times Fantasy, and Fantasy Baseball Cafe. Pigskin enthusiasts can find him writing about football for FanDuel as well. Follow on Twitter, but beware, the language can occasionally be mature.