The 2012 season has played out like a magic carpet ride for the Cincinnati Reds this year. They became the first team in baseball to reach the 80-win plateau yesterday after walloping the Arizona Diamondbacks for a 3-game sweep and are currently firing on all cylinders. The starting rotation is putting up one good start after another, the offense is solidly above average in the run scoring department, and the bullpen has been damn near untouchable, pitching their way to the lowest ERA in baseball as a unit. Even Joey Votto’s absence for most of the 2nd half of the season hasn’t been able to slow this team down. A couple weeks ago we talked about the primary reasons behind Cincinnati’s success, from their weak schedule to Johnny Cueto posting Cy Young-caliber numbers, and today I want to focus on just one of the those reasons: Aroldis Chapman, a man who’s in the midst of one of the all-time greatest seasons by a relief pitcher.
The first time I saw Chapman take the mound it was way back in the inaugural World Baseball Classic when he was just a 20-year-old starter with more ability than he knew what to do with. That’s a common problem for a pitcher who possesses the ability to both shock you with the break on his slider while blowing your mind with the pure smoke coming off his fastball. On the very first pitch of the semifinal against eventual-champion Japan, the tall lefty dialed up a 100-mph strike, and it was baseball love at first sight. His tall, slender build, three-quarter delivery, and the way his pitches ran into right-handed hitters had me closing my eyes and imagining a young Randy Johnson all over again, minus the mullet of course.
Unfortunately, Chapman would struggle for most of the outing with his command against a very patient, very professional set of Japanese hitters who were eventually able to drive him from the game in the 3rd inning after allowing too many base runners. It didn’t matter to me however, because I had seen the beginning of something great.
Chapman would eventually defect from Cuba in the fall of 2009 and he was signed by the Cincinnati Reds for $30.25 million over 6 seasons. He debuted in in the minors that same year, going 9-6 with a 3.57 ERA over 37 appearances (13 starts). The Reds called him up to the big leagues with great fanfare when rosters expanded on August 31st, 2010, and Chapman immediately made the late innings in Cincinnati infinitely more exciting.
After having some control issues in during 2011 that hindered his performance (7+ walks per 9 innings pitched), the Cuban lefty bore down and really worked on his release point in the off-season and spring training saying the reason for his success this year is because “”During the off-season and spring training I worked on my command and my location. I worked a lot on that, and I think that’s the reason why.” Well his hard work has paid off because this could very well be the best season by a relief pitcher in modern baseball history.
This year it’s all come together for Chapman as he’s put up a 5-4 record with a 1.27 ERA (335 ERA+) in 64 innings while striking out 113 batters (15.9 K/9) while only walking 16. All that production has lead to 33 saves in 37 chances, while allowing just 1 measly run in his last 28.2 innings pitched, which is absolutely out of this world good.
The Cuban Missile is on the cuff of a couple of all-time records including strikeouts per 9 innings (minimum of 60 innings). Currently Carlos Marmol holds that record at 15.99 K’s per 9 all the way back in 2010. Marmol had a little bit of a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde thing going on that season, because when he wasn’t obliterating hitters, he was putting them on base either by plunking them or walking them directly. Chapman has been much, much better this season and all he needs to do is nudge his K rate up just a little bit to break the all-time record by a reliever.
Chapman is also threatening to demolish the modern-day record for batting average against. Opposing batters are currently “hitting” .135 of the flame-throwing lefty, and in the past 50 years only Billy Wagner and Eric Gagne have come anywhere close to that sort of dominance. Gange finished with an all-time modern (post-1950) record .133 batting average against during his Cy Young season of 2003, which makes for a good precedent for those who believe Chapman is deserving of top-3 consideration for the award this year.
Chapman’s ERA+ of 335 currently ranks 11th all-time in baseball history for a pitcher with more than 60 innings thrown. In the last 10 seasons only Jonathan Paplebon (517 ERA+ in 2006), David Robertson (407 ERA+ last year), Eric O’Flaherty (389 ERA+ last year), and Eric Gagne (337 ERA+ in 2003) have been better. Chapman should throw more total innings than all of the above pitchers outside of Gagne, and his strikeout rate is far and away better than any of the above pitchers. So is this the greatest season by a reliever ever?
In the link here (big thanks to Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index tool), you can see the 26 total seasons in baseball history where a relief pitcher has posted an ERA+ of better than 300. The oldest season on the list comes from Bob Veal in 1963 and 17 of the 27 seasons have come after the turn of the century, and Mariano Rivera is the only pitcher with more than one appearance on the list. Only 12 of the pitchers on the list have compiled an ERA+ over 300 while still maintaining a double digit strikeout rate. There are only 5 seasons in baseball history in which a pitcher topped the 400 ERA+ mark, which pretty much requires the hurler to throw at least 60-80 innings while only allowing 10 or fewer runs.
Chapman has probably allowed 1 or 2 runs too many to make it into that esteemed group, but nobody on this list can touch him when it comes to strikeouts. Gagne and Robertson come closest, but otherwise it’s the Cuban by a landslide, and that’s important to consider because having a pitcher who can come in and immediately demolish a dangerous situation (say 2 runners on with 1 out) with death by strikeout is very valuable. In my humble opinion, Dennis Eckersley’s 1990 season is probably the best all-time (48 saves, 0.61 ERA (603 ERA+), with Paplebon’s 2006, Gagne’s 2003, and Chapman’s 2012 all jumbled together not far behind. In my mind the ability to strike batters out is paramount, so I’d probably put Chapman in 2nd place, especially if he can continue to pitch lights out for the rest of the season.
Going forward, it’s going to be really entertaining to watch Chapman develop more as a pitcher. He’s already got some of the most overpowering stuff in baseball history, and it’s an excellent sign that the young Cuban is working hard to deliver on all his talent. If Aroldis Chapman ever makes it to the Major League rotation, as was the original plan when he was signed, it will be interesting to see if his nitro-powered fastball and devastating slider can turn him into a Randy Johnson-lite. I don’t see any reason why Chapman wouldn’t be a smashing success as a starter and I hope to see Cincinnati make this transition as soon as possible because it would be fascinating to see him work more than 1-2 innings. Hell, with his ability, Chapman could potentially threatening the Big Units all-time record for strikeouts per 9 innings by a starting pitcher (13.4 K’s per 9). Even if Cincy decides to keep him in the bullpen, I for one will still be enthralled, because nobody puts on a show quite like the Cuban Missile.