By Andy Singer
Is it time for real games yet? This is the part of Spring that always scares me the most. We’re inches from the season, players are almost in regular season game shape, but it’s also the point at which some players ramp up just a bit too quick, and injuries occur. We’ve seen some freak injuries on the fringes of the roster here in camp, but nothing overly significant yet. I’m going to keep my breath held until the end of Spring Training for good health.
In this week’s SSTN Mailbag, we’ll talk about Chapman’s splitter, the new minor league rules, and the final bullpen spots! As always, thanks for the great questions, and keep them coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. Let’s get at it:
Lionel asks: Chapman’s splitter, a third pitch, raises the possibility that his role could be changed. I would solicit your opinion concerning the number of innings that the team could get out of the man. how much could he be ‘stretched out”? is he too old to use him for a few starts? could he regularly be used for two or three innings if he’s not expected to pitch on consecutive days?
I was about to write a short post about Chapman’s splitter before this question came in, and I decided to save my post for the Mailbag. Before we talk about the present, I think it makes sense to take a step into the past to really understand Chapman’s evolution as a pitcher.
Aroldis Chapman was one of the first in a wave of Cuban talent that defected in order to pursue stardom in MLB in the late 2000s. While a little lankier, Chapman was immensely athletic, flexible, and strong such that many observers dreamed that he could be a workhorse starter in the classic Nolan Ryan mold: a pitcher with phenomenal stuff who throws as hard as anyone in the sport, but who loses control even in the best of times. The argument remains to this day: how much command, or even control, does a starter need when that starter throws hard and has exemplary breaking pitches?
In reality, when Chapman came stateside in 2010, it was clear that it would take at least a year or two to develop him as a starter. Sure, he threw hard, but fastball command was nascent, and the ability to have even vague control with his slider and change-up really didn’t exist yet. While he had the potential to be a great starter, it was apparent that Chapman could be an elite reliever almost immediately. The Reds spent money to go get Chapman, and they wanted immediate return on investment.
Anecdotally, we also have to contend with the fact that at the same time as Chapman signed with the Reds, the Yankees very publicly fought through trials and tribulations with Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen. Many of us still flinch when we hear the term, “Joba Rules.” The Reds decided to make Chapman a reliever, and based on what was happening around the league, there was never any appetite to change his training regimen to start once he proved to be an elite reliever.
The truth is, Chapman has always had three pitches. The splitter replaces the rarely used change-up in his arsenal, and the early returns show that the pitch moves enough to be a really effective way to keep hitters from sitting on the fastball up in the zone, which is necessary as Chapman’s velocity moves from other-worldly to merely elite.
I love the pitch, and it is entirely possible that Chapman could be counted on in the playoffs for more than one inning if he proves confident in mixing up pitches depending on the situation, something he hasn’t been able to do as a Yankee. However, he has not thrown 100+ innings in a season since he pitched in Cuba as a 20 year old, and he now has a chronic knee condition that requires monitoring and maintenance. While I think adding a weapon that would allow Chapman to pitch 1+ innings in the playoffs has value, I think there are multiple factors that would give me pause if it happened during the regular season.
Jay asks: Do you like any of the new rules (larger bases, automatic strike zone, pitch clock, limits on throw overs, banning infielders on the outfield grass)?
As much as I am analytically inclined, no, I am firmly against all of the new rules. If the rules that were currently on the books were enforced (keeping batters in the box unless time is granted, etc.) and commercial time outs were shortened, or altered so as not to impact game flow, I think games would move at an acceptable pace.
I have a real issue with modifying the spirit and soul of the game. Limiting a pitcher’s ability to control the run game at all? How does that make the game better?!?
A 15 second pitch clock on a pitch in a 3-2 count in a tie ball game? Give me a break.
Limiting shifts? Hit ‘em where they ain’t! (Easier said than done, believe me, I know)
I admit, robot strike zones are coming whether I like it or not, and it’s true that human umps have their issues with calling balls and strikes. This is one of the ways in which I’m probably old fashioned, but there’s a beauty in working with an umpire who calls a consistent, but imperfect zone. Know the ump likes to call the low strike? Park breaking balls at the bottom of the knee! Know that umps set up a hair over the outside corner? Park a backdoor two-seamer or cutter. There’s an art and beauty to the game that is in danger of going away with robot umps behind the plate. That being said, I won’t miss watching balls at Judge’s shins called for strikes.
I think baseball needs to spend more time promoting how great the game is already; it’s as talented a league as it’s ever been, and it’s time MLB and Rob Manfred market the heck out of it.
Bob asks: Spring’s almost over – any update to the back of the bullpen?
Not really. Adam Warren’s gone, so I think that clears the way for surprise of the Spring, Lucas Leutge, to make the roster to start the year. As much as I think the final spot could go to one of the guys in competition for the final starter spot, I’m still pretty sure Nick Nelson will grab that last bullpen spot given the praise the coaching staff has given him this Spring.
At this point, I think I’m going to stick with those guesses until further notice.