Cuban Crossovers: Aroldis Chapman

This week I’m writing a series on a number of high-profile Cuban players who defected to the MLB, focusing primarily on expectation and payoff, to varying degrees.
From Monday, Jose Abreu.  Tuesday: Yasiel Puig. Yesterday: Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez.
Today’s subject is the Reds’ high-powered closer, Aroldis Chapman.

Aroldis Chapman appeared on the scene in late 2009. At least half the league showed up to see him work out in Houston on December 15 before the Reds came out the eventual winners of the bidding. His signing came after months of interactions with MLB teams after defecting in the summer of 2009. He was called up in September of the following season, in his first year of American baseball.

Scouts saw Chapman as a unique talent. Speculation swirled about as many teams were thought to be interested in his services. The Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Angels were considered front-runners to get the lefty, but the Reds had been active all along under the radar and signed him, putting forward a better offer than the runner-up A’s. (Just two years later, the A’s won big in the bidding for Yoenis Cespedes. More on that tomorrow.)

When the Reds announced they had signed Chapman in 2010, they hoped he would be a starter. They gave him starter’s money, too, at $30.25 million over 6 years before incentives. The biggest question about Chapman was control. His repertoire had two plus pitches, a fastball and a slider, but his changeup was only adequate — a primary factor in his control issues. Could this Cuban starter improve his changeup and control enough to become an effective starting pitcher?

Chapman began 2010 in Triple-A Louisville. He made 13 starts with a 4.11 ERA before the team decided to try him as a reliever. His ERA in relief was a solid 2.40. He stayed in Louisville through the year, but was called up in September and was utilized as a reliever. On September 25 he threw the fastest recorded pitch in MLB history, at 105.1 miles per hour. Within a year, he had shown the tools that had so excited scouts.

That year he was even used in a divisional series game against the Phillies. He hit a batter and gave up three runs, though all were unearned. The loss remains Chapman’s only postseason decision.

The Cincinnati southpaw pitched 54 regular season games in 2011 with an ERA of 3.60, striking out 71 batters in 50 innings. It wasn’t all sunshine, though, as Chapman’s phenomenal totals were the aggregate of streaks (a Cincinnati magazine feature lays out the details), the last of which found him returning to the minors. After this partial success, the Reds wanted Chapman to try his hand at the role they had in mind all along, starting. But it was not to be so.

Chapman was set to be announced as a starter for the 2012 season, but circumstances changed. It will never be known how he might have fared as a starter, as injuries to Ryan Madson, Bill Bray and Nick Masset put the Reds in a bind. They slotted late reliever Sean Marshall into the closing role and made Chapman the setup man. After Marshall struggled early in the season, Chapman took over the task in late May. He has been Cincinnati’s closer since.

He excelled in particular his first year as closer, earning 38 saves with an ERA of 1.51. In three separate months, he did not allow any runs. He struck out 122 in 71 2/3 innings and cut down on walks, surrendering only 23. Chapman has continued to have great regular season success, to the tune of a 2.43 ERA in the majors. His save rate since 2012 is just short of 90 percent, and he earned All-Star recognition in each of the last two seasons.

He landed on the disabled list in spring training this year after being hit in the head by a line drive. He missed a month and a half of the season but has produced on level with last year’s numbers.

Aroldis Chapman is proof that scouts can be both right and wrong. They knew he would be a talented Major League pitcher, they were just wrong about what role he would be given. He may have made a marvelous starter (though his limited repertoire suggests otherwise), if not for circumstance. Despite the payoff differing quite a bit from the expectation, the Reds have little reason to complain.


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