Writing about baseball on the internet (either above or below the line), is a funny sort of thing for the way it tends to polarize and calcify our opinions about topics even if they aren’t ultimately that big of a deal, or even if we don’t actually know very much about the question when you really peel everything back. As Crash Davis famously lamented, the difference between batting .250 and .300 is a mere one hit a week, and yet those of us who need discussion fodder are bound to act like that’s the difference between a pennant and last place if a team’s lineup isn’t constructed just so. And that pales in comparison to the way we second guess and excoriate a manager’s perceived deficiencies when it comes to bullpen management (though, to be sure, most MLB managers do deserve it on this front).
So, that said, allow me to say at the outset that I don’t have any particularly strong opinions about what role the Reds should use Aroldis Chapman in. Yes, starters are more valuable than relievers due to the much higher workloads, and the prospect of Chapman dominating opposing batters with his electric stuff for 200+ innings is the sort of thing that almost literally makes you salivate to think of, but the fact of the matter is that the answer to such weighty questions really aren’t so simple. And while the value calculation is pretty straight-forward on its face, left unstated in the premise is the assumption that the player will remain both healthy and productive as they attempt the transition.
But, of course, that’s not really a given, and you don’t have to go any further back than last season to find a couple of such experiments that went terribly wrong for a couple of would-be contenders. In Texas, the Rangers decided that they were going to go ahead and convert former starting pitching prospect and incumbent closer of back to back World Series teams to the rotation, and the results were mixed at best. Feliz made seven starts on the season, saw his walk rate climb to 13.1%, and pitched to a 4.64 FIP over a total of 42.2 innings. On the positive side of things, he did have a 3.16 ERA over that span, and went 6+ innings in four starts, including an eight inning outing against the Tigers on April 21st. Alas, his season ended with early disaster, as an elbow injury forced him to have Tommy John surgery which he has yet to return from.
The Daniel Bard experiment in Boston arguably went even worse than Feliz’s own adventure. Bard, a top tier setup man who, like Chapman, was best known for his, um, wicked fast fastball began the season in the rotation for the starter pitching strapped Red Sox, and the results were simply not there. Bard completed six innings just three times in ten starts, and to say his stuff didn’t translate to the rotation would be a gross understatement. Bard walked 15.5% of the batters he faced in 2012, and finished the season with an FIP of 6.36 and a 6.22 ERA. The Red Sox sent him down to Triple-A where he appeared out of the bullpen 30 times, but Bard still pitched to a 7.03(!) ERA with an astounding 8.16 BB/9. He’ll be starting this season in the minor leagues, and it remains to be seen if he’ll ever regain form as a useful major league pitcher.
Of course, a couple of cautionary tales are not concrete evidence, and there are plenty of examples of pitchers who broke in as relievers before being successfully converted into starters. That’s sort of the point: the factors that go into making this sort of decision are much more complicated than simply acknowledging that starters are more valuable than relievers, and such decisions generally aren’t made in a total vacuum, but with at least one eye on the roster as a whole. The Reds are admittedly taking a very conservative approach by leaving Chapman in the bullpen, but as the odds on favorite to win their division, and with a perfectly solid starting rotation even without Chapman, that’s a perfectly fine route to go if the organization does indeed feel that it’s the best way to deploy Chapman’s talents while minimizing the risks to his production/health.
But therein lies the problem: It’s absolutely not clear that this is, in fact, what the “organization” wants to do. General manager Walt Jocketty sure seems like he wants to give Chapman a chance at starting, but the field manager, who presumably works under the general manager, has made it clear that he prefers the status quo with the Cuban Missile. That’s problematic for two reasons. First of all, a manager simply shouldn’t be airing any disagreements with the front office publicly, period. I don’t care how self-evidently right he is, using your access to a microphone to play in-house politics or win an argument is unprofessional, invites division between the players and management, and stifles the airing of opinions within the organization as everyone worries that they can’t expect discussions to remain in confidence.
Secondly, it’s just dirty pool. Baker surely knows that there’s a fairly large segment of fans/media analysts who think quite highly of the value of the closer, and aligning the manager publicly with those sentiments creates a damn near impossible situation for anyone in the organization that disagrees. Yankee fans, in particular, lived this one with Joba Chamberlain when, following a completely unsustainable run of dominance in 2007, Chamberlain was deemed to be a failure after a not-actually-terrible 2009, and then even more so when it turned out he couldn’t put up those ridiculous stats as an everyday reliever and needed Tommy John surgery anyway. It’s not a perfect comparison by any means, but the lesson is very clear: take a dominant reliever and make him a starter, and unless it’s a smashing success there’s a large contingent that will rake you over the coals for that. Have it known that you’re making the move over your manager’s objections, and the anger is likely to be intensified, and someone in the front office may have to lose their job over it.
This isn’t the first time Jocketty and Baker have appeared to be at odds over the roster or the best way to use a player, and that’s a problem that ownership should take more seriously. The modern game basically demands a management structure that can work together and, while people don’t have to agree all of the time, they at least need to be able to respect disagreement, and there needs to be a clear authority to decide how resources are going to be deployed that is, ultimately, accepted by the “underlings.” Whatever you think of Baker as a manager, publicly airing his disagreement with the front office on an explosive question most certainly does not do that, and at least suggests that Baker isn’t interested in taking marching orders from upstairs even if he has to publicly undermine people within the organization who disagree with him. That may not be the case, but if it is, Bob Castellini’s top priority moving forward should be making sure he has a general manager and a field manager who are capable of working together, and that his organization has clear lines of authority and an accepted ultimate authority within the baseball operations department.