Found June 26, 2013 on

We’ve created a mythical moment. Music plays. Three outs remain in the ninth. And a tall, imposing man with a missile for an arm enters the game. He’s the closer. He’s here to bring an end to this madness –to bring a win to the team hanging on his every pitch. Now, it’s time to bring an end to the myth of the closer. In 1960, the incredible baseball writer Jerome Holtzman created a monster when he created the save statistic –an arbitrary number attached to a pitcher who could finish the game beneath a certain set of circumstances. Ever since, this number has been used as contract leverage to the detriment of team pocketbooks. And even more unfortunate, this number has been used as justification for keeping a team’s best pitchers riding the pine in the bullpen in high-leverage situations (such as tied games) because a save wasn’t an option. This must stop. Such an arcane view of the closer has diminished the value of many of the game’s greatest arms. Jonathan Papelbon, for example, has largely been rendered less relevant by Phillies’ manager Charlie Manuel, who clings so tightly to the save situation that his high-paid closer sees more three-run leads than tied games. This makes him much less valuable than his salary suggests. Perhaps the most egregious case of this resides upriver in Cincinnati, where once-phenom Aroldis Chapman, beneath the steady toothpick of Dusty Baker, is seeing his prime, healthy years wasted. Chapman took the baseball world by storm last summer as one of the most dominant closers in the game. He was striking out more than 15.5 batters per nine innings, his fastball was unhittable, and the Reds seemed invincible in the ninth inning. His 3.6 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) was a solid mark for a reliever. At least, that was the narrative. Much of the excitement brewing was looking ahead to the moment Chapman would become a starter, and this one-inning dominance would test the waters of entering the game in the first. Instead, Chapman, Baker, and the Reds brass decided to render Chapman even LESS valuable. Despite paying Chapman $2 million (1.3 million more than equally dominating closer Craig Kimbrel), the Reds have consistently avoided placing Chapman in too many high-leverage situations or pitching him too many innings. Consequently, his value to the team’s success has plummeted. Chapman currently sits at 3-3 with a 2.73 ERA, 19 saves (for what it’s worth), and a strikeout rate just as strong as last year. But a deeper look reveals the trouble. The Reds have played 78 games; Chapman has only pitched 33 innings. In those mere 33 innings, he’s allowed 22 hits, 16 walks, and four wild pitches that already match last year’s mark. Not once has Chapman gone over one inning pitched, despite proving last year that he could effectively be used over two inning stretches. He pitched more than two innings seven times before last year’s All-Star Break. In 2013, he doesn’t even average an inning per appearance. Beyond that, Dusty Baker has increasingly refused to use Chapman in situations where the game is actually on the line. In Chapman’s 35 appearances, the Reds have had a lead of two or more runs in 17 of them. Most pitchers can manage to not give up two runs when given one inning and empty bases. And of Chapman’s ten appearances in tie ball games (when pitchers like this SHOULD be used), seven of them came in his first 11 games played. Since then, Baker has been just as likely to use Chapman with a four run lead as he is in a late-inning tied game. That’s ludicrous. Baker’s use of Chapman, both limiting his innings and his use in high-leverage games, has obviously negated the much-hyped pitcher’s value. Chapman currently has a 1.0 WAR; meaning he has added one win to his team’s total than they would have accomplished with the average player in that position. This WAR total rates Chapman 102nd among MLB pitchers, behind some guy named Glen Perkins and his own teammate Tony Cingrani. Point being: a closer used in this way is simply not a high-value asset in winning games. The Reds are using an all-world talent (making good money) in a role that could just as aptly be handled by a failed starter (a la Rivera, Hoffman, Eric Gagne, etc.) Chapman never gave failing as a starter a chance. But this isn’t just a Dusty Baker problem. This myth of the closer extends to the rest of the league. It’s not just a closer used wrongly that lacks value. Closers, in general, are not worth the money they are being bestowed. Consider this: in 2012 and 2013, all MLB teams, on average, win 95% of the games in which they lead going into the ninth, regardless of their closer. The difference between Mariano Rivera and the much maligned Jose Valverde is a difference of a percentage point or two. Is it worth paying him millions more for a game, or two, a year? What’s even more unsettling is that Chapman, this season, has entered into 24 ninth-inning leads (11 of them with gaps of three runs or more). He’s lost three of those leads, meaning his team wins 87.5% of the time they hand him a last-inning lead. Forget all-world closer; that’s not even average. Enough is enough. The posturing should end as soon as possible, which might be next season. Chapman is on pace to pitch 68 innings, less than last season. He’s on pace to accumulate a 2.1 WAR, much less than last season. The Reds have taken their top prospect and refused to realize his potential. If they never see if he can start, or at the bare minimum, pitch more in higher-pressure moments, they are spending $2 million on an asset any team could find in their farm system TOMORROW. I realize this situation is tricky. Chapman, himself, played a part in this decision, citing a preference to close. It’s a sexy position, one with theme music, saves, and dollar signs. Who can blame him? But the Reds have a team capable of winning a World Series. And they have a pitcher capable of becoming a top-of-the-rotation type of starter. At worst, he’s a decent starter, and even they are more valuable to a playoff team. Up north in Chicago, the White Sox didn’t let the sexiness of gaudy relief numbers cloud their vision of the future. Chris Sale finished 2011 with 71 IP, a 2.3 WAR, and 10 K/9 as a reliever. But he was their best arm, and they refused to waste him. In 2012, he took the mound as a starter, pitched 192 innings, amassed a 5.9 WAR, and his strikeout rate only diminished to 9 K/9, proving he could still pitch effectively over greater space. This season, he’s already on pace for 200+ innings and a WAR over seven. He’s an ace –the most valuable pitching commodity in the game. Meanwhile, Chapman has followed his own 71 innings pitched last season to another year of relief, with fewer innings and fewer highlights. Meanwhile, the Reds are fighting to keep up with the best division in baseball, their 45 wins not enough to best the Cardinals or Pirates. It’s hard to complain about a team consistently ranked in the top five of Power Rankings around the nation. It’s hard to second-guess a pitching staff only bested by the Cardinals. It’s hard to question a manager with the acumen of Dusty Baker. But Chapman is being wasted. And if this quality Reds start doesn’t hold up to the other stalwarts of the division, if they continue to bypass their Cuban Missile when the games are most dire, if their back-end starters regress to career norms… They might not get a chance to close.


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