Updated Jun 20, 2013 - 3:51 pm
Aroldis Chapman: a closer who shouldn't be closing
Sports fans are very familiar with the term, and the use of it is typically associated with head coaches. But as it turns out, the hottest seats in sports don't exist beneath the rumps of coaches, not even those in the volatile coach-killer league known as the NBA.
Since the start of the 2011-2012 season, 18 NBA teams have fired at least one head coach. A remarkable number, no doubt. However, that means 12 of 30 franchises have stood by their man... for now.
Meanwhile, since the beginning of the 2012 MLB season, whether due to injury or ineffectiveness or both, only six 2012 opening day closers are presently saving games for their respective teams. Six!!
And that list of six happens to include Mariano Rivera, who missed nearly all of last year with an injury, which proves that when it comes to closing major league baseball games one day you're Carlos Marmol (72 saves for the Cubs between 2010 & 2011) and the next day you're Carlos Marmol (6.08 ERA with 3 blown saves to 2 converted saves in 2013).
So, when the Cincinnati Reds organization was said to be struggling with the decision of keeping the best arm in the organization in the closer's role or make him a starter, you know now how difficult a decision that was for them and continues to be. To have an All-Star closer you can depend on can certainly be the difference between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs. But to subject your most talented pitcher to such a volatile role, not to mention less significant role, could cost you more than a playoff appearance.
If all goes according to plan, the Diamondbacks will avoid facing Aroldis Chapman this weekend. Since blowing his only two saves of the year during back-to-back outings in mid-May, Chapman has not only gone 10-for-10 in save chances, but he hasn't given up a run. Heck, he's only allowed four hits in 13 innings, while striking out 28 of the 49 batters he faced. Sheer dominance.
You can see why manager Dusty Baker wanted to keep him in that role, even though it's the wrong move.
There's a reason why the game's best starter makes twice the per-year salary as the game's best closer. They're twice as valuable. Oh sure, the role of the closer is absolutely vital and the importance of a good bullpen grows with every year we count pitches and sign right or left arms to $200 million contracts. However, the number of pitchers who can fill the role of closer is far greater than the number of pitchers capable of filling the role of a true number one starter, a true staff ace.
Take Jason Grilli.
He's been the best closer in baseball this season. After 15 seasons as a professional baseball player, six teams and numerous trips to and from the minor leagues spaced evenly throughout his career, the 36-year-old Grilli was finally given a Major League closer's job. He's responded with a National League-leading 25 saves in 26 opportunities for Pittsburgh. In fact, the only closer in the majors who may be having a better first half than Grilli is St. Louis' Edwin Mujica, 29, who's also been given a full-time closing gig for the first time in his career, and only because Jason Motte was injured and Motte's replacement, Mitchell Boggs, failed in the role.
But Cincinnati's Dusty Baker didn't want to worry about the ninth inning. To quote Forrest Gump, "You know, one less thing." And Chapman didn't want to be moved, though the decision could end up costing him millions in future salary. So, Chapman remains the Reds' closer for at least another year. However, the longer the Reds wait to make the transition for Chapman from closer to starter the harder it's going to be, and GM Walt Jocketty and pitching coach Bryan Price know it.
So why then is it important that they do?
ESPN baseball analysts ranked the top post-season pitchers of all-time. Of the top six who played after 1950, five of the six averaged over eight strikeouts per nine postseason innings pitched (Whitey Ford being the only one who didn't). The point? Pitchers with swing-and-miss stuff are traditionally more effective in the playoffs. And Chapman's 100-plus MPH fastball and 90-plus MPH slider happen to comprise the swingingest-and-missingest stuff in the game today. The Reds blew a two-game lead in a best-of-five series against an inferior ballclub last postseason, and Cincinnati's best pitcher, who they've relegated to closing games, was never handed a single save opportunity.
What a waste.
Chuck Powell, KTAR.com & ArizonaSports.com contributor