Don't get caught up in Chapman hype
If it’s awards season, it must be time for a narrative.
As a writer, I’m all for narratives, a sucker for a good story. But when I vote for an award as a member of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, I’m voting for the most deserving player, not the best story.
Yet, here we go again.
I can see it coming. Some of my colleagues, including my friend, the great Jayson Stark of ESPN.com, already are starting to write and talk about the possibility.
Aroldis Chapman for National League Cy Young.
I don’t buy it. I’m not sure I will buy it even if Chapman averages 18 strikeouts per nine innings and holds NL opponents to a .100 batting average — achievements that, at the moment, are just slightly beyond his reach.
Don’t get me wrong — Chapman is great. His numbers are mind-boggling, historic. Calling him the best pitcher in the NL this season is not outrageous — provided, of course, you’re willing to apply that description to a reliever.
I am, but only in the rarest of circumstances.
Consider wins above replacement (WAR), the sabermetric formula that attempts to assess a player’s total contributions with one statistic. Chapman is the top-rated NL reliever, according to Fangraphs.com’s version of WAR. Yet, he ranks only 11th among NL pitchers overall.
After talking Tuesday to three pitchers who performed as both starters and closers — Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, future Hall of Famer John Smoltz and Derek Lowe — I’d at least like to hear more of a debate.
To briefly sum up the pitchers’ remarks — I’ll go into greater detail below — Eck wasn’t sure what to think; he said that he was currently torn between Chapman and the Mets’ R.A. Dickey.
Smoltz said that a reliever in the conversation for Cy Young actually is a better candidate for MVP. And Lowe said that because Mariano Rivera has never won a Cy, then it’s difficult for him to envision any current reliever winning one.
We’ve got plenty of time to talk about this: It’s mid-August, too early to truly identify the top contenders. But even if it was the last week of the season, I’d be skeptical of a media bandwagon, if only because there are so many sides of the issue.
Right now, I would argue that Chapman is the second-best pitcher on his own team, behind the Reds’ ace, right-hander Johnny Cueto.
He also might be the second-best closer in the NL, behind the Braves’ Craig Kimbrel, who has an even lower ratio of walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP).
And here’s my biggest beef:
If Roy Halladay, Clayton Kershaw and Tim Lincecum were the top starting pitchers in contention — and not the less-heralded Cueto, Dickey and Jordan Zimmermann — this wouldn’t be the same type of discussion.
Ah, but Cueto and Co. make for a boring narrative. Even Dickey, darling of the first half, is yesterday’s news, thanks to the Mets’ collapse.
Hence, the new flavor of the month: Chapman.
Chapman, who has thrown more than 100 fewer innings than Cueto and almost certainly would be less dominant if he carried a starter’s workload.
Now, it’s not Chapman’s fault that he’s a reliever; the Reds were ready to commit to him as a starter in spring training before Ryan Madson blew out his elbow. A need arose in the bullpen, and Chapman opened the season as a setup man for Sean Marshall. His first save opportunity did not come until May 17.
An unusual Cy resume, to be sure.
The criteria for the Cy Young is quite clear — the award is for best pitcher. Generally, that means best starting pitcher. Only one reliever — Eric Gagne in 2003 — has won the award in the past 20 years. The great Rivera has six top-10 finishes — one second, three thirds, a fifth and an eighth.
To varying degrees, Eckersley, Smoltz and Lowe believe that the bias against relievers is justified. Starters pitch a greater number of innings, account for a greater number of outs. And relievers have their own award, albeit one that is less prestigious — the Rolaids Award.
“If there was no relievers award — and I thought it was great to win that — I’d say it was just a pitcher’s award,” said Smoltz, who won the Rolaids in '02. “If it was an average year for starters, if no one had 20 wins, if no one was having a super year, then (a reliever) could slide in there.”
Ah, but the starters barely factor in the emerging Chapman narrative.
Two years ago, the media drumbeat was for Seattle right-hander Felix Hernandez for American League Cy. I viewed the push as a healthy step forward, agreed that Hernandez would have won far more than 13 games for a better team and voted for him accordingly.
Last year, the buzz was for Detroit right-hander Justin Verlander for American League MVP. A different kind of debate. I disagreed and voted for the most worthy position player, Boston center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury.
Hernandez won his Cy. Verlander won his MVP. And maybe Chapman will be impossible to deny if he continues his current pace — he has struck out 106 while allowing just 25 hits and 14 walks in 57 innings.
But let’s expand the discussion, shall we?
Smoltz, now an analyst for the MLB Network, actually has developed a formula for determining the Cy Young. He uses five statistical categories — wins, ERA, innings, WHIP and strikeout/walk ratio. He then calculates the combined rankings of each pitcher, and the lowest score is best.
According to Smoltz’s formula, Dickey currently is a “slam dunk” in the NL, a “runaway” winner. Relievers such as Chapman, who compile fewer wins and innings than starters, suffer under Smoltz’s system, which is sort of his homemade version of WAR.
I already can sense the outrage from certain sabermetricians over Smoltz’s inclusion of wins, but a little respect is in order: Smoltz won the 1996 NL Cy Young as a starter, had three other top-10 finishes as a starter and finished third in 2002 as a reliever.
He clearly has given this some thought.
When I asked about Chapman as a Cy Young candidate, Smoltz began by saying, “There always are exceptions to rules. When someone does something no one else has done …” But then he said he doesn’t think a starting pitcher such as Verlander should win MVP. And then Smoltz started talking about how relievers could be MVP, but only if they were “so head-and-shoulders above the rest … lapping the field.”
As for relievers winning the Cy, Smoltz said, “Yeah, they can squeeze in. But it would be hard. What do you do? Do you say that you can win the relief award, the Cy Young and the MVP? If you have a chance to win the Cy Young, you really have a better chance to be MVP. You affect the game a lot more than a starter does.”
And yet, Gagne didn’t win NL MVP when he went 55-for-55 in save opportunities in '03 (Chapman is 28-for-32, Kimbrel 31-for-33). No, Gagne finished sixth in the voting, which was won by Barry Bonds.
“If he couldn’t win the MVP going 55-for-55, I don’t know if a guy in the bullpen can ever win MVP,” Smoltz said, knowing that three relievers — Eckersley in ’92, Willie Hernandez in ’84 and Rollie Fingers in ’81 — actually have won the award.
Lowe offers a different historical perspective, saying that if Rivera never won a Cy Young, then perhaps no reliever should.
Is Chapman that much better than Rivera was?
Can anyone be?
“You knew that after the sixth inning, you had two more innings to score or the game was over,” said Lowe, who played for the Red Sox against Rivera’s Yankees from 1997 to 2004.
“The guy was so dominant, he changed the way the other team played. You knew it was an eight-inning game. Everyone knew it. If that guy doesn’t win one it would be hard to say these guys (Chapman and Kimbrel) deserve it more than he did.”
Lowe, who finished third in the 2002 AL Cy Young race as a starter after leading the league in saves two years earlier, also expressed skepticism about how closers compile their stats.
“You’d have to really, really break down the numbers, as far as saves go,” Lowe said. “How many were three-run saves? How many were two-run saves? How many were against the heart of the lineup?
“Is it harder to come in and throw 100 mph for one inning? Or is it harder to be Jered Weaver, go through a lineup three or four times when teams come up with game plans just for you and you’re not throwing 100 mph?”
I think we know the answer, don’t we?
Eckersley, though, perfectly summed up the debate.
Eck’s Cy results include four top-10 finishes as a reliever — he won the AL award in ’92 — two as a starter. He said he always thought the Cy was for starting pitchers and the MVP was for everyday players.
But Chapman and Kimbrel …
“These guys, it’s ridiculous how good they are,” Eckersley said. “This is sick. They’re making a mockery of the thing.
“It would be hard for me to vote right now … It’s hard to deny both those closers. Chapman is better — he has thrown 14 more innings. But what about Dickey? If I had to vote right now, it’s either Dickey or Chapman.”
Well, none of us have to vote right now. Six weeks remain in the regular season. The race will evolve, twist and shift. And in the end, the choice still might not be clear.
Just beware of narratives, that’s all.