And on May 17, Aroldis Chapman gave up a run.
It's hard when your heroes let you down like that. But it wasn't a meltdown appearance. David Wright fouled off several tough pitches before working a walk, Lucas Duda got jammed and hit an alligator-arm single, and Justin Turner reached on an error. A sacrifice fly brought Wright home. The dream of a 0.00 ERA remains alive. The run was unearned.
It was unquestionably Chapman's shakiest outing of the year, but he sure looked hard to hit. There were a lot of pitches fouled off that might not be on other days. Turner reached on an error by Drew Stubbs, but the ball he drove out to the outfield was a slider in a two-strike count. Turner shouldn't have had a chance. Nine times out of ten, a hitter waves through the pitch. So it went for Chapman today. His fastball was crisp enough that GameDay decided to have a sense of humor about it when he wasn't hitting 98.
Uh, yeah. Changeup. Chapman still looked like a pitcher who was just about impossible to hit. So if you needed another reason to suspect that baseball is constantly drunk, here's what Rob Neyer wrote about Aroldis almost one year ago to the day:
There's really no way to sugarcoat this. He's walked 12 hitters and struck out three (in his last four outings), and if that's not Steve Blass Disease it's Steve Blass Disease-like symptoms.
Later that day, Chapman went on the 15-day DL with shoulder inflammation. You've read that script to that movie before. It usually doesn't have a happy ending, unless you're planning to call it Dr. James Andrews Is Lonely and Needs a Friend. There was about a 90-percent chance that Chapman was broken.
Twelve months later, Chapman is the perfect pitcher. Or as close as we can get. He can throw over 100 m.p.h. He has a wicked slider. He comes from the left side, arms a-flalin'. He has a great pitch face that's somewhere between "I'm an angry, unstable individual" and "oh god i need glasses oh god where am i":
All of those are ingredients a necessary for the perfect pitcher. But now Chapman has control. For whatever reason, something clicked before this season started. His walk rate was 19.8 percent last year; it's 11 percent last year, and that includes the two walks in Thursday's game. If he can keep the command going, he'll have figured out what took Randy Johnson almost a decade, and he'll become something close to the pitchers' Platonic ideal.
But if you're going to bring up the Big Unit, even in passing, you have to point out the obvious: Chapman's appeared in relief as often this year as Johnson did for his career. Randy Johnson was a starter, and when he ironed out his control problems, he was one of the most dominating starting pitchers in history. That's much more exciting than a shutdown reliever, even if the reliever is especially fun to watch. And it's more valuable to a team.
Rule #209.12(d) of the Internet:
It is always a good idea to convert a young reliever into a starting pitcher
That might not be true in real life. But on the Internet, it sure is! And the cries for Chapman to start are getting louder with each scoreless appearance. I'm not going to pretend like I know the answer, but I look back at the Aroldis stories from a year ago, and I don't think it's a bad idea to keep him where he's enjoying success right now. But I would love to see him start. I can see both arguments.
Until then, there's an important thing to keep in mind: Dusty Baker backed into the second-best use for Chapman. Even if you think Chapman should start, there's a silver lining. Baker brought Chapman into the seventh inning of Wednesday's game -- ostensibly because that was the middle of the Mets' order. Which is exactly how you're supposed to use your best reliever.
Conventional wisdom states that your best/hardest-throwing/most talented reliever should be your closer. As such, some of the best arms in baseball are stuck coming into the ninth inning with a three-run lead to face a bunch of Xaviers. I don't know, Paul, Nady, Avery … take your pick. And they'll shut the door. And the next day, that same reliever will be picking his teeth in the bullpen when the opposition has the bases loaded in the seventh inning of a one-run game.
Sean Marshall is perfectly acceptable as a closer. There shouldn't be a controversy. And until the Reds decide to put Aroldis in the rotation, at least they're doing the next-best thing, which is using him as a 1970s-like super-reliever. He's gone multiple innings four times already this year -- that doesn't seem like a lot, but by today's standard, he's practically Hoyt Wilhelm. There is no de facto law that makes Baker save Chapman for a predefined role. When the Reds need their best bullpen arm from the fifth to the eighth innings, or in an extra-innings tie on the road, Chapman will be available.
Until the Reds make a definite decision about Chapman's future, there's always going to be talk about him joining the rotation. That might end up being the best use for him. But until then, at least he hasn't been tethered to the save tree and left there. Using him is actually going to take thought and strategy. Imagine that.