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Aroldis Chapman, the Reds, and learning from recent history

Aroldis Chapman's conversion to starting pitcher should go more smoothly than others, if only because no one is talking about how it will go down


Information: We all want to have it. We want to know what will happen before it does. Advance knowledge equals power, the power to profit from or change the future. Information is about as valuable a commodity as you'll find anywhere, such that people are even willing to pay for things like ESPN Insider and Baseball Prospectus subscriptions without even knowing what the information is that they'll be learning.

We're simply asked to trust that what we learn will be worth it. It usually is, both because knowing something makes our lives more predictable and because it's gratifying to see something we think will happen play out.

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This creates a problem for the major league teams. Doling out information is important in that it generates enthusiasm and keeps fans engaged in the fortunes of their favorite clubs. Think about the excitement around the annual free-agent scrum, and how it builds anticipation for the season by communicating that a club is looking to get better. Yet, information can also be the enemy of flexibility, severely limiting a club when it reveals too much.

The Nationals committed themselves to a process that ultimately left them without their best pitcher in October.

Take the Nationals and Stephen Strasburg. In boldly setting an innings limit last year, and making that innings limit public (albeit somewhat vague) at the start of 2012, the Nationals committed themselves to a process that ultimately left them without their best pitcher in October.

We can't know, of course, if having their ace would have made a difference against the Cardinals, especially since failure in relief sealed the deal for them in the end, but we can concede that not having your best pitcher in October is invariably a bad thing. By publicly setting Strasburg at an artificial innings limit, the Nationals invited local and national debate over the right course to take, a debate they continued to feed into by commenting on the limit and changing it as Strasburg drew closer. In the end, up against their own arbitrary hard limit, they chose to shut Strasburg down, setting themselves up for what could be decades of second or third guessing over whether they were right to do so.

Gyi0065097993Photo credit: Nick Laham

Similarly, the Yankees spent years refining The Joba Rules after making the first version of them public in 2007. Chamberlain made his professional debut in 2007 and rocketed through the minor leagues, cracking the Bombers' bullpen by mid-August. First, Joba Chamberlain was barred from pitching on consecutive days, and was forced to take multiple days off if he pitched more than an inning. Then, paranoid about breaking their potential ace (an entirely laudable goal), the Yankees spent the next couple of seasons gradually increasing their phenom's workload by bouncing him between the bullpen and the rotation. Nevertheless, almost a year to the day after his big league debut, Chamberlain hit the DL with tendonitis in his rotator cuff.

It was back to the bullpen for Chamberlain when he returned, and then into the rotation in 2009. There were conflicting reports that the Yankees had capped his innings at either 140 or 160 frames. And it's pretty clear from his game logs he was on a strict 100-pitch limit in each of his starts. The rigid system weighed on Joba, making him tentative in the early goings and hyper aware of his pitch count and the criticisms of the New York press. Making matters worse were how convoluted and arbitrary the rules seemed to outsiders, and apparently to Joba as well. Then they ended up being so much ado about nothing, given that Chamberlain still wound up needing Tommy John surgery in 2011.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying the Reds seem to have learned from history, and are refusing to discuss what kinds of restrictions Aroldis Chapman will face this season as he converts from a reliever to a starter. Speaking to Mark Sheldon of, pitching coach Bryan Price reassured Reds faithful:

"There is a pretty good understanding of what will be necessary to keep his innings at an area that we're comfortable with, should he be a starter throughout the course of the season. That being said, I think if I've learned anything, I've learned it's better to keep that stuff to ourselves. You just set the table for a little too much speculation and Q&A that I would not be comfortable going through."

Damn right.

Yes, there are restrictions on Chapman, and there probably should be. But those restrictions are likely to appear just as arbitrary as either the Joba or the Strasburg rules did before them, and will only lead to rampant speculation and distraction for the club and for Chapman.

There's literally no good reason for Cincinnati to disclose what they are, especially since keeping their intentions in house allows them to adjust their expectations on the fly without having to make a case through the media.

Given how risky the transition can be, as Marc Normandin has pointed out, there's no reason to open the club up to additional scrutiny on this issue. Finally, somebody has figured out how silly it is to pretend that anyone has a magical workload or program to prevent pitcher injuries, when all it does is stir up a backlash from fans and media who think that having a little information means they know better.

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