Why wait? Let's declare it now: Aroldis Chapman is the 2012 season's fantasy baseball MVP, at least among relief pitchers.
Oh, sure, there are 27 days (plus any necessary Oct. 4 tiebreakers) and 379 total games, or 16 percent, of the regular-season schedule remaining, but barring some sort of epic, New York Yankees-blow-a-10-game-division-lead collapse, Chapman has this one in the bag. Here's a Chapman fact that underscores his MVP status: He is the No. 6 player overall on our Player Rater.
That's not a No. 6 ranking among all relief pitchers, or among all pitchers. That's among all players in baseball. Even better: Chapman has done it despite being drafted, on average, in the 22nd round (average draft position: 218.8) -- if he was picked at all in your league. After all, he was selected in a mere 58.0 percent of ESPN leagues.
Examining both the statistics that go into Chapman's lofty Player Rater ranking, as well as those which influence those raw rotisserie numbers, his performance has not only been outstanding from a seasonal perspective, it has been so from a historical angle, as well. Take a look at the chart below, which ranks his performance among relievers in several key categories both seasonally and historically:
There's legitimacy, therefore, to the chatter that Chapman might score National League Cy Young honors for his efforts. His numbers compare favorably to those in the history books, and let's not forget that his Cincinnati Reds still have 24 games, or 14.8 percent of their season, to play. Chapman is on pace for 41 saves and 137 strikeouts, the latter potentially representing the 11th most in a single year by any relief pitcher. And considering that seven of the 10 men ahead of him in the category pitched 100 or more innings, Chapman's efforts in a 77-inning-pace season would be most extraordinary. He would become only the fourth pitcher in history to strike out 125 or more batters in a relief capacity despite tallying fewer than 80 innings.
How is it that Chapman, who had difficulty locking down a prominent role for the Reds in either of his first two professional seasons, has broken through?
It's simple: Command, command, command.
There's a reason Chapman's FIP (fielding independent pitching score) is such an astounding number on the all-time scale, and it's that he has become a strike-throwing machine, something he could not have claimed in either 2010 or 2011. Let's put his improvements into statistical perspective:
• Walks per nine innings: Chapman's is 2.32, 36th out of 142 qualified relievers (75th percentile). From 2010-11 it was 6.54, which was highest among 198 relievers with at least 60 innings in those years combined.
• Walk percentage (walks calculated as a percentage of total batters faced): Chapman's is 6.8 percent, which is 10th best in the game. In 2010-11, however, he had the highest rate in the game, 17.8 percent.
• Zone percentage (percentage of total pitches thrown in the strike zone): Chapman's is 51 percent, a fair amount higher than the 49 percent major league average for relief pitchers, and 59th out of 186 qualified relievers. From 2010-11, it was 44 percent, 174th out of 208 pitchers who faced at least 250 batters, and well beneath the 48 percent major league average.
• First-pitch strikes: Chapman has thrown them 56 percent of the time this season, improved upon the 53 percent rate he had in 2010-11.
Granted, Chapman has a deserved reputation as one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in the game, his 96.5 mph average on all pitches tops among qualified relievers, and his 97.7 mph average fastball velocity third highest at his position. But it's not simply velocity that has transformed Chapman into one of the (real and fantasy) game's most lethal forces. It is actually the command advances that he has made that have done it, illustrated above.
As we're in the projecting-forward business, Chapman goes under the microscope in "Relief Efforts" this week not simply to tout his achievements to date. He's also one of the most compelling studies for both the remainder of 2012 and, perhaps more importantly, for 2013 if you're in a keeper league.
Regarding the remainder of this season, that 1.11 FIP underscores how "legit" Chapman's performance is to date. It says that his 1.23 ERA is no fluke, and to that point, he has a 0.30 ERA in 30 appearances since July 1. As to whether he might wear down in the coming weeks due to a hefty workload, consider that he has thrown only the ninth most pitches among relievers and is on pace for 1,289 pitches thrown, a number exceeded by 31 different relief pitchers in any of the past three seasons (2009 to 2011). The Reds have maintained Chapman well, so no major worry there.
As for his 2013 prospects, loyal readers of my "Sixty Feet, Six Inches" column might recall the May 8 edition, which touted Chapman as a deserving starting pitcher, less than two weeks before his first save of the season en route to capturing the Reds' closer role. Such a role conversion might still be on the table in 2013.
Frankly, it should be.
Chapman's command improvements greatly enhance his value in either role, but it maximizes his prospects of success in a starting role, where he'd need to throw considerably more pitches in each night of work. To that end, he has averaged 16.64 pitches per inning this season, down from 17.46 from 2010-11 combined. More pitch efficiency means greater ability to work deeper into games, more easily handling the 200-inning workloads regularly expected from a starter.
Chapman's arsenal also appears likely to play well as a starter, all of these numbers career rather than 2012 totals:
• Fastballs (96-plus mph): 74% usage, .157 BAA, 38.3 K%, 35.0 Miss%
• Fastballs (sub-96 mph): 11% usage, .115 BAA, 9.1 K%, 34.0 Miss%
• Sliders: 15% usage, .144 BAA, 40.7 K%, 38.0 Miss%
Every one of those offerings is lethal, and while Chapman has rarely toned down his fastball, let's not overlook either his performance in the small sample above, or the fact if he shaves even 3 mph off his high-90s fastball, he'd still average 94.7 mph, which would still have placed in the 25 fastest in the game this season. The major league average stats on fastballs clocked at 94 mph or faster in 2012, incidentally, are a .249 batting average allowed, 21.5 percent strikeout rate and 20 percent miss rate on swings. Those numbers on fastballs clocked 93 mph or slower, meanwhile, are .283, 13.3 percent and 14 percent.
As for the potential addition of an off-speed pitch, perhaps a changeup, to deepen his arsenal, Chapman did possess quality off-speed stuff during his days in Cuba. I point to Keith Law's similar touting of Chapman's starter potential back on April 17: " he was a lifelong starter in Cuba and has the off-speed pitches to handle starting in the U.S."
Certainly Chapman warrants a chance to start come spring training, and let's not overlook the value of a left-hander in an overly right-handed Reds rotation. The Reds haven't had a left-handed starter since last Sept. 25 (Dontrelle Willis), and Chapman's hard stuff might present a welcome contrast to Bronson Arroyo's or Mike Leake's finesse packages, or Johnny Cueto's change-of-speeds arsenal. He'd make a lot of sense wedged in between Cueto and Mat Latos.
If there is any negative to Chapman starting, it's that the Reds might seek to protect their 24-year-old star (he'll turn 25 next Feb. 28), hesitating to afford him a full 200 innings after what is a 77-inning pace in 2012. In other words, he might face the dreaded "innings cap" that Stephen Strasburg has this season.
Here is a pair of conservative Chapman projections for 2013, one if he's used as a starter, the other as a reliever:
Starter: 28 GS, 180 IP, 3.25 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 225 K's
Reliever: 75 IP, 40 SV, 2.15 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 120 K's
The latter would almost assuredly rank Chapman at the top of the relief-pitcher crop entering 2013, the former making him a bona fide candidate for a top-20 ranking among starting pitchers. And both of those are slam-dunk keepers.
TOP 75 RELIEF PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 75 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.