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Chapman Traded, Bigger Concerns Glossed Over

Aroldis Chapman (Keith Allison, Owing Mills: Wikimedia Commons)
I generally avoid analysis of trades not involving the Mariners, especially given the plethora of deals Jerry Dipoto showered us all with. However, the Yankees pulled off an interesting trade with the Reds today. They acquired flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman from the Reds for four prospects.*


The trade interests me for two very different reasons, one about baseball, the other less so.

Major League Baseball has never seen a hurler like Aroldis Chapman before, and it might be a long time until someone like him is seen again. He throws absurdly hard and it shows up in his eye-popping strikeout numbers. It also shows up in other absurd ways, like the necessity to add a filter just for his velocities on MLB statcast. To say that Chapman throws hard is an understatement; he throws so much harder than everyone else that it almost seems like he is throwing a different ball or something. So, placing a value on Chapman is hard because there are no real comps for him.

Still, the Yankees at first glance are an obvious landing place for Chapman just based on their overall brand and prestige. Of course the hardest-throwing pitcher of all time would wear pinstripes! What else could he possibly wear?

Not so fast. The Yankees aren't the juggernaut they used to be. They have labored for modest winning seasons in recent years and face significant question marks in their starting rotation. The back end of their bullpen was already among the best in baseball before acquiring Chapman, thanks to the dynamic duo of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances - the two relievers with the highest strikeout rates in baseball not named Aroldis Chapman. The Yankees make a strength stronger with this deal and leave question marks unanswered.

What a strength the Yankees have though. They just assembled the greatest bullpen baseball has ever seen. I try to avoid hyperbole, but in this case it seems like anything short of calling this 'pen the greatest would be hyperbole. Maybe the Yankees trade one of their premium relievers, but I hope they don't out of curiosity for how the trio would perform together.

The 2015 Yankees bullpen could be the ultimate realization of what Tony La Russa unleashed on the game when he got serious about specializing bullpen roles with the Athletics. Bullpens have become more and more specialized over the last quarter century and teams increasingly value those roles. Many quality arms are now funneled towards the back end of a bullpen, which would have been unthinkable a quarter century ago. Bullpens have steadily evolved in modern baseball and at some point some team was going to go out and build an elite bullpen despite holes elsewhere. The 2015 Yankees could be that team.

I remain skeptical that Chapman makes a big difference for the Yankees because I tend to be old-fashioned with my bullpen views. I think they tend to be overrated in today's game. Basically, my argument is an age-old one: just how much more valuable is one inning near the end of a game than the six or so from a starting pitcher? Especially when a team is adding a third elite reliever like Chapman? Essentially the Yankees purchased an upgrade for the seventh inning. Theoretically they are now set up to "shorten" games down to six innings with Chapman's acquisition.

Sabermetrics provide a tool for figuring out the value of later innings compared to earlier ones. It is called a Leverage Index, which is built upon Win Probabilities. A Win Probability is simply the odds of a team winning in the given game state at the moment. So, for instance, a team that just got the 27th out and has a lead would have a Win Probability of 100 (they just won, therefore they will win 100% of the time in that situation). The Leverage Index measures how much Win Probability fluctuates in a given situation, depending on the outcome of an at-bat. If you've ever heard the term "high leverage situation," it is referencing this statistic, and more importantly, referencing a particular moment where a game's outcome hangs in the balance.

The Hardball Times ran a study a few years ago to get a feel for average leverage by inning. Their results surprised me. The average leverage in each inning is shockingly stable, with one major exception: the bottom of the ninth inning. This data suggests that an elite closer is most valuable when trying to protect a lead on the road, but that all other situations are not all the different over the course of a season.

However, even though the overall average leverage in each inning is not all that different, the distributions vary a noteworthy amount. The same Hardball Times article explored how frequently each inning had a Leverage Index above 2 (which is a very high index; it basically suggests the game is likely won or lost on the next play) and found a steady climb in frequencies throughout the course of a game. First innings only peaked above 2 around 10% of the time, whereas the rate had climbed to 26% in the 8th inning, and goes all the way up to 51% in the bottom of the ninth.

The frequencies are a bit more abstract to understand but more insightful when it comes to bullpen use. The reality is that elite relievers do not pitch every day and a manager chooses when they are deployed. It is possible to hold them in reserve for higher leverage situations, and over the course of a season it is reasonable to expect a good reliever to face high leverage situations twice as frequently as a starter.

There is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg quality to all this analysis though. Bullpens face lower leverage situations more often when starters shut down opponents over six or seven innings, and also when their own team's offense blasts off and builds a huge lead. This is why leverage is a poor tool for analyzing individual performance. It is easily swayed by things entirely out of an individual player's control.

The Yankees bullpen was already automatic in the 8th and 9th inning, so what is the value of an automatic 7th? It largely depends on what happens the first 6 innings, though the elite arms used to depend on what happened in the first 7. There is some value added there, but I am not convinced it is worth $10+ million for only 1 guaranteed year at the cost of a quartet of prospects - marginal prospects, to be fair, but still prospects.

Still, theoretically, a team that looks something like the current Yankees would seem likely to maximize the value of an elite bullpen. They have questionable starting pitching with an aging offense that is probably still okay but features a handful of sluggers in the decline phase of their careers. This is a team likely to have many decent starts and decent offensive outputs, which will hand many close games (the high leverage situations) to their bullpen if things go right.

There is also the ugly reason that the Yankees could acquire Chapman at what is considered a cheap price. He is going through an alarming domestic violence investigation.

There will be no formal charges against Chapman due to conflicting witness accounts, which is important to note. Still, avoiding legal charges because eyewitness accounts conflict is different from saying that nothing happened. Eyewitness accounts agree that Chapman fired a gun multiple times and his girlfriend, at some point, fell on the ground with some sort of assistance from him. It appears likely that a trade between the Dodgers and Reds fell apart once the domestic violence charges surfaced. The Yankees swooped in the ensuing vacuum and picked up Chapman at what is being characterized as a discount price because of the risk that MLB will suspend him.

The NFL gets (rightly) raked over the coals for their blind eye towards domestic violence. Frankly, the severity of the allegations surrounding Chapman approach the concerns in the high-profile cases of Ray Rice and Greg Hardy, but they are not as widespread because MLB is not a pop-culture behemoth steadily turning the North American viewing public into pigskin zombies on Sundays.**

**and Mondays and Thursdays and Saturdays in December, plus the weekends of the scouting combine and draft

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is in a tough spot here, given the touchy nature of Chapman's situation. Chapman technically committed no crime, but this is a chance for Major League Baseball to take a stand on domestic violence that other leagues, notably the NFL, are yet to take. I do not envy the decision that weighs on his shoulders.

Regardless, the discussion around Aroldis Chapman the past 24 hours leaves much to be desired. There is plenty of chatter about how overwhelming he makes the Yankees bullpen, which is true and germane. Mentions of his alarming domestic incident are scattered and woefully shallow. His incident is typically brought up in the context of the threat of a suspension which would keep this hallowed Yankee bullpen from full force. There is no consideration for the woman he at least traumatized.

When did Aroldis Chapman's golden arm become more valuable than the well-being of another human? I wish this was the kind of problem that only existed in the NFL.

Maybe sports reports are not the place for commentary on domestic violence, but framing a domestic violence concern one-dimensionally as an on-field consequence comes across as crass and irresponsible to me. Locking down the end of a Yankees win in April or May is only so important. There might be a few things in life more important.

It was not that long ago that bullpens were holding tanks for all the pitchers not good enough to crack a team's starting rotation. Anyone in a bullpen was an afterthought a generation ago. That certainly is not the case anymore.