The nastiest of the Nasty Boys was never this nasty. Actually, let's rewind that statement. Rob Dibble once threw a bat against the screen behind home plate after it was responsible for a run-scoring hit against him, once dumped a bucket of ice water on a reporter and once hurled a ball into the bleachers after a difficult outing, unwittingly pelting a first-grade teacher in the elbow and causing her to miss two days of work. Aroldis Chapman isn't quite that nasty.
But in terms of stuff, in terms of stature, in terms of stunning statistics, Chapman is about as nasty as they come in the closer's role. Even Dibble would acknowledge as much. "It's incredible," Dibble said of Chapman's 2012 season. "And this kid could possibly be a starter someday. He's got that upside that I didn't have. Plus, he's left-handed and he throws that hard. He's got so many more pluses than I ever did." This season began with the question of whether the Reds were doing right by Chapman by leaving him in relief. He had spent the winter building himself up to start, he was the club's most dominant starter in Spring Training, and, just as important, he wanted to start. The relief decision was ultimately necessitated by the loss of Ryan Madson to Tommy John surgery and the loss of Nick Masset to a shoulder injury. Still, that didn't quite quell the debate, because lefties with 100-plus-mph fastballs don't come around every day. And no matter how you look at it or spin it, the 200 or so innings expected out of a No. 1 starter will always be more than the 80 or so innings asked of a closer. But a funny thing happened when the season began. Chapman didn't just operate in the ninth inning; he owned it. The control issues that were a concern in 2011? Gone. Chapman walked 7.4 batters per nine innings last year; this year, he's walking just 2.7. He learned he could take a little off a fastball that has famously been clocked at 105.1 mph, still hit the high 90s and still befuddle big league batters. "He's matured to this role," manager Dusty Baker said. "Last year, we couldn't put him in there. He wasn't ready. Sometimes you're not ready, and it doesn't matter if people want you there or you want to be there or the team needs you there. It's up to us to determine when he's ready." That determination is being made again in the present tense, as the Reds decide how best to proceed with Chapman in the wake of some shoulder soreness he had been experiencing in recent outings. The Reds shut him down last week, and he was scheduled to throw a bullpen session Wednesday. The goal, of course, is for a Reds team that has the National League Central in hand to have its closer rested and ready for October. The shoulder undoubtedly played a part in Chapman allowing three runs and walking three batters over his last two appearances, on Sept. 7 and 10. And that wasn't his first rough stretch of the season. In a seven-appearance spurt in mid-June, Chapman blew three saves and posted an 11.37 ERA. Two-thirds of his season earned runs allowed and 27 percent of his season hits allowed came in those 6 1/3 innings of work. Now, obviously, we can't remove those two stretches from Chapman's season ledger. They are a part of the picture, and they are the reason that if you had to pick the NL's top closer in 2012, Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel would be it. (Indeed, Kimbrel, with 16.78 strikeouts per nine innings and a 0.67 WHIP, is an incredible story in his own right.) But just for fun, look at the utterly dominant display that is Chapman's output in the 59 2/3 innings pitched outside of those two stretches: Just one earned run allowed, 33 saves notched, 108 strikeouts recorded and just 21 hits and 15 walks allowed. The Reds, unsurprisingly, went 52-3 in those games. That's nasty. "There's something to be said for somebody coming into the game, and it doesn't matter if it's a righty or lefty matchup, the other guys simply don't want to face him," Reds starter Bronson Arroyo said. "That gives us a mental edge. You normally don't get that edge with a superstar at the plate. But we feel like we have that over everybody." So all those questions about Chapman's role -- questions that, you have to imagine, will sprout up again next spring -- have been quieted this season. Right now, the only question is whether the shoulder will cooperate enough for Chapman to bring his best stuff to the postseason stage. It would certainly make for good theater, because there are few things as entertaining in the game today as Chapman when he's on. That scenario is a nightmare for opposing batters. "You have to really shorten your swing up, choke up and hope to just get the bat on the ball," said the Pirates' Garrett Jones, who is 0-for-7 with four strikeouts in his career against Chapman. "So, it's tough, man, it's not an easy thing to do. You're pretty much in a defensive mode, trying to put a bat on it." That is, of course, the same kind of thing they used to say about Dibble, Randy Myers and Norm Charlton during the Reds' 1990 wire-to-wire championship season. "Even if the game was out of hand, one way or another, just because of your talent level, the other team came up fired up," said Dibble. "There's no easy outing for guys like us, either because of fear or intimidation. Nobody wants to fail." It is natural to compare this current Reds bullpen, which leads the Majors in both ERA (2.58) and strikeouts per nine innings (10.04) to those Nasty Boys of the early '90s. The Reds use half a dozen guys with plus stuff -- trade acquisitions Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton, scrapheap pickups Alfredo Simon and Jose Arredondo and homegrown products Sam LeCure and Logan Ondrusek -- to bridge the gap to Chapman. It's easily the deepest relief unit in the game today, and that depth is all the more impressive when you consider the aforementioned injuries that hit preseason. If not for those injuries, Chapman likely would have been in the rotation, attempting to refine his secondary pitches and likely having his innings closely monitored. Perhaps he, like Chris Sale of the White Sox has, could have made a seamless transition, but the Reds are clearly content with the ninth-inning weapon they have at their disposal. "At this time, all that goes through my mind is to be a closer," Chapman said through an interpreter last month. "After this, I don't know what could happen. In my mind right now, I am a closer." And a nasty one at that.