There have been a lot of words written about the Reds bullpen after the first several months of the 2016 season. Very few of them positive, of course, because the Reds bullpen was hot garbage throughout much of the season.
Don’t look now: the Reds bullpen is actually kinda good.
Let’s take a look at some of the pertinent facts about Reds relief pitching by month, through June.
April: 87 IP, 6.21 ERA, 1.552 WHIP, .254/.360/.493 = .852 OPS against.
May: 99.1 IP, 7.25 ERA, 1.852 WHIP, 298/.401/.539 = .941 OPS against
June: 105.2 IP, 4.77 ERA, 1.448 WHIP, .261/.337/.448 = .785 OPS against
And, as bad as all that is, it doesn’t even encapsulate the entire suckitude the collective unit was up to. Not include in the above lines? The 20, 22, and 20 home runs given up by month for the group. 62 home runs allowed in 292 innings pitched.
All the way back in 1964, the Kansas City Athletics allowed 92 home runs in 588.1 relief innings pitched. It appeared, at least through the first three months of the season, that this iteration of the Reds would certainly challenge for that crown.
(Sidebar: The fourth most home runs allowed in relief in a single season? The 2004 Cincinnati Reds, with 85 home runs allowed).
A lot was to blame for the the bullpen woes, of course, not the least of which was injuries and pure attrition. As the Reds struggled to piece together a rotation that could be trusted to even get to the 5th inning to hand over the ball game, the real struggles trickled down to the bullpen.
Layne Somsen. J.C. Ramirez. Caleb Cotham. Steve Delabar. Dayan Diaz. Drew Hayes. Daniel Wright. All of these names are dearly departed members of the Reds bullpen, and it barely brushes the surface.
But a funny thing happened: the Reds pitchers, one by one, started to regain health.
There’s a few different occurrences that you can point to and say, “This is when things changed for the Reds bullpen.” Two of them are very fortunate; one of them is very not, at least for the player involved.
On June 24th, Michael Lorenzen made his season debut for the Reds. Due to an elbow sprain in Spring Training, and a subsequent bout with mononucleosis that pushed his timeline back even further, Lorenzen not only got a late start to the 2016 season but, by the time he was ready to throw the team decided to bump him to the bullpen; both to manage any further damage to the elbow and also because, well, the Reds bullpen was a dumpster fire.
It wasn’t particularly surprising to see Lorenzen moved to that roll, of course; he was a center-fielder-slash-closer at Cal State Fullerton. The Reds push to transform Lorenzen from college closer/position player to Major League start in less than two years time was seen by many as, at the very least, somewhat of a rush. Indeed, at the end of the year Lorenzen finished 2015 as a starter with a 5.45 ERA, an uncertain roll, and a hard, albeit straight, fastball.
Lorenzen didn’t bust down the door on the bullpen immediately, though. In his first two appearances, we saw much of the same Lorenzen as the year before: a guy with good stuff whose mistakes get absolutely crushed. He gave up two home runs in his first two appearances, three earned runs in 3 IP.
But since the 24-year-old right hander settled into his roll, he’s soared. Throughout July, he’s lowered an ERA that started in the double digits all the way to 2.79. His July stats are as follows: 13.1 IP, 2.03 ERA, .119/.275/.190 against, 1 HR allowed.
It appears, at least according to the information provided by Brooks Baseball, that at least part of the reason for Lorenzen’s success is the introduction of a sinker. According to BB’s Pitchf/x data, Lorenzen used what they categorized as a “sinker” exactly 0% in 2015. This past month, Lorenzen relied on it more than any other pitch. We’re dealing with a small sample, but if the youngster has really added that kind of weapon to his repertoire, then he’s in for much more success.
Raisel Iglesias was the Opening Day starter for the Redlegs in 2016, but the re-occurrence of shoulder fatigue that the team fought to avoid all off-season reared it’s ugly head and Iglesias was moved to the 15-day DL.
Similar to Lorenzen, the Reds announced that when Igloo was back to Raising Hell, he’d be doing it out of the bullpen so that the team could more effectively manage the shoulder issues.
Iglesias returned and pitched out of the bullpen on June 21st. His presence alone was a huge shot in the ass to a beleaguered ‘pen, and his success since being stuck in there has been unparalleled. The result: he’s been absolute nails. He’s appeared in 13 games, pitched 25.2 innings, and the result has been a 0.35 ERA. He’s allowed only one dinger, struck out 29 batters compared to walking only nine. Triple slash against: .125/.222/.170.
When I say unparalleled, I don’t just mean in comparison to an previously and otherwise unremarkable Reds bullpen. I mean un-paral-leled.
For instance, a thought experiment:
Player A since June 21st: 19 IP, 0.95 ERA, .098/.167/.148 against, 26:5 SO/BB
Player B since June 21st: 17.1 IP, 2.05 ERA, .190/.239/.381 against, 25:4 SO/BB
Player C since June 21st: 18.2 IP, 2.89 ERA, .194/.280/.313 against, 21:6 SO/BB
You see where I’m going with this. Player A, of course, is none other than once-upon-a-time Reds closer Aroldis Chapman. Player B is his former teammate turned Indian, Andrew Miller. Player C is the one they affectionately refer to as The Final Boss.
Raisel Iglesias has arguably been better than all of them, especially when you consider the fact that in the 13 appearances that he’s made, he’s only failed to go more than one inning twice. He’s doing things that aren’t typically asked of top flight relievers, and he’s doing it better than anyone else.
He alone could’ve been the tropical storm to put out this tire fire of a bullpen.
It also helps, when attempting to put out a fire, to remove the gasoline. JJ Hoover final appearance for the Reds came back on June 28th. In his final two appearances, Hoover allowed 10 earned runs in two innings pitched. His ERA at the end of the night: 13.50.
Hoover was handed the closing job as a result of the absent Aroldis Chapman, and because of a very solid 2015 campaign. It wasn’t an enviable position to be in; one of the best relief pitchers to ever pitch for the organization was just shipped out. That was the hand JJ was dealt, while not being especially popular with fans to beginning. Expectations were high, but it also felt like fans all but wanted those expectations to not be met.
It was an almost immediate disaster, of course, as JJ blew his first save in his second appearance of the season, and it was all down hill from there. JJ was an easy goat, and was first demoted to AAA at the beginning of May, but got a chance at redemption over a month later, albeit no where near the closer’s role. It didn’t work out.
Earlier this week, the Reds waived JJ Hoover to remove him from the 40-man roster. He passed through unclaimed and was outrighted to Louisville where, at least for the foreseeable future, he’ll remain.
I don’t know the story of many relief pitchers, but I have to believe that going from “Opening Day closer” to “not claimed on August waivers” has to be one of the more epic falls from grace we’ve seen in baseball. And it sucks, because JJ seems like a likable fella. Hopefully, he’ll get another chance someday, with or without the Reds.
That hasn’t been the only reason why the Reds bullpen has turned into to quite a solid unit. Blake Wood and Ross Ohlendorf have been perfectly cromulent in stretches, especially when neither of them are asked to be the ones pitching in the highest leverage spots. These are the types of pitchers every bullpen has; they just usually aren’t quite a heavily featured as these two were early in the season.
Also helping is that Tony Cingrani has settled into the closer’s role very nicely, owner of a 1.59 ERA in July. It wasn’t all that long ago we were talking about Tony the same way I wrote about Raisel above, hopeful front-line starter who’s shoulder couldn’t handle the load.
I think the major takeaway here is just how fungible bullpens are, especially considering the influx of pitching prospects that is about to flood the team in 2017. All it took was for two pieces to get healthy in 2016 to turn a really, really bad bullpen into a more than competent one. Next year, along with rotation mainstays Anthony DeSclafani and Homer Bailey, the Reds are going to have to find roles for Cody Reed, Robert Stephenson, Amir Garrett, John Lamb, Brandon Finnegan, and Dan Straily, just to name a few, not to mention decide whether or not they want to experiment with Iglesias and Lorenzen in the rotation one more time. Can you imagine if Brandon Finnegan ultimately replaces Jumbo Diaz in the pen?
It seemed unfathomable just two short months ago but it appears as if the Reds bullpen is actually in very capable hands, for both the short and the long term.