It’s never a good thing when you see a starting pitcher allow more baserunners than outs he can record, unless that pitcher happens to be facing the Cincinnati Reds when it happens. Yesterday, the Reds watched as that scenario played out for one of their own, as Rookie Davis was shelled for 11 hits and walked a batter while only recording 8 outs, the latest in a string of abbreviated outings the Reds have seen from members of their starting rotation.
As of today, Cincinnati’s starters have logged the second fewest innings pitched of any team in the majors. A closer look at that, though, reveals that the Miami Marlins - the only team that’s eeked out fewer innings from their starters that the Reds - have had 98.1 innings thrown by their starters in just 19 games played, whereas the 29th ranked Reds have received 102.1 IP in 22 games played. So, on a per-game basis, the Reds are only averaging 4.2 innings from their starters, which is worse than even Miami has to deal with.
The Enquirer’s C. Trent Rosecrans noted after Davis’ tough start yesterday that the Reds have now witnessed their starters go less than 4 innings on 10 occasions already, and 4 times less than even 3 innings. That’s flat awful.
Aside from when Brandon Finnegan exited after a lone inning due to the shoulder injury that sent him to the DL, it hasn’t even been a case of Bryan Price overmanaging early in games. It’s been because his starters were getting hit hard, and the runs were piling up because the bases had been full of walked batters. The 5.72 ERA sported by the Cincinnati starters this year is the worst in all of baseball by almost a full run, aided (hampered?) by the fact that the 4.57 BB/9 from those starters collectively is the worst in all of baseball by over a half-walk per 9 innings.
If this all feels like a bit of deja vu, it should. Through the end of April last year, the Reds were in almost an identical position with the state of their starting rotation. They sat 3rd worst in the game in IP by their starters (while having played one more game than both teams ranked worse), had the 2nd worst BB/9 in the game (by a mere 0.03 per 9 innings), and the -0.2 total fWAR provided by the starters as a whole was tied with Milwaukee for the worst in all of baseball.
The major difference between this year and last year has been the performance from Cincinnati’s bullpen, as last year’s edition was so godawful that quantifying it seems pretty much irrelevant. This year, however, it’s been the rock that Price and the starters have been leaning on.
Since baseball is played against a finite number of outs - not against a clock - it should come as no surprise that Cincinnati’s bullpen has thrown more innings than any other in baseball, a full 14.1 innings more than the 3rd most worked ‘pen. But while the quantity required of them ranks among the best in the game, the quality provided by them has been quite good, too. Their relievers have struck out 11.03 per 9 innings in their work - the 2nd best in the game - and their 54.3% ground ball rate is far and away the best by any bullpen in all of baseball. In other words, they’re the best in the NL in missing bats, and the best in all MLB in keeping the ball on the ground off the bat - and that only sets up their league-best defense to chip in with what they do so well.
It’s hard to fathom that the bullpen will be able to hold up so well over the long haul, however, both due to the extreme number of innings and the fact that several of its key members also serve as logical replacements for the rotation should it continue to struggle. Cody Reed has been Jekyll and Hyde in his starting and relief roles, but undoubtedly deserves another shot to get starts at some point. Robert Stephenson has struggled to throw strikes anywhere he’s been tasked over the last two years, but is still young enough to deserve another shot if his peers continue to fail, too. Even Michael Lorenzen has stated publicly that he feels confident he will start games again, despite the team not setting that at all in stone.
At their current rate of 4.1 innings per game, Cincinnati’s bullpen would throw roughly 696 innings in 2017 (if you throw out inevitable extra inning games). That would be over 100 innings more than the most worked bullpen from 2016 (the Los Angeles Dodgers), and the most from any team ever. In fact, the 2012 Colorado Rockies bullpen that threw 657 innings is the only group that comes even close (hat tip to former fearless leader Joel Luckhaupt), with that group currently the record holders, meaning the Reds are currently on pace to tax a bullpen more than any in MLB history.
Cincinnati’s braintrust knew they’d be up against something like this, what with a squeamishly inexperienced group tasked with starting after injuries decimated the team’s staff before the year. It’s in large part why they carried an extra bullpen arm to begin the season in the first place. Still, with the statuses of Homer Bailey, Anthony DeSclafani, and Brandon Finnegan all still completely up in the air - with mid June the hopeful target date for all of them - what we’ve seen from Cincinnati pitching this year is largely what we’ll be seeing for the rest of the year. The Enquirer’s Zach Buchanan acknowledged as much in this morning’s BAR, since the staff’s depletion and the roster churning has already given us a glimpse of the arms that will be called up again when a need arises.
There will be no white knight riding in to save the club in May. In June, the club will hopefully get a trio of experienced starters back to help, albeit ones that will be watched cautiously given the nature of their injuries. And heck, given what we saw from Bailey last year when he returned from that elbow injury, it’s hard to place too many expectations on either he or DeSclafani to suddenly morph into staff-carrying aces upon their returns.
In other words, there are only two true, dependable routes that will carry this Cincinnati staff to the finish line this year. Either a record breaking ratio of short starts to long relief, or significant, marked improvement from the faces and arms we’ve already seen - unless you see major trades for sturdy pitchers in the team’s immediate future.