Through the end of April last year, the Cincinnati Reds bullpen owned a 6.21 ERA, which was the worst in all of baseball. In fact, it was worst by a lot, with only the San Diego Padres (5.53) and Colorado Rockies (5.36) within a run of that mark. The unit’s 6.46 FIP was the worst, their 2.07 HR/9 was the worst, their 7.24 K/9 was the worst in the NL, all of which led to a collective -1.1 fWAR that was - you guessed it - the worst in all of Major League Baseball.
Fast forward a year, and (*David Attenborough voice*) you’ll see quite the complete transformation. Through the end of this April, Cincinnati’s bullpen hasn’t only improved upon those bottom feeding ranks, they’ve formed a bullpen that’s become the rock of the entire squad - and the peripherals reflect that. The quantity was obvious, as their 102.1 IP were far and away the most innings pitched of any bullpen in baseball, but there was ample quantity on display during that bulk. Their 10.73 K/9 ranked third in all of baseball (and was tops in the NL), their 3.61 BB/9 was middle of the pack (yet a full walk and a half fewer than in 2016), the 54.6% groundball rate was tops in the game, and the group’s 3.17 ERA was second only to the Chicago Cubs in the National League.
All that was good for 1.3 collective fWAR this April, a full 2.4 fWAR improvement from this time last year, which is roughly the entire value of Zack Cozart’s 508 PA output from last year alone. That’s both really good and really, really hard to accomplish, especially if you consider the entirety of the team’s offseason personnel overhaul in the ‘pen consisted of signing Drew Storen to a one-year deal.
Of course, last April didn’t feature Raisel Iglesias in the bullpen, nor was Michael Lorenzen a part of that squad. The return of both to full-time relief roles and the health that has come with it has been the bedrock of the bullpen’s success, as those two haven’t just been the best at keeping runs off the board, they’ve been the ones capable of doing it multiple innings at a time. However, there have certainly been other solid complementary pieces, with Storen obviously being one. Another has been lefty Wandy Peralta, though, and as The Enquirer’s C. Trent Rosecrans observed, he’s been successful despite a late-year cameo in 2016 that went rather awful, all told.
Part of Peralta’s opportunity came from the starting rotation’s inability to eat innings, meaning there were more available to be had from any healthy reliever in the first place. The increasing frequency of Peralta’s usage stems largely from Tony Cingrani having hit the DL with an oblique injury almost two weeks ago, which further dwindled the team’s lefty options. Cingrani, as MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon reported, isn’t as close to a return as the team initially hoped, as they’ve been cautious with him to help avoid similar setbacks to those seen by Anthony DeSclafani in his oblique rehab just last year - the ones that cost him nearly two full months of the year.
So far, so good regarding the bullpen, which can in part be considered a small feather in the GM cap worn by Dick Williams. The most glaring and obvious problem the team needed to fix has, for now at least, been largely fixed, and credit should go where credit is due. Some of the certainly falls on Bryan Price, too, as he’s been forced to juggle the bullpen’s usage early and often thanks to the rotation’s struggles. Good health has played a big factor, too, every bit as much as bad health in the rotation shuffle has played the spoiler on that end.
In other news, Redleg Nation’s Patrick Jeter took a closer look at Scott Schebler, the Cincinnati OF who has been on a tear of late. Looking at what Schebler has done in his big league career to date - which hasn’t even been a full ‘season’ worth of appearances - it’s becoming more and more evident that he deserves a carved out spot on the Reds in some capacity whether or not Jesse Winker comes back up and performs as we all hope he can.
If you think Adam Duvall is only a free-swinging slugger who feasts on fastballs, you’d be wrong, as Better Off Red’s Jamie Ramsey noted earlier. I didn’t think Duvall was incapable of laying into a junkball or two here or there, but that stat admittedly surprised the heck out of me.
Finally, FanGraphs’ Jon Roegele took a look at the early returns on umpire strike zones from April 2017 as compared to where they’ve been in years before. As we saw in Amir Garrett’s start last night, pitchers facing shrinking zones that aren’t even consistent in their shrinking doesn’t just add an extra baserunner here or there, but it may well fundamentally alter how pitchers approach batters altogether. I like to think I’m not a full-on proponent of robo umps, but there’s got to be a better way for all parties involved to know what a strike is going to be.