Since the beginning of the 2016 MLB season, Cincinnati Reds relievers have thrown 1193 total innings. That sounds exhausting, as well it should - it’s the most any bullpen has been tasked with throwing in that span. While the quantity itself is staggering, so too are some of the peripherals, albeit in a pick-your-jaw-up-off-the-floor sort of way.
The 4.35 BB/9 in that time? Last in all of baseball.
The 1.45 HR/9? Last there, too.
The 16.1% HR/FB rate? Last by a wide, wide margin.
The 4.99 FIP? Last by a full half-run.
It should be unsurprising then to discover that the Reds check in with -3.1 combined fWAR over those two seasons, a mark that’s the worst in all Major League Baseball. In fact, saying ‘worst’ seems to dull it down a bit, considering that the Reds’ group is the only among the 30 MLB teams to have a negative number - one not particularly close to 0 - and sits a full 6.2 fWAR behind the San Diego Padres bullpen for 29th on that list.
Lumping the brutal 2016 season into this makes light of a multi-year issue with the Reds relief corps, though it’s worth noting that the 2017 season did see a few minor strides in the right direction. In fact, if you focus on that season alone, you’ll see that the Reds managed to creep up to 29th and 28th in a few key metrics, though that was due equally to the Detroit Tigers rolling out the remnants of Francisco Rodriguez for much of the year as it was from marked improvement by the Cincinnati group.
While causation does not at all always mean correlation, it’s hard to ignore the factors behind the Reds’ bullpen woes during that time. If my math is correct, the $3 million given to Drew Storen for 2017 and the $800,000 doled out to Ross Ohlendorf for 2016 mark the lone outside investments the Reds have given to relievers during that time. Even the signings of Alfredo Simon and Scott Feldman and the waiver-wire pickup of Dan Straily that were supposed to augment the bullpen failed to materialize as help, as each of the three ended up forced back into the rotation thanks to the starting rotations falling down around them. Bronson Arroyo even, too. And in the wake of all that lack of augmentation, the team has still found a way to jettison the likes of Tony Cingrani, Blake Wood, Jumbo Diaz, Tim Adleman, Josh Smith, Keyvius Sampson, J.C. Ramirez, Caleb Cotham, Asher Wojciechowski, Dayan Diaz, Lisalverto Bonilla, Jake Buchanan, and a bevy of other names you’ll barely remember threw real, live bullpen innings during that time.
2018, though, finally figures to be different, at least in premise. Whereas in previous years the club has opted to largely avoid outside investment in the bullpen as a means of bolstering the group, the Reds front office has already inked Jared Hughes and David Hernandez, a pair of established, veteran arms fresh off successful 2017 seasons. In those two specific arms, the Reds didn’t just throw money at ERA or K/9, either; rather, they targeted them both for specific skills the other bullpen arms had not yet been able to master.
I previously explored the specific case of Hughes after the Reds signed him in December. If you don’t care to read back over that, I both don’t blame you and will fill in with the gist. Hughes, you see, is a groundball specialist, one who ranked 7th among the 192 relievers in baseball who threw at least 40 innings last year in GB%. And when you play in a bandbox of a home stadium and boast that ghastly league-worst 16.1% HR/FB rate, the more balls that get hit on the ground, the better.
As for Hernandez, he ticks the right boxes with his peripherals as well. His 6.6% HR/FB rate checked in at 18th on that list of 192 relievers, his 0.65 HR/9 an also welcome addition. With Hernandez, though, his signing may well be less about his ability to keep balls in the stadium than about how many runners score when there is a dinger walloped - among those 192 pitchers who threw at least 40 IP, Hernandez’s minuscule 1.47 BB/9 ranked 9th while his 1.04 WHIP checked in at 28th (behind most of the well known, elite relievers in the game).
This is not Wade Davis for $50 million. It’s certainly not Aroldis Chapman for $86 million. Nor were these signings supposed to stack up next to those. With Raisel Iglesias entrenched in the ‘if Bryan Price thinks there’s the most leverage there’s going to be’ role, Wandy Peralta as the late-inning lefty, and the likelihood of Michael Lorenzen again providing a solid 8th inning option, the Reds weren’t in the market for high priced closers the way the Colorado Rockies, New York Yankees, and others have been in recent years. Instead, they needed dependable woodchippers who could gnaw through innings to get them there, ones with the reputations for limiting the opposition consistently in ways that are more reliable to bank on than merely the ERA on their baseball card. Theoretically, they found two, and did so for a total outlay of roughly $10 million for two years.
On paper, at least, a revamped bullpen fronted by Iglesias, Lorenzen, Peralta, Hernandez, and Hughes should be a large improvement. That, in turn, would let the Reds ease wild cards like Ariel Hernandez, Zack Weiss, Austin Brice, and Jimmy Herget into the bullpen mix more gradually, which is never a bad idea for inexperienced arms. Add-in that starting options like Rookie Davis, Amir Garrett, Cody Reed, and Jackson Stephens might get squeezed out by the healthy return of the club’s higher profile starters, and suddenly there’s some real talent to go along with the newfound depth there.
In theory, of course. The reality is that the starting rotation and the bullpen dovetail, and the health and success of one truly does depend upon and directly fuel the other. If the Reds’ starters can finally find ways to last even 6 innings from time to time, the burden the bullpen has borne will become significantly easier to manage, which is likely just as important as a pair of veteran free agent relievers. Paired together, though, and the Reds’ bullpen might well be something they can lean on in 2018 without the need to cross your fingers and hide your eyes.