As Commissioner Rob Manfred continues on his quest to change the very fabric of baseball in every possible way, rule changes have become the norm. Major League Baseball made official the latest batch on Wednesday, a sweeping set of alterations that have impact on roster size, injured list use, and the amount of time managers have to use their challenges, all of which will have a decidedly non-zero impact on the game as early as Opening Day 2020.
Perhaps the most interesting of the changes, though, is the institution of a three-batter minimum for relievers, effectively eliminating the niche industry of one-batter-only LOOGYs that had long been the standard for bullpens league-wide. MLB.com’s David Adler has a more thorough examination of all the changes, including the important “or finish the inning” stipulation on the new three-batter rule.
You’re keenly aware that despite spending a team record amount of money in free agency this winter, the Cincinnati Reds did not sign a left-handed reliever. They plucked 30 year old rookie Josh D. Smith off waivers from the Miami Marlins - of 12.2 career innings with 9 ER allowed at the big league level - but that’s the sole addition of an on-roster lefty so far this offseason, as he joins only Amir Garrett and Cody Reed as lefty options on the roster who are in contention for bullpen spots. (They certainly didn’t guarantee 4 years and $34 million to lefty Drew Pomeranz, that’s for sure.)
Garrett and Reed, of course, are both former highly rated starting pitching prospects, meaning that while they’re surely more effective against left-handed batters, the idea of retiring at least three guys - some righties - is not at all foreign to them. But the flip side of that concept, that LHP will now have to retire right-handed hitters a bit more often, is that RHP relievers aren’t going to be able to be pulled against tough left-handed hitters late in games for a rescue LOOGY, something they’ve been bailed out by for decades now.
A deeper dive into how the Reds have perhaps prepped themselves for such an inevitability reveals some interesting tidbits worth highlighting, I think.
The one free agent bullpen signing the Reds did make was the addition of 34 year old Pedro Strop, a RHP who has allowed left-handed hitters to slash just .207/.319/.316 (.635 OPS) against him for his career. That’s excellent, of course, and while it’s not quite as dominant as he’s been against right-handed hitters in his career (.192/.283/.299 (.582 OPS)), he’s actually performed better against lefties than righties both during the 2019 season and 2017 season. In other words, he doesn’t profile as a guy who ever really needed to be bailed out against lefties.
Pair Strop with another of the likely late-inning Reds relievers in Michael Lorenzen and you see a similar story. Mikey’s biceps posted a career-best 156 ERA+ in 2019, and the improvement in his overall numbers came almost entirely due to his increased effectiveness in retiring left-handed hitters. His career splits still significantly favor his ability to retire righties (.691 OPS allowed) vs. lefties (.791 OPS allowed), but that’s trending in a very favorable direction. Last season, The Llama was actually better against lefties (.629 OPS against) than righties (.655 OPS against), thanks largely to a new pitching mix that saw a spike in his use of a change-up (19.3% in 2019 vs. 7.4% in 2018).
Lucas Sims is an interesting case here, too. While he has struggled in limited time with the strike zone against lefties as compared to righties (a 4.35 K/BB vs. 1.13 K/BB), what he has done since coming to the Reds is ensure that lefties simply cannot hit his offerings. He’s ramped up the use of his wipeout curveball since joining the Reds while limiting the use of his sub-par change up, and last year lefties hit just .172 against him (their overall .671 OPS against him was far lower than the .738 OPS he allowed to righties, while lefties slugged almost .100 points lower than righties, too).
I hope that Cody Reed and his knee are healthy again, and that the fine work he began to display in 2019 is good enough for him to earn a roster spot this spring and run with it. That’s not because I only want to see him against lefties, though, as - like with Garrett - I think he’s got ample potential to get batters out from both sides of the plate. But the more I look at it, the less I’m concerned that the righties in the Reds bullpen are going to be vulnerable to the lack of LOOGYs this year, and that’s surely not just a coincidence. There are no Zach Dukes or Bill Brays or Rheal Cormiers on this Reds roster because of the rule change, but that hasn’t left the Reds longing for solutions in their bullpen, as they’ve built it with guys who look the part against all batters, regardless of which side of the plate they’re standing on.