At 9-12, the Cincinnati Reds sit last in the National League Central. Their overall record is tied for the third worst among all senior circuit teams. They’re riding a seven game losing streak with a daunting series against the reigning World Series champs up next on the horizon.
When you spell out just how much has immediately turned sour for these Reds, it puts an outsized spotlight on the recently concluded disaster of a series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. In it, the Reds had leads late in each of the three games, with the bullpen on the mound at home tasked with locking down victories. In each of those three games, the bullpen failed, and that’s the difference between 12-9 and 9-12.
Beyond those three games, it’s been a tale of a relief corps searching for both consistency and identity from top to bottom. Gone from the 2020 club by design were Raisel Iglesias, Nate Jones, Robert Stephenson, and Archie Bradley, and the spring injury to Michael Lorenzen removed yet another key performer from the mix. Performance and fatigue issues have already seen Cam Bedrosian DFA’d and Cionel Perez optioned, and outside of the complete brilliance of Tejay Antone, it seems a group that’s just about as disjointed as you could imagine through 21 games.
Carson Fulmer, out of options and on his sixth team since July of 2020, owns the best non-Antone ERA+ (131) of anyone in the bullpen. Sal Romano sports a 6.51 FIP and almost comically low 4.3 K/9 in this era of non-stop strikeouts, yet somehow is the the third (and final) reliever who owns an ERA+ over 100 on the season (123).
That’s the good so far. Antone, a guy nobody wanted, and the reliever with the sixth worst K/9 of the 211 MLB pitchers who’ve thrown at least 10 IP this year.
The bad, though, has been bad enough to turn the incredible start to the season sideways.
Amir Garrett’s struggles have been the most visible, as he assumed the role of closer after the overhaul of the offseason. It’s telling enough when the ‘closer’ has appeared in 7 games so far and only finished 4 of them, but the fact that he’s allowed half as many runs (9) as he’s recorded outs (18) suggests there’s a lot that needs sorting still for a guy who missed almost all of spring training with a forearm issue - 8 walks in 6.0 IP suggests that, too.
Lucas Sims has looked like himself more often than not despite also having a short spring camp, though his 6.43 ERA reflects how much of a group project this all is. He’s been bitten by inherited runners scoring and a freaking snowstorm, but at least his peripherals suggest he should be just fine. His velocity is up across the board, and his 1.98 xERA and 0.857 WHIP are much more indicative of the talent he’s got in that right arm.
Sean Doolittle, too, has at times flashed the kind of stuff that made him the lone big-league signing of the Reds this winter, but that’s been a bit few and far between. He’s been tagged for a 1.73 WHIP fueled by 7 walks in 8.2 IP, though the good news for Doo is that his fastball velocity (93.0 mph) is back up over the dip it saw in 2020 (90.7 mph).
All told, it’s a group that ranks in the bottom five among all bullpens in the game in ERA (5.31, 4th worst), FIP (5.08, 2nd worst), xFIP (4.78, 3rd worst), BB/9 (5.20, 5th worst), K/BB (1.91, 5th worst), and strand rate (67.1%, 5th worst), a combination that pretty well spells out how they’ve lost a handful of otherwise winnable games so far - putting too many runners on base, and not getting out of innings before they score.
On top of that, their 35.5% hard-hit rate ranks 5th worst among all bullpen groups, something that makes their 42.7% fly-ball rate - the single highest among all bullpens - particularly alarming. Allowing sharp contact on balls hit in the air is a recipe for disaster for any and all groups in today’s age of perfected launch-angles, but that paired with the cozy confines of GABP 81 games a year sounds like a combination lethal enough to produce a bevy of back-breaking dingers late in games.
What’s perhaps equally as troubling is that their collective .255 BABIP suggests they may have even been lucky so far. Obviously, a group that yields as many fly-balls as they do will inevitably have that suppress their BABIP a bit - homers don’t factor into the equation, while fly balls that don’t clear the wall are the easiest of batted-balls on which to get outs - but that hard-hit rate would still suggest there probably should’ve been a few more hits that dropped. It’s not like the Reds defense is actively suppressing them, either.
All told, it’s a month that so far hasn’t been one to remember for this group. The additions of Ryan Hendrix and Heath Hembree bring an electric rookie and savvy veteran that hopefully will give it a new edge, while the move of José De León into a relief role gives the Reds another extreme strikeout arm, too - of those 211 MLB pitchers who’ve logged at least 10 IP I mentioned above, De León’s 18.69 K/9 is the single best of them all. Still, it’s going to take a lot more strike-throwing and keeping the bases clear for when the mistake pitches come for this group to climb out from being among the worst collectives in the game, a place where they’ve firmly fallen after this April’s rough showings.