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Carson Fulmer, Tejay Antone, and Cincinnati Reds bullpen usage

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I’d call it ‘Behind the Numbers,’ but I’m pretty sure that’s been used before.

San Francisco Giants v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The Cincinnati Reds were thoroughly doinked by the San Francisco Giants yesterday. They were doinked the day before, the day before that, and the day before that by the Giants, too. It’s been a long stretch featuring many doinks, unfortunately, as the Cincinnati Reds have slumped to just a 13-22 record over their last 35 games following their electric first week of the season.

As the frustration builds, it’s often easy to seek correlation. This happened, and that happened, and damnit, this was why! That’s particularly true in the game of baseball, for whatever reason, though I think that’s largely due to it being the perfect collision point between short term and long term management strategies.

There are games almost every single day. That means there are games on the line almost every single day. But there is also a six month grind of a regular season, and a necessity to ensure that the games in August and September are feasible by actually getting there in one piece (or something grossly similar). That is particularly compounded in this 2021 campaign, too, since every single pitching staff in the game is attempting to cover 162 games this year after nary a pitcher in the MLB stratosphere played more than 60 games last year.

At roughly 9 innings per pop, that’s a cavalcade of expected pitches that arms simply did not get the conditioning for last year.

Wednesday’s contest between the Reds and Giants became something of a flashpoint for this article, admittedly due to it being something of an outlier in a plan that otherwise seemed to be making some frustrating sense. In a 1-0 game where the Reds offense had been manhandled by Kevin Gausman and his bullpen mates, it was Carson Fulmer on the mound in the Top of the 9th for the Reds - not exactly the team’s best reliever despite the spot being quite large. It blew up in manager David Bell’s face after a pair of walks and a pair of hits resulted in 3 ER on Fulmer, and the Reds - whose bats showed up neither before nor after that IP - fell again, 4-0.

It was easy to point to the warmed-up Tejay Antone in the Cincinnati bullpen at that point and wonder why the hell isn’t he in right now?! Antone, of course, has been simply brilliant since last year, and is absolutely the biggest threat the Reds can bring in from their bullpen right now. Fulmer, admittedly, is not. Wednesday’s game did feature a bit of specific context, however, as Bell chose to turn to Lucas Sims much earlier than usual in a very high-leverage instance, with Sims taking over for Wade Miley in said 1-0 game with runners on and the chance the doors could be kicked right down in a game the Reds needed to win. That decision worked, of course, but with so much of the game still left to cover, each of Michael Feliz and Amir Garrett were also needed just to get to the 9th and Fulmer.

That obviously led Bell to choose to save Antone, since any early exit the next day would likely mean he’d be needed to cover multiple innings, something he’s fully capable of doing as a former starter. That happened, of course, but in such a humiliating fashion that Antone’s ability was never needed as there was no high-leverage situation on hand. Instead, we saw Fulmer (again) and a pair of position players pitching as the Reds tried and tried to get their 27th out recorded in a 19-4 drubbing.

Back to the correlation thing for a second. A quick glance at the MLB leaderboards shows Fulmer’s 25.2 IP tied for the single most among all MLB relievers to date. And with Wednesday’s outing still very fresh in mind, it’s easy to point the fingers and scream why is David Bell using Fulmer more than the better arms in the pen?! Rabble! RABBLE RABBLE!

I’ll try to tie this all together here. I mentioned that every pitching staff is trying to get through 162 games again this year despite all of their arms having not had that kind of conditioning for all of 2020. I also briefly highlighted leverage, too, something that shows just how important the outs being recorded are at the time as they relate to the overall impact on win expectancy. FanGraphs, for instance, tracks Leverage Index in a number of different ways for pitchers, compiling numbers for both average leverage, leverage upon entrance, leverage upon exit, and so on. In other words, it’s a way of showing just how big the situations are when relievers come into games to get outs, and the leaderboards there pretty well make sense.

Take pLI, for instance, the average leverage on the line for all player events. The names littered at the top of that leaderboard are a who’s who of big-time relievers in the game, with Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel, Sims (12th among 188 qualifiers), Daniel Bard, Mark Melancon, Josh Hader, etc. all there. As for gmLI - the average leverage on the line when a player enters a game - there are many of the same names there, with Antone checking in at 10th of 188 and Will Smith, Liam Hendriks, Jansen, Kimbrel all there, too.

This isn’t really about them, though. This is about the flip-side of that leaderboard, the pitchers that both enter games in low-leverage situations and stay there most often. And if you do just that, you find that the 4th lowest-leverage pLI in the game among those 188 qualified relievers is owned by Sal Romano, the recently DFA’d Cincinnati reliever (who just signed a minor league deal with the New York Yankees today). Sitting just behind him in 8th is Fulmer, and that’s with his surprisingly high-leverage outing on Wednesday baked in. (As for gmLI, Romano ranks 2nd lowest with Fulmer in 10th.)

Romano had logged 20.2 IP prior to his DFA earlier in the week, at the time meaning he and Fulmer were the two most used relievers the Reds had turned to this year despite neither being classified as the best relievers the Reds had. But what’s vital to note here is that those innings were almost exclusively in games where the outcome of the game was pretty well decided, and there were a glut of innings needing to be logged to simply turn the calendar to the next day and try again. In this 2021 season where simply getting to the finish line is a feat in itself for pitching staffs, they’ve become the newest type of workhorse - the ones that get the innings into the books and keep them off the arms you hope still have juice left for games that hang in the balance.

It’s worth pointing out that Alex Blandino, an infielder by trade, has now pitched three times this season - on April 28th, May 4th, and May 20th. Romano pitched in two of those games, and Fulmer in two, too. On 4/28, Romano threw 41 pitches in an 8-0 drubbing at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers, while on 5/4 he threw 37 pitches over a pair of innings in a 9-0 loss to the Chicago White Sox. That same game against the Sox saw Fulmer labor through a pair of IP and 43 pitches, while yesterday’s 19-4 thumping by the Giants - Blandino’s other game - saw Fulmer need 27 pitches to get through 2 IP, too. All are examples of soaking up outs in already-decided games, outs that Antone and Sims and the starters aren’t adding to their ledgers this early.

Outings by starting pitchers were already getting shorter and shorter before the shortened 2020 season took all arms down a peg in terms of expected IP. Now, more than ever, there’s a need for IP to be picked up somewhere while still making sure the best relief arms out there are available to get the highest-leverage outs more often than not. While it doesn’t play out so much in the shiny stats, there’s actually a surprising amount of value in that, the running backs who can carry the ball until the clock runs out.

The problem is that it’d be a helluva lot nicer if those large amounts of low-leverage IP were because the Reds were winning games by 5 or 6 runs instead of what we’ve seen from them lately.