Even if you have only watched baseball casually over the last decade and a half, you’ve become astutely aware that starting pitchers simply don’t pitch as deep into games as they once did. The consensus move by teams to both limit the number of pitches thrown by starters and to lean into churning and burning through relievers became so prevalent in that time that Major League Baseball began to actively search for ways to make those procedural moves not extend the time of play well past the three-hour mark each game.
As recently as the 2011 regular season, starting pitchers threw 29299.1 innings in big league games. This past year, though, they threw just 24984 innings, meaning over 4000 innings were entrusted to strategic relief moves that weren’t assigned to such back when Joey Votto was just beginning his heyday. As managers become more aggressive in creating advantageous matchups earlier and earlier with moves to their bullpen, the inverse has become just as important - filling out a bench with players who can be a) inserted both into the lineup to foil the opposing manager’s relief pitching strategy and b) play as many positions as possible so they can be called upon to pinch-hit at precisely the right time earlier in games.
On a related note, the 2011 season saw left-handers throw 3347.1 IP as relievers, a number that fell within a range of some 3225 to 3997 IP dating back to the 2000 season. In an era when starters were going longer than they do today, lefties - many of whom operated as LOOGies who no longer are allowed in today’s game - could be counted upon to toss a pretty set amount of IP. With the advent of the three-batter minimum rule (and compounded by starters going shorter and bullpens being tasked with pitching more often), lefties are throwing more pitches in relief now than ever - they have topped 4450 IP in each full season since 2018, including 4611.2 IP during the 2023 regular season.
Starters are logging fewer innings. Managers are picking and choosing matchups with their bullpen earlier and earlier in lieu of rolling out old-school ‘firemen’ to get multiple IP in relief. The earlier moves mean bench-bats will need to spend time in the field, with more positional versatility being paramount. And lefties, more often than they ever used to, are getting asked to log innings in relief.
It’s a scenario that brings me to former #2 overall draftee Nick Senzel, who will enter arbitration for the penultimate time this winter after an up-and-down 2023 season that saw him optioned back to AAA Louisville while the Cincinnati Reds were in the thick of a playoff race. He’s projected to earn some $3 million for the 2024 season by the algorithm at MLB Trade Rumors, a number that while peanuts to many of the clubs in the game seems pricey for how frugal the Reds have become in recent seasons. After posting another mediocre .696 OPS (85 OPS+), his rising price tag paired with the influx of young talent on the overall roster has drawn into question for some whether even tendering him a contract and trying to trade him is worth the financial risk when the option of simply non-tendering him is right there.
We know that the Reds have trusted Senzel to be their everyday CF for extended periods. We know he came up as a polished 3B/2B, and when the Reds were in said playoff race during August and September he got time (and starts) in LF and RF upon returning to the big league roster. After being inserted back into the lineup on August 24th post AAA exile, he hit .305/.328/.525 in 61 PA, a 24 G sample in which he played the entire game just 6 times. For the season, he struggled to just a .497 OPS in 204 PA against RHP, but knocked the snot out of LHP to the tune of a 1.008 OPS in 126 PA, many of those coming in specialized spots down the stretch when David Bell was mixing and matching at every important turn.
The Reds, in their youth movement, have assembled a talented outfield mix that will, on most days, feature TJ Friedl, Will Benson, and Jake Fraley when all are healthy. That’s got the potential to be a pretty special speed/power/defense combo, though all three hit from the left side of the plate. Spencer Steer may end up mixing in out there, too, depending upon how the Reds choose to play their roster cards during the winter, but he’ll be the kind of player who’ll start and remain in the game somewhere due to his performance and positional versatility, anyway.
What the Reds would lose in cutting loose Senzel is a player who both profiles as - and has performed well as - a mix/match utility player who can cover a couple of innings anywhere on the field and smash a lefty once or twice a game. Can the Reds really find that for cheaper on the open market if they non-tendered Senzel and sought it either via trade or free agency? Kyle Farmer made almost twice that last year (while hitting LHP well, but not that well), while the Reds had to trade Dauri Moreta for Kevin Newman (and pay him nearly that much) for an .813 OPS against lefties and no ability to cover the outfield on a regular basis.
The hype on Senzel has firmly worn off. That I will not dispute. But just because he was a #2 overall pick and supposed to be the next face of the franchise and that didn’t pan out doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t still be a valuable piece of the Reds in 2024, so long as he’s tasked with something more in his wheelhouse. In this role, which sure seems to be one David Bell will continue to lean on, he might well be the perfect fit.