The bullpen has played a large role in several losses by the Reds in 2014, including last night’s defeat to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Let me make four points about that.
Point One: Injuries
The Reds bullpen has been plagued by an unusual number of injuries. Four pitchers who were likely to have started the season in the bullpen, possibly the four best, weren’t available due to injuries. Aroldis Chapman, Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton began the season on the disabled list. Alfredo Simon was pressed into service of the starting rotation due to Mat Latos’ lingering arm problems. The absence of those four pitchers took a devastating toll on the pen early in the season. Minor league-calibre pitchers saw quality innings against the Cardinals and other clubs. Several losses can be traced back to sub-optimal pitcher availability.
The good news is that Broxton and Marshall are now back and both appear to be healthy, albeit in limited trials. Aroldis Chapman seems on course to return sooner than anyone could have imagined after being struck in the forehead by a line drive on March 19.
On the other hand, as last night’s game demonstrates, whether due to an abundance of caution or dictated by actual medical condition, both Broxton and Marshall remain limited. Broxton wasn’t available to pitch two innings and Marshall was held out after throwing 24 pitches the previous afternoon. Even assuming the cavalry rides to the rescue and remains healthy, it may be a while until Bryan Price has unfettered use of his primary bullpen arms.
More concerning is the mysterious case of Sam LeCure. The soon-to-be 30-year-old right-hander was apparently held out of last night’s game after throwing 24 pitches on Sunday against the Cubs. The velocity on his two-seam fast ball (86.7), which he throws 40% of the time, has been well below his career average (89.2), which may indicate a health issue.
Point Two: New Philosophy
Bryan Price prefers to minimize the role of match-ups in using his bullpen. This approach is in stark contrast to his predecessor, who would often burn through several pitchers in an inning based on matching up left-handed pitchers against left-handed hitters and the opposite with right-handed hitters. The likelihood that Dusty Baker would have brought in a LHP to face Andrew McCutchen in the seventh inning last night is lower than Brandon Phillips walk-rate.
Price believes his pitchers can get out batters on both sides of the plate and expects them to throw complete innings. In theory, this will strengthen his pen in the long-run and give him more flexibility as the season goes on. Most importantly, it lowers the times a reliever has to warm up, reducing wear on their arms.
Fans who watched last night’s game an thought they saw Price handling the bullpen like Baker were mistaken, other than the simplified notion of one breakdown looking like any other. Price and Baker are not the same when it comes to using the bullpen.
Point Three: Same as the Old Boss
But Price is not as different from Baker as many hoped. Price still appears reluctant to use his closer at any time other than in conventional situations – with a lead in the top or bottom of the ninth or a tie game in the bottom of the ninth. The one time Price varied from that formula, using Manny Parra for a two-inning save on April 6 against the Mets, was an aberration. For a brief moment, it looked like Price might be more flexible and less role-dependent than his predecessor. But he quickly announced that Broxton would assume the traditional closer role once healthy and until Chapman returns.
Yes, we might ultimately see Chapman used for a few four- or five-out saves, but that’s (welcome) tinkering, not rethinking.
Price is also continuing Baker’s practice of using the weaker part of the bullpen in games when the Reds are one run behind. One run behind for a moment, that is. Several games this year already, including one against the Cardinals, the Reds have seen the bottom part of the pen turn small deficits turn into insurmountable ones.
One-run leads are easy to overcome and should be treated as equally high leverage as tie scores or one-run leads. Sure, you can’t use your best bullpen pitchers every night, but that hasn’t been the situation for the Reds in those instances this year.
Point Four: Point One is WAY more important than Point Two or Point Three
Injuries have constrained Price far more than his new philosophy or bullpen usage have undermined the Reds.
Last night, Price apparently faced a situation where LeCure and Marshall were unavailable. Ondrusek and Christiani have pitched poorly recently to the point where they may have been considered unusable with a lead. That left Price three pitchers – Parra, who had thrown 33 pitches the day before; J.J. Hoover, who has been ineffective; and Broxton, whose role is apparently confined to one-inning saves.
As it turns out, it might be more reasonable to consider last night a failing of the general manager rather than of the manager. Would calling up two fresh, more usable arms to the bullpen in exchange for Ondrusek and Christiani have helped? Possibly. But Bryan Price had to manage the game with the players on his roster.
When the Tampa Bay Rays were in Cincinnati, their starting pitcher, Alex Cobb, was injured after pitching on Saturday night. By the following morning, he’d had an MRI, been put on the DL and the Rays had his replacement in Cincinnati to face the Reds that Sunday afternoon.
That’s aggressive general managing, Nation.