If you’ve watched a single second of a Reds game this year, you know just how bad the relief corps has been. Once the baseball is taken from the starter and the outfield gates open, fans are left holding their breath night in and night out. Numerous Cincinnati leads have evaporated with a reliever on the mound, and many other close games have been put out of reach.
No pitcher has been able to get outs consistently, leading to a constant revolving door of pitchers going to and coming from Triple-A Louisville in an effort to find some formula that works. Unfortunately, that equation hasn’t been solved yet, nor has it really even come close.
On April 13, Grant Freking wrote about the performance of the Reds’ bullpen one week into the season, which included this little blurb:
This strategy brings us to the Reds and their bullpen, whose present construction inspires the same confidence as pyromaniac overseeing a July 4th fireworks exhibition. An in-depth breakdown is needed because this group will be toeing the line between mediocre and dumpster fire until reinforcements arrive.
It’s safe to say things have moved to full-on dumpster fire status.
With starters routinely coming out of the game after only four, five or six innings, the ‘pen has been undeniably overworked. Only the Diamondbacks’ bullpen (147.2 IP) has been used more than the Reds’ (137.0). But that’s hardly enough to excuse just how bad the group has been.
Three weeks ago, Rob Carpenter talked about the Reds’ relievers being historically bad, giving the 1950 Philadelphia Athletics and their all-time worst 7.77 bullpen ERA a run for their money and being the worst group in terms of ERA in the modern era (since 1969).
Not much has changed.
Since Rob published his piece, there has been no improvement and the bullpen even set a major-league record by allowing a run in 23 straight games, from April 11 to May 5. Through Monday, the group’s ERA was 6.44, still the worst mark in the modern era. But wait, there’s more! The bullpen also has the highest FIP (6.09) and home run rate (2.04 HR/9), along with the second-highest xFIP (5.08) in that time period. Right now, the ‘pen has been worth minus-1.8 fWAR. If that trend continues, the Reds will obliterate the record set by the 2013 Astros (minus-5.2).
Reds relievers have allowed 31 home runs this season, which is more than the Mets, Orioles, Cubs, Marlins, White Sox and Nationals have allowed as a team. While the home run rate is unsustainably high, little else boils down to bad luck. As a group, the bullpen has a .299 batting average on balls in play, just barely above the .292 league average. The Reds aren’t just getting hit, they’re getting rocked. Since 2002 (as far back as Fangraphs has batted ball data), only nine bullpens have ever allowed hard contact at a higher rate than the Reds have this year (33.2 percent).
But by far, the most maddening thing to watch has been the walks. The unit has already issued 73 free passes, amounting to an 11.6 BB%. Only the Cubs have a worse rate than that. If that pace continues, the bullpen will become the third in the history of the game to break 300 and will make a serious run at the 1997 Tigers record of 347. Making the problem even worse is that the Reds’ relievers also aren’t striking many batters out; their 18.8 K% is fourth-worst in baseball.
So as a group, the Reds bullpen is collectively and historically bad; that’s been established. But surely there’s at least one or two guys performing well, right?
On an individual basis, there aren’t any real standouts either. Only three members of the bullpen have an ERA below four: Blake Wood, Tony Cingrani and Dan Straily. The latter has been moved to the rotation due to the ever-growing list of injuries, leaving the Reds void of an at least semi-dependable relief arm.
Wood is the only member of the bullpen who hasn’t allowed a home run and has a FIP below four (3.65), but he has the highest walk rate of anyone in the group with more than 10 innings pitched (15.0 BB%). Cingrani has a 3.18 ERA and is throwing nearly two mph faster than last year, but he has shown no improvement with his control (14.1 BB%) and is striking out fewer batters than normal (21.1 K%, compared to 25.7 for his career), leading to a 4.04 FIP and 5.31 xFIP.
Cingrani and Wood have gotten the best results in terms of runs allowed, but ERA predictors indicate Ross Ohlendorf and J.C. Ramirez have pitched better. Not so coincidentally, they are the only two Reds relievers with a walk rate below 10 percent. Although their respective ERAs are high (Ohlendorf: 5.60, Ramirez: 4.91), they’ve been the best when it comes to SIERA (skill-independent ERA, which you can read all about right here, courtesy of Steve Mancuso), in which Ohlendorf leads the group with a 3.15 mark, with Ramirez right behind at 3.54. Ohlendorf is also tied for the best strikeout rate in the relief corps (26.7 percent). Home runs have been holding them back more than anything else, as both have allowed three, tied for second-most on the club.
Beyond those five, it’s been a disaster for basically every other member of the ‘pen.
Caleb Cotham started out well enough (2 earned runs in his first 11 appearances) but has imploded recently, allowing 12 earned runs over his last 7 2/3 innings.
J.J. Hoover and Jumbo Diaz were supposed to be the veterans of the group. Both are now in Triple-A Louisville after allowing a combined nine home runs.
Former all-star Steve Delabar was signed late in spring training and was promoted from Louisville recently, but the veteran hasn’t been able to find the strike zone, which was also why Keyvius Sampson was designated for assignment early in the season.
Drew Hayes and Layne Somsen have been called up from the minors to provide help and, well, they haven’t provided much. They, too, have seen the walks pile up in addition to getting hit hard in their first taste of the majors. Hayes has allowed three home runs in 9 2/3 innings. Five runs have crossed the plate in 2 1/3 innings against Somsen (although it should be noted that all of those runs came in an outing in which he was left in far too long, especially for a rookie).
And then there were the disastrous one-game relief stints from Alfredo Simon and Tim Melville. No need to relive those nightmares.
It was widely expected that the Reds’ bullpen would be a weakness coming into 2016. Almost no money was invested in the unit — Hoover being the only member making more than $1 million — with the hopes that some young players could step up and the veterans would fill the other holes. That isn’t the worst strategy for a rebuilding team. But the results have been painful to watch, and likely will be until some of the team’s injured starting pitchers return.
*All stats are through May 16, 2016
Growing up just north of Cincinnati, Matt has been a Reds fan for as long as he can remember. As a kid, he was often found leading the Reds to 162-0 seasons in MVP Baseball 2005 and imitating his favorite players (Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns) in the backyard. One of his earliest baseball memories is attending the final night game at Cinergy Field. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in the Dayton area. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.