[This post was written by loyal Nation member, Warren Leeman, who is a regular commenter under the name Shchi Cossack. Thanks, Warren!]
The word “leverage” is a sabermetric measurement of how crucial the game situation is. High leverage situations occur when the game is close. Low leverage situations are those when the game is a blow out.
The most important way leverage enters into baseball strategy is bullpen usage. Even without statistical documentation, savvy individuals can recognize high leverage situations. Big league managers must recognize and deal with high leverage situations on almost a daily basis.
Based on comments attributed to Bryan Price and watching his bullpen management, high leverage consists of two situations: when opposing runners are on base with the tying or go-ahead runs, or the ninth inning with a 3-run lead or less. Price still chooses to manage by the same principles as always: a designated 9th inning closer and designated setup relievers for the 7th and 8th innings. Price is missing the riverboat as it departs the dock.
Bryan Price is certainly not unique in this respect among major league managers, but he’s the only major league manager the Old Cossack cares about since he manages the Reds.
Bullpen management is one facet of a manager’s in-game strategy that is almost universally accepted as having a significant impact on the team’s success (read W-L). During the first half of the season the Reds bullpen management was nothing more than struggling in quicksand with no good options other than to wait out the morass for help to arrive.
Now that the cavalry has arrived, Bryan Price has the opportunity to step up his bullpen utilization as a real weapon. He can organize a true shut down bullpen, a shut down bullpen beyond any seen in recent history.
The Reds have three legitimate high-leverage relievers in Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen and Tony Cingrani. Each is capable of pitching multiple innings. A fourth reliever, Blake Wood, is available if necessary to fill a high leverage situation if needed.
Cingrani has issues, but for this season he can fill the role in the spirit of finding out who can and who can’t perform going forward. Beyond the 2016 season, the Reds will have additional pitchers headed to the bullpen as casualties of the starting rotation competition. We don’t know who will succeed as starting pitchers, but quality arms will be headed to the bullpen.
What can’t happen is burning up the high-leverage relievers warming up in the bullpen rather than on the mound in a game. The Reds should also minimize the number of times one of these pitchers only goes one inning. The high leverage reliever should find his way to the pitchers mound and fully utilize the opportunity by pitching at least two innings. That’s basically one time through the opposing lineup.
With 3 high-leverage relievers available and a 4th reliever available to fill in for a high leverage situation as needed, at least one is available at Price’s beck-and-call for every single game, every game (!), without making a serious effort to manage the situation.
Price should set a high-leverage reliever rotation. In a full 162-game schedule, all 3 relievers would pitch ~100 innings during the season with no bullpen burnout due to excessive, unnecessary warm-ups when they are not needed and not used. If a high-leverage reliever enters the game, he pitches at least 2 innings and no more than 3 innings.
Of course there will always be exceptions, but those should be minimal if properly managed (i.e. double switches, proper preparation and anticipation, etc.). Wood would have a role to fill in for opportunities less than 2 innings in high leverage situation as needed. This is the same concept as a shutdown bullpen with a designated 7th, 8th & 9th innings reliever, except it’s easier to manage, provides more flexibility and utilizes the best arms for more innings.
There are other situations when a high-leverage reliever isn’t necessary, like when the starter fails to go six innings or if they are ahead by 4+ runs when the starting pitcher leaves the game. This system means the Reds wouldn’t have a ninth inning closer since all three high-leverage relievers will pitch the ninth inning.
The Reds bullpen has ample pitchers to fill low or medium leverage situations. If the starter goes short, Keyvius Sampson and Josh Smith are options out of the bullpen. They need work to stay game ready too, but not at the expense of the high leverage relievers. If a high leverage reliever isn’t used in a game, the rotation gets bumped back a game, just like the starting rotation during an off day in the schedule. If the high leverage rotation gets bumped back by two games, the next high leverage reliever pitches at least two innings, no matter what the game conditions regarding leverage, since the high leverage rotation will remain intact at that point.
As mentioned there will always be exceptions (a reliever struggles, extra inning games, etc.), but those situation can be managed as exceptions rather than blowing up the bullpen rotation. If the high leverage rotation is completely rested, all three high-leverage relievers could pitch 6-9th innings in a single game if needed and the situation dictates such a commitment. The definition of high-leverage for bullpen utilization just needs to be expanded beyond a ninth inning closer definition.