Do you recall, brothers and sisters, do you recall the glorious month of April?
It shone as a beacon of reason for those who had suffered through sweltering summers of legitimate discontent. A sunlit base path to logical use of relief pitching. Indeed, April was a triumphant time for bullpen use by the Cincinnati Reds. We witnessed:
April 7: Bryan Price uses Raisel Iglesias for a 2-inning save against the Cardinals.
April 10: Price brings Michael Lorenzen in against the Pirates with bases loaded and no outs – in the bottom of the third inning. Lorenzen dispatched the nine Pirates he faced in a manner reminiscent of the Darth Vader scene at the end of Rogue One.
April 11: Price brought Iglesias in for the 8th inning against the Pirates with runners at first and second, one out and ahead by four runs. Iglesias closed out the game with 1.2 innings of work.
April 15: Price brought Raisel Iglesias into a tie game against the Brewers. Nothing unusual there, except it was the fifth inning. Iglesias pitched two innings.
April 20: Price used Iglesias for two innings in a tie game against the Baltimore Orioles.
April 30: Price brought Lorenzen into a game in the 5th inning with a runner at second and no outs against the Cardinals.
April brought relief, sisters and brothers, real relief from frustration that had tried our souls. After years of not-so-creative suffering, it appeared we would be free at last from suboptimal and crippling use of strict bullpen roles.
During that magnificent stretch of time, Bryan Price was praised by baseball analysts for leading a bullpen revolution, celebrated by national baseball writers for insurgent new-school thinking and lauded for bucking conventional wisdom. Here, Redleg Nation applauded the Reds manager for his refreshing break from orthodoxy.
We swelled with pride at the notion that Cincinnati had become the beating heart of modern baseball.
On April 13, brother Price preached to the entire nation his subversive approach to relief pitchers:
We put our guys in the best situation to win the game and at the end, the only thing that matters is if we win. Embracing the opportunity of doing whatever it takes to win is what makes teams great. We’re not going to compartmentalize.
Relievers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your Saves! For a few more wonderful weeks, Bryan Price the rabble-rouser seemed to have convinced himself.
But our cruel calendar did turn from April to May. The view darkened as fresh thinking vanished overnight. Today, you won’t find the faintest ray of daylight between how Price handles Raisel Iglesias and the previous manager used Aroldis Chapman.
Same goes with Price’s deployment of Michael Lorenzen. For the past six weeks, Lorenzen has been a perfectly conventional set-up pitcher. Yes, he’s been used more than one inning a handful of times. But Lorenzen has never again – only once since April 10 – entered a game in the middle of an inning with runners on base. Price has dutifully followed the unwritten code of dreary traditional practice for his second-best bullpen arm.
Meanwhile, Raisel Iglesias has become the perfectly conventional closer. That means Iglesias has entered games with clean base paths, either to defend a small lead, tied in the 9th, or for the occasional blowout. Only one time since May 1 – and it was more than a month ago – has Price called on Iglesias for more than a solitary inning. Yesterday would have been a second chance, were it not for the ill-fated 8th inning.
By the fifteenth of our splendid April, three Reds relievers – Iglesias, Lorenzen and Drew Storen – had recorded saves. Since then, other than a 3-inning save by Robert Stephenson, no pitcher other than Iglesias has earned a save, not even Lorenzen.
What should we make of Bryan Price’s backslide from coup leader to conformity?
Brothers and sisters, we shouldn’t have been surprised. Price previewed his regression even before Opening Day. We were too distracted by wishful thinking to notice. Yet, Price didn’t remind or alert us; he himself seemed to revel in the attention being paid to his vanguard role.
The Reds skipper had said from the start his flight from customary practice would be brief. Bryan Price told us that even though he’d begin the season using the “60s and 70s bullpen model” he would be looking for a traditional closer. And when Raisel Iglesias fit, Price quickly installed the lanky Cuban into a classic role. Now we fans find ourselves ground between the millstones of bullpen roles and the Save statistic.
In retrospect, what were we thinking? To expect Bryan Price, the guy who holds sprint competitions to determine his leadoff hitter, would be at the forefront of a big baseball innovation? As the Brits say, not bloody likely.
Hold on, scoffs the devil’s advocate. Maybe there’s a defense of rigid bullpen practices. After all, Raisel Iglesias has thrived in the relatively sheltered environment of the closer’s role. Before yesterday, he hadn’t given up a run, earned or otherwise in seven weeks. Since April 24, Michael Lorenzen’s ERA has been 0.81. It looks like two guys thriving in their tight, prescribed roles.
Don’t be distracted by the gorilla (guerrilla?) dust. Playing it that way may pile up happy stats for those two pitchers, but the strategy won’t maximize team wins. The Reds were 5-1 in the games highlighted at the top of this post. The lone loss was 2-1 to the Orioles when Blake Wood gave up a run in the 10th inning.
Saturday night for instance, if Raisel Iglesias had started the 9th, with an eye to also pitching the 10th, the Reds would have had a better chance. Or if Iglesias – instead of Tony Cingrani – had relieved Storen midway through the 9th, the Reds might have made it to extra innings.
Price quoted well-worn baseball dogma afterward. He was saving his closer to protect a lead. But as Reds beat writer Zack Buchanan observed, Iglesias was held for a lead that never came. If Raisel Iglesias had gotten the Reds through the 9th, the due-up top of the order might have pushed a run across in the 10th, delivering the Reds reliever and his manager that exact opportunity. But Zack Cozart, Joey Votto and Raisel Iglesias didn’t get that chance because Price used Cingrani. It’s not second guessing to point out that Raisel Iglesias is better than Tony Cingrani.
Sisters and brothers, it turns out we remain a distance from the promised land of wise use of relief pitchers. When it comes to the bullpen, the self-evident truth is that Bryan Price is no agitator. He remains a faithful disciple of that ever-yellowing Old School Playbook.
Yet, deep in our bones, we know better days wait ahead. The bullpen revolution will surely be televised, with highlights on the eleven 0’clock News. But it won’t be in Cincinnati under Bryan Price.