2017 Reds

There never was a bullpen revolution

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.

35 thoughts on “There never was a bullpen revolution

  1. Thanks Steve, just when it looked like I was putting the Reds weekend behind me:) SAT/SUN hindsight being 20/20and BP’s post-game comments not withstanding, do you think BP’s personnel move(s)/lineup usage will have more bearing on a potential extension (rather than simply the won/loss record of remaining in the hunt by the all-star break)? Is it just me or does something have to give?

  2. Well put. The old-school playbook works well for good teams that enter the late innings with leads more often than not. For a team that has terrible starting pitching, there are many fewer late-inning leads, and more mid-game rallies which need to be extinguished.

  3. Serious question…outside of the playoffs, is there any team that consistently uses their bullpen in the “revolutionary” manner? I believe there are 3 issues that make doing this over 162 extremely difficult:
    1. HLS’s, especially early in the game, often arise rather quickly and it’s tough to get a guy warmed up in time….or you risk the affects of over use by simply warming up too much.
    2. Agents. Closers are paid “x”….set up guys are paid “y”. Stats matter to an arbitrator as they need something consistent and objective. A cost controlled player, however team oriented he may be, doesn’t want to be an outlier as it may cost him millions
    3. In game 7 of the WS, Miller and Chapman were both shelled. We don’t know the performance impact…let alone injury impact.. over the course of a season. If the Reds use Iggy conventionally and blows out his elbow that’s just baseball. If they use him unconventionally and he blows out his elbow the MLBPA is going to be all over them.

    • And the world is flat, electricity is dangerous and can’t be trusted, giving away outs doesn’t matter as long as an acceptable batting average is maintained…

    • 1. I didn’t get the sense that April was unduly harsh on Iglesias and Lorenzen, despite the unconventional usage. I think we’re talking about a half dozen times a month when it would be necessary. There is a lot of overwarming for closers in the mainstream approach. Tie game, manager warms up two pitchers, one if the team takes the lead, the other if they don’t. In extra innings, that can be a lot of warming up for a closer.

      2. No doubt that $$$ has become part of the problem. Teams pay for Saves so players want to rack up that stat. That applies to arbitration and free agency. Arbitrators base their decisions on what teams are doing outside of arbitration. In this case, Iglesias is cost controlled through 2020. Not just team controlled, but signed to specific dollar amounts those years. A team committed to a new approach wouldn’t have to worry that they couldn’t sign established closers (and their agents).

      3. Health is a possible issue, I suppose, although it’s just speculation on both sides. I haven’t seen any evidence that the MLBPA has a stance on how players are used. I think there’s an assumption in your point that pitching Iglesias for the 5th and 6th inning is more harmful than pitching him in the 8th and 9th. Or that he can’t handle it either way. The Reds (Dick Williams) have spoken openly about getting value from Lorenzen and Iglesias in the bullpen by having them pitch 100 innings instead of the usual 65-70. In April, Iglesias pitched 14 innings (=84 over 6 months). In May, he pitched 12. Months are dumb arbitrary endpoints, but the workload didn’t seem (a) different from April to May or (b) that much overall.

      • In support of your statement in Item 1 that there is a lot of overwarming for closers in the mainstream approach. When the Reds visit Milwaukee, one of the places I like to sit is in right field overlooking the visitors bullpen. Back when Dusty was manager and Cordero was closer, there was a game in which Cordero warmed up 3 times, yet never threw a pitch in the game because the save situation came and went several times. I lost track of his warmup pitch count somewhere in the 60’s.

      • I’m not defending the status quo…I believe anything that advances the game and enhances a team’s win probability should be examined and when appropriate implemented.

        I’m just trying to point out that there may be a variety of reasons this hasn’t been done on a consistent and wide spread basis that isn’t rooted in fear and incompetence.

      • Correct me if I am wrong…but Iglesias is team controlled…but not cost controlled through 2020. He can choose arbitration when he is eligible ….2019 and 2020.
        If he gets 35 saves this year and next…makes the NL all star team and gets a label as best closer in the NL….he will get a huge raise in 2019/20 from the 5 mil they would pay him.

        Cingrani settled to avoid arbitration in 2017 at ~ 2 mil….how much will Iglesias be worth in 2019 as a top closer?

      • I wonder if the futility of the starting pitchers is a factor. The bullpen is getting a lot of work, it’s a long season, and it may be reasonable to fear overuse.

    • And the point of this post wasn’t to rigorously defend different practices. It was mainly to point out the phony baloney about Cincinnati being the epicenter of the baseball revolution. It lasted about two weeks.

  4. Great piece!

    As if that weren’t uncomfortable enough, it begs this question—is there any daylight between what Price is doing and what the preferences of the front office???

  5. Well written Steve.
    Price seems to be a good pitching coach with veterans. Give him Adleman or Straily or even young mature versions of Cueto and Leake and he’s very good. The defined bullpen roles gives him cover and build relationships with his best pitchers to give them the roles they need to win arbitration as soon as possible.

    But that’s not the job description this year. It ‘s develop young pitchers to build back to that 2010-2013 run. He’s not doing that. We need a manager who can coach young developing pitchers and integrate them into the next great rotation and bullpen.
    I also disagree with labeling price old school…he’s new school with bullpen roles…that’s a product of the late 70’s and early 80’s….Rollie fingers..sutter.lee Smith…
    Old school would be 1975:
    Pedro borbon 123 IP 5 Sv
    Rawly eastwick 90 IP 22Sv
    Clay Carroll 96IP 7 Sv
    Will McEnany 91 IP. 15 Sv.

    • Great post Steve, and nice elaboration by Old School on the bullpen of 1975. I like Sparky’s bullpen usage in 1975, I wish Price and the F>O> were aware of it. Or maybe they are a ware of it and just ignoring the 1975 results.

  6. 2 more thoughts…and again, I’m not defending convention, just looking for reasons why convention may make sense:

    1. Pitchers are creatures of habit. They generally have a routine they go through before pitching. If you’re a traditional ” closer” you may go and stretch, run on a treadmill, eat a sandwich in the 5th inning in anticipation of warming up in the 8th. Some people simply don’t respond well to uncertainity, inconsistency and unconventional thinking.

    2. The Billy Hamilton article from yesterday triggered some thoughts. On the surface, it’s utterly assinine to have a guy lead off who struggles to get on base. However, despite his OBP struggles, Hamilton scores runs at a high pace. When viewed strictly from the stand point of times scored relative to times he’s a base runner, Hamilton scores at a historically efficient rate. Perhaps he freaks pitchers out and causes them to waste energy on pick off throws. Perhaps he causes pitchers to lose focus on the batter. Who knows….my point is there are often reasons that teams do things that on the surface makes no sense, but when you look under the hood….and evaluate all data and information….then perhaps it does make sense.

    As always, Steve’s points were spot on. It would be great if the Reds could revolutionize bullpen usage. I just don’t think it’s as easy as saying ” Iggy, wer’re going to use you on a non traditional manner all the time…go get’me”

    • Baseball players are creatures of habit when they’re allowed to be. I’ve heard players talk about Joe Maddon’s preseason talk to the team. He tells them not to get comfortable with positions on the field or spots in the batting order. Every day is going to be different. His players seem to respond just fine. On the other hand, even he uses an established closer in a traditional manner. Revolutions aren’t a dinner party. They’re hard.

      • As always, great points. Would it make sense to make “the revolution” an organizational initiative that starts in rookie league and eventually finds itself at the MLB level?

        I agree that guys become what they’re allowed to become. Perhaps if this manner of bullpen usage is tested and perfected in the minors it would be easier to sell to the players at the MLB level.

        Again, I am 100% simpatico to the concept, my concerns focus on the possible legitimate hurdles to implementation that aren’t just the “Price learned from Dusty” narrative that may have validity or may be complete non-sense.

        • Actually, making it an organizational philosophy and putting it into practice in the minor leagues is a very, very sharp idea. It’s probably how something like this will have to get done. When pitchers get to MLB, they will be used to the idea.

      • An idea:

        Using Arroyo as an example. We know that he is bad innings 1-4….we also know that he is beyond awful in the 5th. His OPS against in the 5th makes everyone look like Babe Ruth in 1927.

        Do you have Lorenzen warm up in the 4th, even if we’re seeing that rare thing called ” Good Bronson”…..so he’s ready to come in if things get dicey rather quickly? Worst case, if the game is competitive and Bronson doesn’t suck in the 5th, you have him pitch the 6th.

        You’re using data to show that there is a high probability that Arroyo may get shelled in the 5th and proactively taking steps to mitigate or eliminate the damage, while not wasting warm up pitches and allowing Lorenzen to have a routine and a semblance of consistency. Instead of reacting to a HLS, you’re anticipating the probability of one is high and acting accordingly.

        • In this case, I think that is the right kind of thinking. It shows that some thought was put into a decision, which is good, rather than just saying “Welp, it’s the 7th. Warm up the 7th inning guy.” I like it.

          If Price developed his own handbook of situations like this, along with each contingency, he could share them with each player and perhaps that player would then be comfortable, even if there were many varying situations in which he might enter a game.

  7. Steve,my mistake for missing you comment on Mesaraco’s performance in your game re -cap from Sunday.Obviously you wrote it before I even noticed it.My bad.Price and his use of the pen was just fool’s gold because he is a Dusty disciple.In fact he is just like most other managers and I will use yesterday as an example.The closer comes in and doesn’t have it because he walks 3 straight guys.The closer rules say he pitches until he saves it or loses it even if he doesn’t have it.Going with your best right there won’t get you criticized at all like it did the night before when Iggy watched us lose.The results were really bad in that both games were lost following the closer rules.The results may have been the same if he had used Iggy Saturday and pulled him Sunday but you could have said he is managing to win the game rather then go my the rules.This is why some feel managers have little or nothing to do with wins or losses.If you go by the book all the time and the players don’t execute then well its not the manager’s fault.I personally like managers that throw the book away sometimes based on the game at hand and the feel for that particular game.Try something different and file it regardless of the outcome.

  8. The late Gil Scott-Heron: Revolution sounds like something that happens, like turning on the light switch, but actually it’s moving a large obstacle, and a lot of folks’ efforts to push it in one direction or the other have to combine.

  9. I agree that a lot of what Price said in the spring was just talk, maybe to appease those who want a fresh approach, and I could not think of a better year to take that fresh approach than 2017. If not now when? However I must admit when I read posts from both sides of the issues, I hear a lot of could have, might have, if only. The truth is we don’t know what would have happened. But again the thing that any true Reds fan has to remember is that 2017 is not about winning, as much as I was pained to watch the LA debacle the last three days.

    • In the spring, Price didn’t know that his starters would be historically bad and rarely get past the 5th inning. I’m not disagreeing with the concept at all, and it may be that Price always intended to return to convention. But why say anything in the first place, if that that were so? It also may be that he’s trying to adapt on the fly to a difficult situation.

  10. With the obvious caveat that winning is always more fun, and preferable, than losing, when bad teams win a lot early it can be a curse.

    The beginning of May also saw the Reds sitting 1 game back in the NL Central (despite a 12-13 record). It’s always easier to “throw out the rules/roles” when not much is expected of you. It becomes more difficult when you think you’re in contention.
    Managers, like everyone else, fall back into comfort zones when the pressure builds. Price’s comfort zone is obviously defined roles for his bullpen.

    This year is eerily reminiscent of 2006. There was no real reason to think the Reds would be competitive in 2006 or 2017 other than a fluky finish to the previous season (38-36 in 2005, 36-37 in 2016). Add a decent Reds start to an uncharacteristically poor start from a clearly more talented team (STL in 2006, Chicago this year), mix in a first year GM looking to make an impatient owner happy, and you have the recipe for foolish midseason moves. Maybe neoptism will work in the Reds favor this time, and Dick Williams figures his job is safe enough that he doesn’t have to try and make a big splash by trading 2018-2020 assets in a misguided effort to “win now.”

  11. I think the reality of atrocious starting pitching has been a big factor in bullpen usage. When the starter is consistently headed for the showers by the 4th or 5th inning, there isn’t much more to bullpen management than survival. Lorenzen and Iglesias would have their arms falling off by now if they continued the April usage.

    If the Reds start getting much better starting pitching, then Price can be more creative with the bullpen.

    Another issue is that bullpen guys now aren’t like Borbon, Eastwick, etc., all of whom had strikeout rates that would be laughably low now. Modern relievers go in and throw full blast, and it has to be more of a strain that how Borbon or even Scott Sullivan would throw. (Which in turn raises the issue of whether using Iglesias and Lorenzen as relievers is really easier on their arms than starting them would be.)

    • “If the Reds start getting much better starting pitching, then Price can be more creative with the bullpen.”

      I think this is closer to the truth than anything written so far. It is difficult to manage a bullpen when they are relied upon in the 3rd or 4th inning. I think it would not be fair to malign Price until his starting staff is healthy again.

  12. I think we can say the pen revolution got blew up and was replaced by the good old by the book you can’t blame me version of set-up guy/closer rules.Losing is ok as long as you go by the book.

  13. Excellent read Steve. Pretty much how I was feeling about the whole “bullpen revolution” since April: It was a flash in a pan, not a sign of Price suddenly having an epiphany.

    Price is just a continuation of the Dusty school of baseball managing. He’s pretty much an average manager, a guy who follows “the book” and doesn’t rock the boat. It’s a safe approach. But, as the modern baseball statistics now show, it’s not the best approach to maximize your chances of winning games.

    If the Reds really want to take the next step forward, firing Price should be one of the moves they make.

  14. Hard to tell how things would have gone had Finnegan not gone down with the lat strain and the general lurching from extreme to extreme the rotation has provided thus far.

    It seemed like the plan for april was to give the model a 4-6 week trial run to see how pitchers adjusted to it while also giving Davis, Reed, and Stephenson a chance to show who deserved a shot at the rotation.

    But when none of those three stepped forward, Finnegan gets hurt, and the starters are not going deep enough into games, it may have forced a reconsideration. It’ll be interesting to see if it makes a comeback after Finnegan and perhaps Bailey get up to speed.

    I think there was a genuine desire to do something different, or why try it at all? When the roster flux settles somewhat, it’d be a great time to try it again.

  15. The last time I heard him, it sounded as if Dick Williams was supporting the “bullpen revolution” and even it took it steps further at times. I am a little surprised that Price seems to be looking DW in the face and saying, ‘even though this is my contract year, I say my way is better than your way.’ However, at the same time, if there are quotes of Price saying this was temporary then Williams knew it was coming.

    If Price is a vanilla manager that goes by the book, I guess that means he should be around average as a manager. But with a new school front office that has publicly endorsed and praised unique ideas (100 inning relievers and no starters or relievers), Price conflicts harshly with this approach. I just hope that Reds can somehow find a good and open-minded manager and not settle for mediocrity.

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