David Bell didn’t waste any time giving Reds fans a glimpse at his bullpen management in 2019. On Opening Day, he pulled Luis Castillo early in the sixth, used multiple pitchers based on match-ups, and gave Raisel Iglesias every opportunity to earn a two inning save. Unfortunately, Iglesias walked two of the first three batters he faced in the ninth, and Bell had to bring in Amir Garrett and David Hernandez to secure the win.
However, it’s encouraging to see Bell open to the idea of using Iglesias in multiple innings. Since suffering shoulder fatigue as a starter in 2016, Iglesias has embraced the closer role. But the Reds haven’t done the best job in trying to maximize his value as a relief pitcher. Neither Bryan Price nor Jim Riggleman did it enough. Iglesias pitched only 20.1 innings in the eighth in 2017 and 11.2 innings in the eighth in 2018. Price was more likely to bring him in for the four out save, instead of letting him pitch two full innings. He hasn’t been given much of a chance to prove what he can do in multiple innings. That realistically could change in 2019.
Iglesias’ first chance at showing what he can do in multiple innings didn’t go so well though. On Thursday, he walked two and allowed a solo home run to left-handed hitter Corey Dickerson while striking out one in 1.1 innings. Diving deeper into the stats shows that Iglesias struggles when he gives up hits early in the innings he pitches.
In 2018, Iglesias gave up 12 home runs in 72.0 innings, the most of his career. Ten of the 12 home runs he surrendered came with the bases empty, and seven of those 10 came with no outs. In 2017, Iglesias allowed five home runs in 76.0 innings, three of which came with the bases empty. Dickerson’s home run Thursday led off the eighth, on a sinker that was belt high and inside.
Of his four pitches–four seamer, sinker, slider, and change-up, Iglesias usually throws the four seamer most often, followed closely by the sinker. Early in his career, he threw the sinker more than the four seamer. From late 2016 to 2017, he started throwing the four seamer more, but has since gone back to the sinker as his preferred pitch. In 2018, most of the home runs he gave up came off his sinker.
Hitters tend to hit home runs against Iglesias when his pitches are in the middle of the zone. Usually it’s because he tries to sneak a fastball by them on the first few pitches. When those pitches are belt high and in the middle of the plate, major league hitters don’t miss, even if his fastball averages 95 mph. It was evident on Thursday and it was evident Monday night when Christian Yelich and Ryan Braun both got base hits off his four-seam fastball.
Also in 2018, Iglesias’ first pitch swing percentage was 31.3%. The MLB average checked in at 28.0, so more hitters were swinging on the first pitch off him than the average pitcher last year. It seems hitters wait for the sinker and crush the first one they see. Once he gets deeper into counts, he starts throwing the slider and changeup more, depending on if it’s a right handed hitter or a left handed hitter. They have a much harder time with those pitches, as he strikes out 48.6% of hitters with his slider.
Iglesias struggled with walks on Thursday as well. He doesn’t walk too many hitters–his BB% has ranged from 8.0% to 8.8% each of the last three years. And while his home runs come early in innings, he tends to walk hitters later in innings. Thirteen of the 25 walks he gave up in 2018 came with two outs. He tends to walk hitters when throwing his four-seamer. His BB% is 22.2% off the four-seamer compared to 7.2% off the sinker. He rarely walks hitters from his off-speed pitches, likely because he can get hitters to swing and miss at those.
From both charts, it’s clear the fastball hasn’t been working nearly as much as the slider and changeup. Even more surprising is how much his home runs and walks jumped up in one year off his fastball. The result is an increased FIP of 4.23 in 2018, up from 2.70 in 2017.
Iglesias is one of the best pitchers on the roster, and it’s the reason Bell will go to him in the highest leverage situations. Yes, he has struggled to start the season, but Iglesias’ woes can be fixed. His breaking stuff has been really good. If he can avoid throwing fastballs across the middle of the plate, he can get back to the kind of dominance Reds fans are used to seeing.