Outside of some stumbles this past week, the Reds bullpen has been magnificent. Through Sunday, the Redleg relief corps was fourth in ERA, third in FIP, and tied for second in reliever fWAR. With such a lockdown crew waiting in the wings, it makes sense that David Bell’s strategy has been let the starters go through the order twice then bring in the reinforcements.
Yes, there have been some questionable calls on the skipper’s part. Using Wandy Peralta and Zach Duke in high-leverage situations and leaving Raisel Iglesias for only saves are two more recent transgressions. But Bell has also used Tanner Roark to perfection and milked the most out of Amir Garrett, Michael Lorenzen, and David Hernandez. I don’t want to question the soundness of Bell’s tactics because he’s played most situations perfectly. I do, however, want to question his strategy’s sustainability.
In the two games of yesterday’s doubleheader, Bell used six relievers. Yes, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray got into pitch count issues, but with that heavy bullpen use, the Reds now lead the major leagues with 196 relievers used. The Braves sit the next closest at 192 in the same number of games played.
It’s not a massive discrepancy to be sure, but it’s also not the important part. With those 196 league-leading reliever games, the Reds have recorded 194 innings pitched, tied for 13th with the Diamondbacks.
“So what’s the big deal?” I assume you’re asking. Well, not only are the Reds turning to their bullpen more than other team in the league, they’re also using it the least efficiently. That means on days like today, when the Reds have to depend on a young, inexperienced starter like Lucas Sims, every Reds reliever has pitched at least an inning since last Friday.
Raisel Iglesias is the most rested, with only one inning pitched on Friday. Cody Reed and Robert Stephenson are the only other two relievers to have escaped multiple games of work, though Reed threw multiple innings yesterday and Stephenson labored on Sunday. Also, the Reds are likely going to send down one of these relievers when Lucas Sims comes up to start.
More importantly, a relievers contributions aren’t limited to the boxscore. Relievers must warm-up, occasionally multiple times in a game, getting a full day’s worth of throwing in regardless of how many pitches are thrown in the game. By using his bullpen so liberally, David Bell creates a scenario where opposing teams can play match-ups later in games with the presumptive knowledge that a good portion of the bullpen is unavailable.
To keep up with the above-average bullpen demand, the Reds have carried 13 pitchers much of the season, leaving them with only four bench bats. While Michael Lorenzen does give the team that flexibility as the reliever can double as a pinch-hitter, wouldn’t everyone rather Phillip Ervin or, when Scooter Gennett returns, Josh VanMeter as the extra bat?
Not all of this can be laid at the feet of David Bell either. Yes, the skipper has been quick with the hook, but also the Reds three best starters are most effective when dancing around the zone. Luis Castillo owns the lowest zone percentage in the major leagues and Tanner Roark (12th) and Sonny Gray (17th) also fall in the top 20. While the strategy has clearly worked for all three so far, it also leads to some extreme pitch counts. Luis Castillo averages 94.8 pitches and 5.81 innings per game; Tanner Roark averages 94.4 pitches and 5.12 innings; and Sonny Gray averages 85.3 pitches and 5.10 innings. In short, the Reds starters have labored, albeit effectively.
Of course, a good deal of this column is fear-mongering. It’s only a possibility that Bell’s decisions lead to this adverse effects. Plus, the bullpen still sits in a tie for second in fWAR! Look at that ERA! Look at that FIP! The bats are coming around! We can handle some regression!
All of that is true, yet I’m not worried about regression. I’m worried about overuse and fatigue. A third of the way through the season, and the majority of the bullpen is on pace to set career-highs in games played. The rest are within shouting distance, save Matt Bowman and Cody Reed who have been in the minors. Same goes for innings pitched.
I worry that, late in the summer when the heat gets oppressive and no one can even jokingly claim that “it’s still early,” these relievers might be cooked. What happens when you mix regression with fatigue on a ballclub that already insists Wandy Peralta and Zach Duke are two of the best options?
I hope I’m wrong. I hope this past week, with its three bullpen implosions, has been a fluke and not a harbinger of more to come. But if I’m not and all the games pitched, the warm-up tosses thrown, the back-to-backs catch up with the relief corps, the Reds relievers might just need some relief themselves.