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.

23 Responses

  1. Stephen Harper

    I feel David Bell has done a decent job; however to say he has “played most situations perfectly” is not even close to the truth. The first game of the double header was one of those imperfect situations. I understand bringing in David Hernandez, but not taking him out after two runs had been scored is inexcusable. You have to come and get him after the two run triple especially with Marte coming to the plate. I also look back to the game Mahle pitched before his first win (against SF I believe). He should not have been trying to challenge Mahle or stretch him out. He should have been trying to win the game. Mahle gives up a homer and suddenly the game is tied. Other times, he is too quick with the hook when it comes to Gray and Castillo.

    How he uses the bench is another concern. I remember one night he used Tucker Barnhart to pitch-hit with Dietrich on the bench. I understand match-ups based on facing a left handed pitcher vs. a right handed pitcher, but at the time Tucker couldn’t hit his way out of a paper bag. There have been several other incidents similar to this, but overall he has been what this team needs. I feel he will be a very good manager for the Reds, but he has struggled at times this year.

    I don’t feel fatigue should be an issue for the bullpen as their total innings are not individually high. Lorenzon is on pace for the most innings with 85 innings (81 last year). They might want to watch him, but the rest are not on pace for that high of a inning count. Iglesias (76 innings) has whined his way out of pitching anything other than the 9th and extra innings, so his inning count will go down. Peralta (63 innings), Hernandez (75 innings), Hughes (71 innings), Stephenson (70), Garrett (69 innings), Duke (47 innings) are all on target for an average amount of innings pitched and with Reed and Bowman, you can pitch them less at AAA and bring them up to give guys a breather.

    The Reds, despite their offensive struggles, have played well enough to be 29-25 instead of 25-29 and they are learning how to win. The Reds will go 84-78 this season and miss the last wild card spot by 5 games. That will be a good season to build on and then the decisions. Do you keep Puig? Roark? Wood (if healthy)?, Dietrich? Iglesias, Jose? Gennett? Hughes? Hernandez?

  2. okla red

    Extreme pitch counts of under 100 huh? Sorry I am just old.

    • RedleggsAndHam

      I think he’s referring to the pitch counts being in the 90’s by the 6th inning. So a “complete game” scenario would call for pitch counts in the 160’s (extrapolated).

      • Wesley Jenkins

        Yes exactly. Apologies, that could have been made more clear.

      • Bred

        Jim Maloney had a 180 pitch no hitter. Can’t imagine that today.

      • TR

        If you’re old enough to remember Bob Gibson, Robin Roberts, Don Newcombe, Warren Spahn, Nolan Ryan, Bob Feller and others, or have read about them, the accomplishment of Jim Maloney would not seem to be so unusual.

  3. jreis

    Bell’s bullpen management reminds me a lot of Pete’s management style in the 80’s. I think the goal is to be actually PLAYING meaningful games late in the summer which we haven’t done the past few years. I guess the question is would you rather be back 6 games on august 1st with a worn out bullpen or 15 games out with a rested pen?

  4. Roger Garrett

    Good article.With Iggy now only being used for saves,he complained and got his wish and thanks for pointing that out,along with guys that will not and shouldn’t be used for high leverage situations the rest will burn out.Just can’t have guys that are pigeon holed in that they can only be used at a set time for a set number of pitches,If I remember from the spring this team was going to use guys for multiple innings and that’s one of the reasons they went out and got Johnson.Maybe I am wrong on that.No reason that Iggy,Reed,Bob Steve,Lorenzen,Garrett and Bowman couldn’t from time to time.I don’t expect Hughes and Hernandez to do it but Reed last night went 2 and Bowman pitched in both games.I guess I just get confused on if its pitch count or innings or times warming or how many days in a row a guy pitches.Surely Reed could have went 3 last night in an 8-1 game.Maybe there isn’t an answer other then keep the bus gassed up going to Louisville.

  5. Matt WI

    Am I right in remembering that one of Bell’s promises when hired was wanting to have a sense of urgency about every game? If so, that’s playing out to both the good and the bad in terms of bullpen usage. We’d often complain about Dusty and Price “managing for tomorrow” too often. Well, this is the flip side. I believe that when he changes pitchers, he isn’t doing it just because it’s fun to pick up the phone, but that in his mind it’s the best thing for the club. Hopefully, he’ll keep reviewing his decisions and refine this process.

  6. matthew hendley

    Bullpen depth is the answer. Bowman and Reed fit this pretty well right now, but more is better. While 162 games is a long time there are very few examples of individuals that blow through the 100 game marker. If the starter is throwing well, keep them in, if they are not move them out. Despite individual setbacks there is no one that I would consider incredibly bad save Duke, and he is out of the way on the IL. Sims at the minimum may also find himself in the Bullpen situation if he has a good showing tonight.

    • SultanofSwaff

      Herget and Powers are options.

      Keep the engine running for the Louisville shuttle!

      • Bill Lack

        Chad and I spoke of this a bit on the latest podcast. My point agreed with Wesley’s (though without the statistical backup, thanks Wes) and Chad’s was that these are interesting thoughts, but unproven whether they’ll tank the bullpen long term. He also compared what the Reds are doing to what the Dodgers have been doing, which is basically using their entire 40 man, the difference being, most of the Reds BP are out of options, which limits the shuttle. I think the answer is, only time will tell. But I do believe this is the way Bell and the FO planned on running this team all along.

  7. Optimist

    Just for giggles I took a look at Bob Gibson’s 1968 game log on BRef.

    CYA/MVP and hilariously dominant year which, with others, led to lowering the mound height.

    Two stats stick out – he lost 9 games with a 1.12 ERA, and with a faint whiff at this article and modern pen action – he needed 8 IP of relief all year.

    Just look at his 11 starts in June & July for the all-time HOF Ace definition.

    • Matt WI

      Not coincidentally, the very next year, the mound was lowered. But still, point taken, he was a giant among men. Impressive doesn’t do it justice.

  8. CI3J

    I just saw a report that said Alex Wood is FINALLY making progress and that he might be ready for a rehab assignment in 3 weeks. That still means he’s a long way from game fit, but maybe by late July he’ll be ready. In that case, whoever is performing worst in the rotation can go to the ‘pen, and whoever is performing worst in the ‘pen can be sent down.

    That adds a little extra depth across the board, at least.

    • Matt WI

      Or he could be bullpen depth! Just kidding, just kidding.

  9. Eli J

    Could you share data suggesting that greater use causes relief pitchers’ performance to decline over the course of a season? The “wear down” metaphor doesn’t appeal to me; a human body is vastly different from an old pair of jeans.

    • Wesley Jenkins

      From Sean Doolittle earlier this season: “There’s an inherent volatility of relievers. It takes a different kind of toll on your body when night in, night out, you’re asked to [get ready to pitch] at the drop of a hat. Over the course of a season, if your workload isn’t managed properly, you may be able to get away with it for a few months, but at some point those innings are going to jump on your back, and it can lead to ineffectiveness or injury risk that can derail your season or even your career.”

      So yes different than an old pair of jeans but also overuse without proper rest will lead to greater problems.

      • Doc

        Did Doolittle actually provide data, because your response did not? It provided Doolittle’s opinion and conjecture about what might or could happen. That is not data, which is what Eli J requested.

    • greenmtred

      Such data would be general and, as such, would have its uses. But it wouldn’t tell you much about individuals, and and individuals populate the bullpen.

    • Jefferson Green

      Interesting points: David Hernandez’ note that he is the same amount of sore the day after whether he throws one pitch or up to 20. If other pitchers’ (bodies) agree, we should be counting a 4 pitch outing and a 19 pitch outing the same (no matter the number of outs). Outings of more than 20 pitches would then seem to add to the recovery time.
      Hernandez also noted that when he is run down, the important rejuvenator is two consecutive days of rest to be back in strong shape. Perhaps seeing the number of times that relievers have had the back to back days off will be a significant metric in long-term bull pen fatigue.