The bullpen has played a large role in several losses by the Reds in 2014, including last night’s defeat to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Let me make four points about that.

Point One: Injuries

The Reds bullpen has been plagued by an unusual number of injuries. Four pitchers who were likely to have started the season in the bullpen, possibly the four best, weren’t available due to injuries. Aroldis Chapman, Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton began the season on the disabled list. Alfredo Simon was pressed into service of the starting rotation due to Mat Latos’ lingering arm problems. The absence of those four pitchers took a devastating toll on the pen early in the season. Minor league-calibre pitchers saw quality innings against the Cardinals and other clubs. Several losses can be traced back to sub-optimal pitcher availability.

The good news is that Broxton and Marshall are now back and both appear to be healthy, albeit in limited trials. Aroldis Chapman seems on course to return sooner than anyone could have imagined after being struck in the forehead by a line drive on March 19.

On the other hand, as last night’s game demonstrates, whether due to an abundance of caution or dictated by actual medical condition, both Broxton and Marshall remain limited. Broxton wasn’t available to pitch two innings and Marshall was held out after throwing 24 pitches the previous afternoon. Even assuming the cavalry rides to the rescue and remains healthy, it may be a while until Bryan Price has unfettered use of his primary bullpen arms.

More concerning is the mysterious case of Sam LeCure. The soon-to-be 30-year-old right-hander was apparently held out of last night’s game after throwing 24 pitches on Sunday against the Cubs. The velocity on his two-seam fast ball (86.7), which he throws 40% of the time, has been well below his career average (89.2), which may indicate a health issue.

Point Two: New Philosophy

Bryan Price prefers to minimize the role of match-ups in using his bullpen. This approach is in stark contrast to his predecessor, who would often burn through several pitchers in an inning based on matching up left-handed pitchers against left-handed hitters and the opposite with right-handed hitters. The likelihood that Dusty Baker would have brought in a LHP to face Andrew McCutchen in the seventh inning last night is lower than Brandon Phillips walk-rate.

Price believes his pitchers can get out batters on both sides of the plate and expects them to throw complete innings. In theory, this will strengthen his pen in the long-run and give him more flexibility as the season goes on. Most importantly, it lowers the times a reliever has to warm up, reducing wear on their arms.

Fans who watched last night’s game an thought they saw Price handling the bullpen like Baker were mistaken, other than the simplified notion of one breakdown looking like any other. Price and Baker are not the same when it comes to using the bullpen.

Point Three: Same as the Old Boss

But Price is not as different from Baker as many hoped. Price still appears reluctant to use his closer at any time other than in conventional situations – with a lead in the top or bottom of the ninth or a tie game in the bottom of the ninth. The one time Price varied from that formula, using Manny Parra for a two-inning save on April 6 against the Mets, was an aberration. For a brief moment, it looked like Price might be more flexible and less role-dependent than his predecessor. But he quickly announced that Broxton would assume the traditional closer role once healthy and until Chapman returns.

Yes, we might ultimately see Chapman used for a few four- or five-out saves, but that’s (welcome) tinkering, not rethinking.

Price is also continuing Baker’s practice of using the weaker part of the bullpen in games when the Reds are one run behind. One run behind for a moment, that is. Several games this year already, including one against the Cardinals, the Reds have seen the bottom part of the pen turn small deficits turn into insurmountable ones.

One-run leads are easy to overcome and should be treated as equally high leverage as tie scores or one-run leads. Sure, you can’t use your best bullpen pitchers every night, but that hasn’t been the situation for the Reds in those instances this year.

Point Four: Point One is WAY more important than Point Two or Point Three

Injuries have constrained Price far more than his new philosophy or bullpen usage have undermined the Reds.

Last night, Price apparently faced a situation where LeCure and Marshall were unavailable. Ondrusek and Christiani have pitched poorly recently to the point where they may have been considered unusable with a lead. That left Price three pitchers – Parra, who had thrown 33 pitches the day before; J.J. Hoover, who has been ineffective; and Broxton, whose role is apparently confined to one-inning saves.

As it turns out, it might be more reasonable to consider last night a failing of the general manager rather than of the manager. Would calling up two fresh, more usable arms to the bullpen in exchange for Ondrusek and Christiani have helped? Possibly. But Bryan Price had to manage the game with the players on his roster.

When the Tampa Bay Rays were in Cincinnati, their starting pitcher, Alex Cobb, was injured after pitching on Saturday night. By the following morning, he’d had an MRI, been put on the DL and the Rays had his replacement in Cincinnati to face the Reds that Sunday afternoon.

That’s aggressive general managing, Nation.

29 Responses

  1. Kyle Farmer

    Does anyone have an explanation for why Hoover runs so hot and cold? It seems that he either is outstanding or couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. Last year, I chalked his early problems up to gross mismanagement by Duesty. Can’t do that this year and yet he’s terrible again.

    This team needs Hoover to be a valuable and consistent member of the bullpen.

    • Steve Mancuso

      Brantley was saying last night that it’s simply that he hasn’t been able to throw his breaking ball for a strike. He’s a two-pitch pitcher and hitters know they can sit on his fastball.

      • Kyle Farmer

        Thanks. That’s an excellent point. It also probably leads him to try to be too fine with the fastball placement which leads to not throwing it for strikes. Hope someone can help him break out of it.

  2. Davis Stuns Goliath

    Fay passively-aggressively posted that Jumbo Diaz is killing it at AAA right now. I say bring him up immediately. Hoover obviously needs time to work out some kinks; Ondrusek should be exiled; and Price has to develop a quicker trigger finger so he can stop the bleeding before it becomes fatal (see: Ondrusek vs. the Cubs, Hoover vs. the Pirates, etc.). Also, if players aren’t 100%, they should not be activated. I do not understand the logic of wasting a spot on the 25-man roster if they cannot be called on. If you’re not sure if someone’s ready, extend the rehab assignment.

    • Steve Mancuso

      I saw Fay’s tweet about Diaz too, and thought the same thing. It’s not that I think the minor league guys are going to be a silver bullet. But how many times has the organization used the word “accountability” since last October? The ultimate (and easiest) way to show that would be demoting a reliever or two who hasn’t been getting the job done. If that’s confounded by roster questions and salary issues (Ondrusek has a major league contract), then the organization isn’t serious about accountability.

  3. charlottencredsfan

    Problem being he wasted his effective relievers in an 8-2 blow-out the day before. Team management had nothing to do with. You listed only four items but there is a fifth: inexperience. Price has not been effective managing the bullpen, injuries aren’t helping though. He will get better because he has shown flexibility and is a smart cookie.

    • Reaganspad

      I totally agree. with a 5 run lead on Sunday it was Parra, LeCure and Marshall to finish a game against the stupid cubs with the Pirates on deck. bad move Bryan.

      Point 5:

      That is funny right there I do not care who you are:

      “The likelihood that Dusty Baker would have brought in a LHP to face Andrew McCutchen in the seventh inning last night is lower than Brandon Phillips walk-rate.”

      I agree that the Logan experiment has grown old, regardless of his contract.

      If your pen was so decimated and you know walt will not make a roster move, Shouldn’t you schedule a guys bullpen (like Simon) late the game in case you need an inning out of him?

      Come on Bryan, we really want to love you….

      However, I do really like the way he is staying with Hamilton. That move will pay dividends this year.

      I would have Meso up in the lineup, and commented early this year that I like his approach at the plate and how tough an at bat he gives every time.

      Phillips, Frazier and Ludwick all give at bats away with bad approaches. Move Meso now Bryan.

      Love that the new hitting coach is getting credit for Meso’s new success this year.

      Never heard of a Reds hitting coach make impact like that.

      • jdx19

        Meso’s success is over 10 games where his BABIP is near .607, which is obviously ludicrously awesome and barely1/2 sustainable. I’d love the give hitting coach some credit, but I still need a larger sample to have a warm fuzzy about him. 🙂

        With that said, Meso’s run has been very fun to watch.

        Interestingly enough, his first 10 games have been so crazy they should have a profound impact on his final line of the year.

        So, assuming (conservatively) he starts in 110 of the Reds remaining 143 games and hits his career averages of .245/.301/.397 the rest of the way (which is pretty unlikley, I think), his line for the YEAR would still be .270/.323/.442, which I’m sure most of us would have taken at the beginning of the year.

        More likely, he increases his career numbers by something like 5% the rest of the way and ends up with something like .281/.337/.461, which is all-star caliber production from the catcher position in most non-Yadier, non-Piazza, non-Mauer type places.

        TL;DR – Devin can go .257/.316/.417 if he plays in 110 of the Reds last 143 games and still hit .281/.337/.461 for the year.

  4. Shchi Cossack

    Mrs. Cossack and all the little Cossacks have come out of protective hiding along with Canine Cossack. I am happy to report that everyone is safe and secure as the Old Cossack’s rants and tantrums have subsided from earth-shattering to a barely discernable rumble. The broken debris has been cleaned up and the holes in the walls have been patched. Steve was kind enough to address the Old Cossack’s ‘concerns’ in a tempered, concise manner and sums up the biggest problem nith a nice, tidy bow, “As it turns out, it might be more reasonable to consider last night a failing of the general manager rather than of the manager.”

    The injuries are a fact that every team must handle. Some teams handle them better than other teams. WJ handles them about as poorly as any GM. Both Marshall and Broxton completed a minimal, at best, rehab assignment. rather than waiting until they were completely ready to fill a major league bullpen slot, WJ opted to activate them at the earliest opportunity and let Bryan deal with their limited availability and effectiveness. The result is a bullpen that is an absolute mess. Bryan is not blameless, but I will extend a modicum of slack to a first-time manager. If Bryan will jettison his antiquated concept of a ‘closer’, his bullpen management will make a huge positive leap forward.

    Trevor Bell & Pedro Beato had good srping training performances, but neither pitcher deserved a 40-man roster spot as the 1st option simply because WJ had signed them to a minor league contract. Logan Ondrusek should never have been extended on a guaranteed, multi-year, major-leauge contract during arbitration. Immediately after signing the contract, the Reds had to option him to AA for goodness sakes. What a stupid move. The Reds had (have) 3 bullpen options deserving of a spot on the 25-man (and 40-man) rosters before Bell or Beato: Christiani, Partch & Diaz. None of the 3 are proven at the major league level but all 3 are proven at the AAA level. All 3 have questions, but until a player proves he can do the job at the major league level, every player has questions. The fact is that all 3 of those players are ready for their chance and all are completely HEALTHY!!! All 3 of those pitchers are capable of pitching on back-to-back days and all 3 of those pitchers are capable of pitching multiple innings. Diaz may be the best and most effective of the trio, yet he is not even on the 40-man roster.

    Last night was the perfect opportunity for a 2 inning save, but apparently Braxton is incapable of pitching 2 innings. If that’s the case, then Broxton should not be on the 25-man roster until he is ready. Apparently Marshall is incapable of pitching on consecutive days. If that’s the case, then Marshall should not be on the 25-man roster until he is ready. Ondrusek has proven on multiple opportunities that he can not be counted on to produce effectively at the major league level and he should not be on the 25-man roster. Those issues are all fully accountable to WJ.

    Bryan’s unnecessary use of the less capable relievers in high leverage situations (1 run games are high leverage relief situations) is a tremendous failing and he needs to rethink that approach to bullpen management immediately or he will continue to give away winnable games unnecessarily. Bryan’s unecessary use of the most capable relievers in low leverage situations (8 run leads late in a game are low leverage relief situations) simply wastes the limited resources available in the bullpen. Bryan needs to rethink that approach to bullpen management immediately or he will continue to give away winnable games unnecessarily.

    And while we’re discussing pitchers, don’t ever … EVER!!! … sac bunt with Leake unless the game situation would call for a sac bunt by any and every other hitter in the lineup (i.e. the winning or tying run on 2B and no outs late in the game). Now let’s get back on the field tonight and spank the darn Pirates.

    • greenmtred

      I am glad, Cossack, that your family has been able to come out of hiding. One factor–really addressed by Steve in his excellent analysis–is the domino effect of the injuries: Latos is hurt, so Simon starts and is unavailable for relief. Chapman is hurt (and I fear that his return date has nothing to do with his arm and everything to do with the soundness of the bones that were broken), so other guys have to fill his role and are not available (or as available) for work earlier in the game. The options really are limited, but though I recognize that, my reaction when Ondrusek strolls to the mound sends Mrs. Greenmtred into convulsive fits of laughter and Canines Greenmtred into hiding, even the one who is as big as BP.

  5. VaRedsFan

    Well thought out opinions Steve. Points 1 and 4 are certainly valid. In point 2 you said:

    Most importantly, it lowers the times a reliever has to warm up, reducing wear on their arms.

    Didn’t Price say early in the year that LeCure hadn’t gotten into games, but he has warmed up 4 times without pitching? So I’m not sold on his philosophy yet.

  6. sultanofswaff

    LIke Steve, I’m convinced there’s something wrong with LeCure. Cold weather on Friday notwithstanding, his ‘fastball’ barely touched 86. I was at the game on Sunday, and his elbow was in a protective sleeve before and while warming up. Then he proceeded to throw again in the mid to upper 80s. I’m not encouraged.

    • lwblogger2

      We can hope it’s just a little “dead arm” and not an injury.

  7. ToddAlmighty

    MRI, DL, and replacement arrival in under 24 hours is something I can’t even imagine. The Reds take more of an approach like.. “Joey Votto hurt his knee.. oh well..” *One Week Or So Of Clear Struggling Later* “Huh, maybe we should spring for the cost of an MRI for our $200m player?” *MRI Happens* “Oh look, he was hurt. Who could have guessed?”

  8. Roger Lucas

    Dusty Baker did a good job managing his bullpen. Price acts too smart for his own good. And Walt Jocketty is the most over rated G.M in baseball.

    • jdx19

      This is definitely the first time I’ve seen this statement:

      “Dusty Baker did a good job managing his bullpen.”

      • ohiojimw

        How many other managers won 189 games (counting post season) over the two seasons of 2012-13? I agree the meltdown over the 2nd of 2013 made the change necessary; but, Baker must have done a number of things right along the way.

  9. WVRedlegs

    This is more on the GM, Jocketty. They knew when Chapman went down that Marshall and Broxton would not be available and that Simon probably wasn’t either. Jocketty gambled that the bullpen could withstand any turbulence until Marshall, Broxton and Simon all returned. That gamble went belly up when the AAA relievers stunk it up.
    Jocketty was negligent in his duties as GM by not going out and getting an experienced reliever that could throw some early innings and be counted on, and often if needed in April and May. Jocketty went the cheap route (AGAIN!!!) and it is costing them dearly in the “L” column already.

    • ohiojimw

      I think the biggest decision they made was sticking to the plan to use Simon as the stand in starter even after it emerged that they were down 4 men in the pen and that Latos was going to be out for an extended period.

      Simon’s exceptional work to date as a starter makes it easy to overlook the difference he might be making in the pen.

      Given the strength of the rotation without Simon, would team have been better served to have the next man up at AAA in the MLB rotation and Simon in the pen? I think that is still very much an open question.

  10. esbienenfeld

    Salient points as always, Steve.
    You’ve managed to calm me down a bit about Price’s handling of the bullpen–a bit.
    Is anyone else kind of dissatisfied with Price’s Dusty-lite philosophies thus far? His insistence on having a set “closer” is especially worrisome to me. That, to me, is defensible when dealing with someone like Chapman. But labeling Broxton as the closer when he’s indistinguishable from the other bullpen arms seems willfully antiquated. I also don’t know what to make of his refusal to move Mes up in the order.

    • ohiojimw

      If Steve is not in politics, he should be. He spent an entire section telling us that Price has a different bullpen philosophy than Baker then spent the next section telling us that operationally Price has been more like Baker than different from Baker in several crucial ways he has handled the pen.

      My position on Price remains, talk is cheap, actions speak.

  11. esbienenfeld

    Also, with the Reds’ medical staff consisting of witch doctors and shamans, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that LeCure is in fact hurt.
    It would be such a typical Reds move to have him pitch three innings in the next 2 weeks, wasting valuable time he could be on the DL, only to declare him injured well past the point that all of use “lay people” had realized he was hurt.

  12. Robby20

    WJ is the guy who gave Madsen, Massett, Broxton, Marshall and Ondrusek contracts that have proven to be huge mistakes. Why anyone thinks he is a top of the line GM is beyond me.

    • pinson343

      Marshall not a “huge mistake”. The Madsen deal was considered the steal of that off season, no way WJ could foresee his injury. Broxton still might help. Don’t understand what the Reds see in Ondrusek.

  13. pinson343

    Great writeup, nothing new to add. Part of what made last night frustrating was that the game became a battle of bullpens, and the Pirates won without using any of their top 3 relievers, who were all taxed after the long game in Milwaukee.

    But in the long haul, the high number (7 so far ?) of 1 run losses due largely to the bullpen will slow down. Some guys are coming back and others can pitch better. One positive way to look at it is that teams that start the season well because they’re winning a very high pct. of their close games almost always fade. For the 2014 Reds, we might just see the opposite, as their record in close games evens out.

  14. Eric the Red

    Great write up. Clear, fair, level-headed.

    I generally agree with you, except for your point about Broxton. He’s coming off an injury–thanks again, Dusty!–so he’s not ready to be used with a huge amount of flexibility such as going for a 2 inning save. And since the rest of the bullpen has been unreliable, bringing him in “untraditionally” is even less likely.

    At least one of those “bring in the worse arms because we’re down a run” situations against the Cardinals happened right at the start, when Broxton and Marshall were on the DL, and before there was any reason to believe that Simon would pitch deep into games. Bringing in the “good” arms all the time–presumably Hoover or a hurting LeCure–was something Price had to be concerned abut, compounded by the probability Simon wouldn’t go deep.

  15. al

    I cannot for the life of me understand the complacency on the bullpen from Price after banging the accountability drum forever.

    Logan Ondrusek has put up 3 consecutive below replacement-level seasons. What more does a guy have to do to get sent to the minors?

    JJ Hoover has never been as good as people wanted him to be. His xFIP the last two years has been 4.40 and 3.97, WAY over his ERAs because he’s an extreme flyball pitcher, who walks a lot of guys, in a tiny park, who didn’t give up a lot of runs. That is a hard thing to manage and this shoe has been waiting to drop for a while.

    Broxton has gone from throwing 94.8 mph when we got him to 91.8 mph this year.

    Marshall has gone from throwing 90.5 mph when we got him to 86.5 mph this year.

    LeCure has gone from throwing 89.5 mph last year to 87.1 mph this year.

    So there’s five guys right there that we can expect to be less effective this year than they were last year. It’s time to bring in some new people. Other teams seem to find elite relief pitchers getting out of bed in the morning.

    Alfredo Simon was a mediocre starting pitcher on the waiver wire, who turned into an effective reliever. Sam LeCure was a mediocre starter in the minors, who turned into an effective reliever.

    It’s time to be accountable. Go get some effective relievers.

  16. al

    Also, Pedro Beato has made the Atlanta pen. 1.2 scoreless so far. The Braves pen has the 3rd best fWAR and we’re dead last. How did he make their pen and not ours? We have a terrible pen ravaged by injury, but we let him go and Atlanta picked him up? Makes no sense.

    I would have Jumbo Diaz and Josh Smith on the next plane to Pittsburgh.

    • HammerSTL

      Wish they would have given him a shot and cut Ondrusek. Beato had a good spring training and Ondrusek has been bad for years…