The struggles of the 2015 Reds’ bullpen have been pretty glaring. It’s not just that the relief corps has blown some saves, because they only have 9, which ties them with the Royals, Nationals, and Angels. It’s not just that they’ve lost some games, because while 11 losses sounds like a lot, that’s just a little worse than average and tied with the Dodgers. It’s that they seem to meltdown in such spectacular and coordinated ways, at just the worst times. Put that together with some bullpen moves by the manager that are very difficult to understand, and the struggles of the relievers just seem worse.

For a long while the Reds were even carrying 8 relievers, in a “see if something sticks” attempt to figure it out. During that time there was a popular sentiment that maybe it was a good idea to have some extra arms because of all the rookies in the rotation. This got me to thinking about a piece of conventional baseball wisdom that goes way back: your bullpen will be better if your starters go deep into games.

Intuitively, this just makes sense, right? Your relievers arms will be more rested if they don’t have to pitch every game, and that should make them better over the course of the season. Further, if you only have to cover a couple of innings with the pen each game, you can use your best guys most of the time, and effectively hide the soft underbelly of your bullpen; the weak links that nearly every team has. In the Reds’ case, rookie starters aren’t expected to go as deep into games, so there was the risk that the Reds’ pen would get exposed by pitching too many innings.

But I took a look and it turns out the basically none of that is true. First off, the Reds are tied for third in baseball in innings per start by their starters at 6.1, behind the Mets and Tigers at 6.2. That has resulted in the Reds bullpen pitching the 5th fewest innings at 167. At the same time, the Reds have the 5th worst bullpen ERA (4.36) and 12th worst FIP (3.73). So pitching so few innings doesn’t seem to be helping.

I went a little deeper and looked at the correlation between the total innings that a bullpen logs in a year, and the ERA and FIP of that bullpen (team data from 1980 through 2014). What I found was that there wasn’t any connection. Really. As close to zero as any statistical test can be. So while that conventional wisdom makes a lot of sense intuitively, and in any given case may work, the innings that a bullpen pitches just aren’t a determining factor in how good they are relative to other teams. If you think about it, this can make some intuitive sense also, since how good the starters on a team are doesn’t have to be connected to how good the relievers are. Just because the starters always go deep into games, doesn’t mean that any Joe off the street could go out there and throw up a sub-3 ERA. The relievers still have to be good.

With that door shut, I took a look at a ton of other stats for the 2015 season to compare the Reds’ relievers to other teams. As this article discusses, we’re in an era of elite relief pitching, where bullpens are better and used more than almost ever before. Given that, it seems like the Reds must being doing something wrong that we can see in the numbers to struggle so mightily. I examined basically every peripheral stat available to see if the Reds were significantly outside of the average in one way or another (I used one standard deviation as my test, for sake of ease).

Here’s what I found that the Reds do better than the average pen:

Stat Reds Average
K/9 9.4 8.43
FB % 65% 60%
FB Velocity 93.6 92.6
Slider Vel 84.7 83.3
Cutter Vel 90.2 88.2

Granted, some of that is the Chapman effect, but overall it gives you the picture of a bullpen with above average velocity that likes the old number 1, and gets paid off with solidly above average strikeouts per inning.

Here are the things that the Reds relievers are significantly worse at than average:

Stat Reds Average
BB/9 4.4 3.3
GB% 42% 45%
Fastball Movement .4in 1.8in
Changeup Sink -5.3in -4in

Again, this is a very simple way of looking at relievers as a group and getting a feel for what they excel at, and what they struggle with. Clearly, the biggest problem with the Reds pen is that they walk way too many guys. In addition to that they are worse than average at getting ground balls (which turn into double plays sometimes, and home runs never), which may have something to do with the fact that their fastballs are straighter than average.

As for those things that are largely out of a pitcher’s control (BABIP, stranded runner percentage, and homeruns/fly ball) The Reds are only significantly outside the norm in strand rate at 69% compared to an average of 75%. So it’s fair to say that some of the struggles the Reds have had are the result of hits and walks coming at the wrong time, and we might see some improvement there.


It seems like the Reds’ front office has chased the strikeout with their relievers, and paid the price in terms of walks and a lack of grounders. While we might want to say, “hey, we’ve pitched so few innings, we’re bound to be good in the second half,” that’s a shaky presumption based on the historical record. For the Reds to improve their pen, they really need to acquire or develop guys that can consistently throw the ball over the plate, and potentially roll up a few more ground balls with some movement and off-speed pitches.

Sadly, this seems like exactly what they were trying to do with Burke Badenhop, and so far that hasn’t really panned out. The challenge of putting together a bullpen is that relievers are notoriously volatile from year to year, so getting one guy often isn’t enough to turn the ship around. As the trade deadline gets closer, we should keep an eye out for how the Reds plan on addressing their relievers. The next Reds team that wins a World Series (be that 2015 or 2020) probably isn’t going to have relievers that walk a guy every other inning.