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.

Conclusions

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.

15 Responses

  1. George Mirones

    I like the explanation of Intuition versus data.
    I guess my questions would be these;
    In compiling the data was Gregg and Diaz included in YTD info?
    What would the data look like just based on the folks in the bullpen at game time today compare to league averages.
    Looking for hope 🙂

  2. Playtowin

    Good point. Gregg and Diaz killed the bullpen while they lasted. Cingrani walks too many. The difference between winniing 94 games and being in the playoffs and winning 70 games and being in last place is just one win per week vs. a loss over the season. Often a good bullpen can make the difference in getting that one win a week. Bad bullpens assure losing seasons.

  3. Tom Gray

    In my lifetime (born in 1951), the best Reds teams have had excellent bullpens.

    1961 Brosnan, Henry, et al. 1970 Granger, Carroll, Gullett. 1972 Carroll, Borbon, Hall. 1975 Eastwick, McEnaney, Borbon. 1976 same. 1990 Myers, Dibble, Charlton.

    • concepcion13

      Don’t forget to include Clay Carroll on those ’75 & ’76 teams, too. What a loaded ‘pen Sparky had to use!

      • Tom Gray

        Carroll in 75 (yes) but he was traded to CWS prior 76.

        One of Howsam’s best trades (with Braves in 1968).

  4. old-school

    How ’bout the eye test?
    Hoover and Chapman have pitched well. Everyone else has pitched below average to horrific. Cingrani is the wildcard- his stuff/potential is counterbalanced by his lack of command and lack of mental toughness and inconsistency. Bottom Line, the bullpen stinks because the Reds front office and Price filled it with bad pitchers.

  5. Indy Red Man

    I think our pen suffers from the GABP effect. I haven’t really crunched numbers but thats my guess? I was hoping Badenhop would really had the sinker working but he’s been horrible. The only reliever they have that seems to consistently keep the ball down is Mattheus.

    Bruce 8 of 9 bombs at GABP
    Votto 9 of 13 @ home
    Frazier 12 of 18
    BP 3 of 3
    Hamilton 2 of 3

    Our place is obviously a launching pad.

    • old-school

      it is a launching pad….Badenhopp is much better away, but the only one. Hoover/Parra/Cingrani and Chapman are very good at home. I don’t think you can analyze splits on bad pitchers…..they are bad everywhere…..Diaz/Gregg/Marquis. Chapman is good anywhere. Love to see him in a Mets or Tigers uniform.

  6. Indy Red Man

    I don’t have the time or resources to be a fully accredited stat nerd like some of u guys but I think part of it the lack of a lefty in our pen. I remember the Cards series at GABP in April and they played it like it was October w/3 relievers in a inning….same as LaRussa used to do it. Price on the other hand buried Cingrani for atleast a month and hasn’t had Parra available much? TG has 23.1 ip on the year and Parra only has 8.1! I’m guessing St. Louis has over twice that many ip from lefties from the pen…..but again just a guess

    • George Mirones

      Red Man;
      I have had a chance to watch quite a few card games, They play like it is Oct. 3 every game. My uninformed opinion is that Matheny manages 1 out at a time, each batter looks at one at bat at a time, and each pitcher looks at one batter at a time. I have seen him , with 4 run lead, go out and get a reliever after a walk with two outs and none on. This “give them a chance” to get out of an inning approach isn’t in his style.

      • George Mirones

        Dodger Series 2015, Cards have won 5, lost 2
        Won 2 out off 3 at home and won 3 out 4 at LA.
        LA scored 12 runs in 7 games. 1.71 per game
        Cards scored 20 runs in 7 games,2.86 per game
        I guess the Cards were reminding them just who the boss is.

  7. Indy Red Man

    TC as in Tony Cingrani rather

  8. Indy Red Man

    I’m obv leaving out Chapman but he’s only a closer and not a mix-n-match guy. I really thought Price might maximize him and use him occasionally for 4 & 5 out saves like the Yankees could do w/Rivera in his prime but that’s a whole other argument

  9. jdx19

    Question about the fastball movement: does it take the direction of movement into account or only magnitude?