Bullpen usage is on the rise around baseball. Relievers threw 16,469 2/3 innings last season, setting the MLB record for the second year in a row. (Phillies manager Gabe Kapler seems determined for his team to break that record on its own this season.)

The cause is multi-facted. With elbow injuries increasing, managers are trying to preserve their starters’ health both for future seasons and potential playoff runs. Also contributing is the simple fact that there are more big arms in bullpens than ever before, and teams want to maximize the value of those pitchers rather than sending starters out to face a lineup for a third or fourth time.

The bullpen revolution is also changing the way managers utilize closers.

After the advent of the save in 1969, a closer primarily came into the game in the ninth inning when his team had a lead of three runs or less. If the game was tied and went to extra innings, the closer on the home team would sit in the bullpen until his team took the lead. On the surface, the logic seems sound. When a team has a tight lead late in the game, the manager wants to put their best pitcher on the mound to increase the odds of bringing home the win.

But what if the opposing team’s seven, eight, and nine batters are the ones due up? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have your best reliever face the other team’s best hitters, regardless of the inning? Why save the closer for the bottom of the 11th when your team could very well lose the game in the 10th with a lesser pitcher on the mound?

Asking these questions has started to change bullpen management.

Another traditional role of the closer was to pitch one inning only, limiting the total impact they could have on their teams throughout the season. Reds fans are all too familiar with this, as Dusty Baker and Bryan Price rarely let Aroldis Chapman throw multiple innings or appear outside of the ninth. While frustrating, it wasn’t hard to see why the outdated strategy prevailed with the Reds — because it was the same tactic almost every manager had been using for decades.

In recent years, more teams have challenged the status quo of closer usage and adopted a new mindset. Or, more accurately, they re-adopted a strategy that went largely unseen after the early 1990s and the days of the Nasty Boys. The improved bullpen management was heavily influenced by the 2016 postseason, in which Terry Francona and Joe Maddon used their best relievers liberally and pulled starters earlier in games than anyone was accustomed to. The extreme nature of their bullpen usage couldn’t realistically be used in a full season without wearing down relievers, but it shifted the normal way of thinking.

The Reds, despite their frustrating use of Chapman, are one of the teams to adapt to a more flexible plan for using their best bullpen arms, primarily Michael Lorenzen and arguably the club’s most talented pitcher, Raisel Iglesias.

Iglesias, the team’s Opening Day starter in 2016 and hopeful future ace, was forced to the bullpen because of lingering right shoulder problems later that season. To get the most out of him moving forward, it was imperative to maximize his innings in relief. He pitched 17 multi-inning appearances after his move to the bullpen that season before he was officially named the team’s closer in 2017. Now, the true test would come. Would Price use Iglesias in a similar manner now that he was the team’s go-to arm at the end of games?

For the most part, the answer was yes. Iglesias pitched multiple innings 18 times in 2017, 27th among all relievers and most among all regular closers. That’s 35 times in a season-and-a-half. Chapman, on the other hand, pitched multiple innings 29 times in his entire Reds career from 2010 to 2015 (which, looking back on it, is more than it seemed like at the time).

Iglesias racked up 28 saves in 2017. Twelve of his save opportunities came in multi-inning outings, which was one short of Kenley Jansen for the major-league lead and far ahead of the third-place closer (Alex Colome, 7). Other notable names: Craig Kimbrel (5), Greg Holland (1), Roberto Osuna (3), Corey Knebel (3), Fernando Rodney (0), Ken Giles (3), Wade Davis (1). Notably, none of those pitchers aside from Davis have starting experience in the major leagues, but the way Iglesias was deployed in 2017 was clearly encouraging. For reference, Chapman threw multiple innings in a save situation 11 times in his Reds career.

Realistically, though, how much can the Reds pitch Iglesias given his previous shoulder troubles? The team obviously can’t throw him out there everyday, but he showed few signs of wear and tear even on short rest. In fact, he performed even better when he had few days off between appearances.

Days of Rest  Games ERA K% BB% OPS

Since the 2016 postseason, when Francona used Andrew Miller anytime in the game, teams have also gotten more creative with when they use their best relievers. Lorenzen was typically the guy Price used in early-game situations when he needed a big out from the bullpen (who could forget how excited some of us were when Lorenzen appeared in a bases-loaded, no-out situation in the third inning of a game last April?).

The Reds manager wasn’t quite as willing to use Iglesias outside before the eighth inning, which is certainly an area for further improvement, but he wasn’t totally against the idea, either. In Iglesias’ lone appearance prior to the eighth last year, he was brought into a game in the fifth inning.

Regardless, Iglesias still entered the game in high-leverage situations more than any other reliever on the team. FanGraphs’ Leverage Index (LI) attempts to measure how critical the game situation is when a pitcher enters and exits a game.

During the course of a game, some situations are more tense and suspenseful than others. For instance, we know that a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning is more suspenseful than a one-run lead in the top of the third inning. Batting with two runners on and two outs in the eighth inning is filled with more pressure than batting in the same situation in the second inning. Leverage Index (LI) is merely an attempt to quantify this pressure so we can determine if a player has been used primarily in high-leverage or low-leverage situations.

In Iglesias’ case, when he enters the game (measured by gmLI) is most important since he’s rarely pulled from an outing. Here’s a quick explanation of what the numbers mean (you can read more about Win Probability and the way the Leverage Index is calculated in the link above, but I’ll spare you the details here):

An LI of 1 is average. Anything above 1 is above average and anything below it is below average. We bin the situations into three groups (Low: 0-0.85, Medium: 0.85-2.0, High: 2.0+), but then can range from essentially 0 to around 10 for the most intense moments.

With that context, here’s a look at the Reds’ leaderboard among relievers in 2017:

Name gmLI
Raisel Iglesias
Michael Lorenzen
Wandy Peralta
Tony Cingrani
Drew Storen
Kevin Shackelford
Blake Wood
Austin Brice

There are two main takeaways here:

  1. The Reds didn’t have many high-leverage situations in a 94-loss season. The league leader, Mariners closer Edwin Diaz, sat at a 2.06 gmLI last season.
  2. When they did, Iglesias was the man Price trusted the most, along with Lorenzen. Few other relievers were brought in during high-leverage situations.

Iglesias trotted in from the bullpen with a Leverage Index above 2 on 15 different occasions in 2017, with a maximum of 5.19 on August 15, a 2-1 win over the Cubs. Using simpler numbers, he came into a game 11 times with a man on base, and runners were in scoring position on seven of those occasions. Now, let’s compare that to Chapman’s usage under Price. In 2014 and ’15, Chapman came into a game with men on base only 10 times, eight of those with runners in scoring position.

Comparing the two pitchers via gmLI is a little trickier. If you browse Chapman’s FanGraphs page, you’ll notice his gmLI was consistently higher than that of Iglesias last year. Chapman’s was larger mostly because the Reds were playing in tighter games for much of his time in Cincinnati. His gmLI bottomed out at 1.62 in 2015, when the team lost 98 games — still much higher than Iglesias in 2017. However, the Reds simply played in more competitive games overall, despite having four more losses. The 2015 club played in far more one-run contests (47 vs. 35 in 2017) and fewer blowouts (42 vs. 56), which are defined as games decided by five or more runs. The conclusion? A season Leverage Index often needs to be considered with a team’s overall performance in mind, making it hard to compare pitchers on different clubs.

While the Reds could get even more value out of Iglesias by being willing to use him any time in the game rather than only the last two innings, Price deserves credit for evolving in the way he deploys his closer. Some managers still don’t use their best reliever any time but the ninth inning. In his first two season at the helm, Price was the same. Being open to change has helped him get better value out of Iglesias than he would’ve with his prior strategy.

It will always be natural to wonder what Iglesias could do if he remained in the rotation. He’ll never provide as much value out of the ‘pen as he would as a starter, but Price and the Reds took positive steps toward maximizing his worth in 2017. If Monday’s game was any indication, that will continue in 2018.

13 Responses

  1. SultanofSwaff

    2018 will be a fascinating and hopefully telling year for the evolution of baseball strategy as it pertains to bullpen usage. The Rays are committed to a 4 man rotation, the Phillies trotted out 21 pitchers in 3 games. It would appear that certain teams are committed to only using their starter twice thru a lineup. Price was on record yesterday saying he doesn’t want to go down that path. Given the plethora of starting pitching options, it makes sense, but I’m sure his belief is not data driven but rather an adherence to traditional thinking.

  2. JB WV

    Nice write-up, Matt. Just wondering what Gallardo’s LI was last year. He had decent numbers as a reliever but what were the spots he pitched in? Can’t imagine he was above 1. If Garrett’s going to stay in the pen, I’d like to see him worked into high-leverage situations ahead of Peralta.

    • Matt Wilkes

      Thank you!

      Gallardo’s gmLI as a reliever last year was 0.57. Very low.

      • JB WV

        Not surprised. Thanks for looking that up. Still wondering why they signed this guy.

      • Matt Wilkes

        I wish I had an answer, but I’m just as confused as you.

  3. SultanofSwaff

    In using a starting pitcher just twice thru the order it would open up an opportunity to use him in a game on his side session day when he would be getting hot regardless. Yet another way to maximize the finite number of pitches a pitcher can throw in a season.

  4. SultanofSwaff

    THIS. The Cardinals brought their flamethrowing reliever Hicks north even though he never pitched above high A. Rainey should’ve been in the mix. With relievers especially you can accelerate the developmental timeline as they are mainly 2 pitch guys and service time considerations are moot, but the Reds seems content to employ a one size fits all strategy.

  5. Chris Garber (@cgarber8)

    Good piece and good ideas. The 1999 Reds actually bucked this trend.

    According to a book I recently read (hint), Danny Graves (the team’s saves leader) entered before the ninth inning in the vast majority of his outings; pitched 111 innings; and had 41 multi-inning games. Scott Williamson threw 93.3 innings, and over half of his outings were multi-innings. Scott Sullivan pitched 113.6 innings in 79 games, with 57 of them coming on 0 or 1 days’ rest.

    • Matt Wilkes

      It’d be interesting to see this strategy used again. I do wonder if we’ll start seeing more relievers break 100 innings again. Some pitchers (Sullivan) handle that kind of workload better than others (Williamson), though, so the Reds might be hesitant to push Iglesias that far given his previous shoulder troubles.

    • eric3287

      It’s funny, between this, the photo that was going around last week showing the 1969 Reds utilizing a 4 man out field against Willy McCovey, Sparky and his Captain Hook moniker for his short leash with starting pitchers, and the Nasty Boys of 1990, the Reds traditionally have been rather forward thinking with a lot of this stuff. It makes their delayed entrance into the sabermetric world even more disappointing.

  6. Sliotar

    You don’t have to go far in listening to find ex-players and ex-managers speak of getting the last out “just being different” than any other one in the game, even if higher-leverage situations occur earlier on. It may be just baseball superstition, but many in the game buy into it.

    With the Indians, using Andrew Miller whenever works because Cody Allen is there to finish the game off, if need be. Allen has 30 or more saves each of the last 3 seasons.

    If Lorenzen were to be healthy and given the task of developing himself fully into it a closer, Lorenzen might be the Allen to Iglesias’s Miller.

    As the bullpen stands now, it’s doubtful Iglesias does anything other than 8th and 9th innings. Price is not about to get risky, given he is managing for his job and may not even have the whole season to show progress.

    • Matt Wilkes

      Yeah, I totally agree it’s unlikely for Price to get too crazy with his usage of Iglesias. The Indians (and many other teams) have much better overall bullpens than the Reds, which allows them more flexibility.

  7. Dave Roemerman

    Matt, great read thanks. I particularly liked the breakdown of pitcher appearances/situations and the comparison of a close 98 loss season and an up and down 94 loss season.

    I would say reliever use, particularly running the best guys out there more and for longer stints, is as underrated part of Price’s managing.