Much of the Reds criticism lately has centered around burning out the bullpen in the first two months of the season. However, a quick search on Fangraphs shows the Reds are actually below the MLB average for relief innings in 2019, a vast contrast from one year ago.
In 2018, Reds relievers pitched 108.0 innings through March and April, fourth most in the NL. They appeared, collectively, in 97 games in March/April. This season, relievers have already pitched 119.1 innings. Ok, so Reds relievers have pitched more innings this season. Where’s the contrast? It comes in how relievers are being used.
Bryan Price and Jim Riggleman left starters in the game longer, even if they gave up runs. David Bell, on the other hand, has shown that he will pull starters earlier, usually before the third time through the lineup. He takes the starters out around the sixth inning, unless they’re pitching really well. In 2018, Reds starters appeared in 141 games during the third time through the lineup. This season, Reds starters have appeared in 33 games thus far during the third time through the lineup.
And comparing the Reds to the rest of MLB? The Reds are 11th in the NL in innings pitched for relievers. However, the Reds relievers are second in the NL in appearances with 128. It’s clear what Bell is doing. When Bell takes out his starters earlier, this leads to more appearances by the relievers, especially when Bell plays the matchups against certain hitters.
The Milwaukee Brewers have a similar bullpen strategy to the Reds. Brewers relievers have appeared in 127 games, right behind the Reds. The big difference between the Reds and the Brewers is that Reds starters are pitching better than the Brewers starters (thanks, Derek Johnson?), leading to less innings by the relievers.
Brewers manager Craig Counsell is known for using his relievers frequently, and this year is no different. In fact, he’s likely had to go to his bullpen more. Their starting rotation has not been as good as in 2018. Thus far in 2019, the Brewers lead the NL in innings pitched with 153.2 innings. Now, the Brewers have had 12 different relievers pitch, but their top five relievers–Josh Hader, Junior Guerra, Alex Claudio, Matt Albers, and Jacob Barnes–all have at least 13 appearances this season, with Claudio appearing the most at 19. For comparison, the Reds top five relievers–Michael Lorenzen, Raisel Iglesias, Amir Garrett, David Hernandez, and Jared Hughes–have between 15 and 18 appearances.
Counsell uses a lot of his relievers for multiple innings. Hader is used almost exclusively for multiple innings with six of his 13 appearances coming for more than one inning. Guerra and Claudio both have pitched multiple innings six times as well, and Albers has pitched multiple innings five times. The Brewers have also had twelve different relievers pitch in 2019, compared to the Reds’ nine relievers. Relief appearances have been spread across a wider range of pitchers.
Like Counsell, Bell has also employed a strategy of using relievers for multiple innings. Lorenzen currently leads the team with eight multiple inning appearances, followed by Robert Stephenson and Garrett with six each, Iglesias with five, Hughes with four, and Hernandez with two. Unlike Counsell, however, Bell seems to be playing matchups more frequently, which leads to more appearances.
If you’re worried about the bullpen, don’t be yet. Yes, Reds relievers are coming into games more frequently than other teams, but they aren’t pitching a lot more innings. The Reds don’t have astronomically high innings or appearance count. This is the way baseball is in 2019–inserting players into situations based on stats and matchups, and Bell and the Reds are playing the game the same way any other team does.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and Fangraphs.