I Can’t Get No Relief

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For a variety of reasons, all of which would be meaningless to you, I find myself writing this in Charlottesville, Virginia. Charlottesville, of course, is the home of the University of Virginia, a school whose baseball program currently competing in the finals of the College World Series. The town is bubbling with excitement over the exploits of the Cavalier baseballers.

So, naturally, I’m thinking about the Reds bullpen right now.

These thoughts have been spurred by UVa’s closer, Nick Howard. Howard, you may recall, was Cincinnati’s first-round draft choice in the recent MLB First-Year Player draft. He’s a 6-foot-4 right-hander with a fastball that can reach the upper 90s and a fearless demeanor on the mound.

Last year, Howard was a first-team All-ACC selection as a utility player; as a third baseman and shortstop, Howard has hit .303/.345/.400 over his career. Last year, he was a starting pitcher who went 6-4 with a 3.38 ERA, striking out 52 hitters and walking just 15 in 61.1 innings. This season, however, Howard moved to the back of the bullpen, where he has been nothing short of brilliant: 2-1, 1.77 ERA, with 58 strikeouts in 35.2 innings (allowing 13 walks). Hitters are “hitting” .179 against him, and he’s recorded 20 saves.

Earlier in the College World Series, in a game against TCU, Howard pitched four scoreless innings in relief. It’s that outing that got me thinking specifically about the Reds pen and Bryan Price’s unwillingness to use relievers in anything other than their mandated “roles.”

Honestly, I’m not sure what Price is clinging to; his bullpen has been among the worst in the National League all season long. Thankfully, Reds relievers have thrown fewer innings than any other NL club (due to the quality of Cincinnati’s starting corps), but those innings have been somewhat less than effective, to say the least. The bullpen has the second-worst ERA in the league, to go along with the worst xFIP (by far) and highest walk rate.

A closer inspection reveals that Price’s least-effective relievers have gotten the lion’s share of the relief innings. JJ Hoover (32.2 innings pitched, 5.23 ERA, 4.73 xFIP), Sam LeCure (28.1 IP, 3.81 ERA, 4.14 xFIP), and Logan Ondrusek (27 IP, 4.00 ERA, 4.23 xFIP) have had the heaviest workload of anyone in the bullpen. (Yes, I realize I’m quoting ERA and xFIP in a discussion of relievers; these sample sizes are small, sure, but you can see that these guys have not been effective. That’s all I’m saying.)

Of course, when talking about least-effective relievers, I am intentionally ignoring the duo of Trevor Bell and Nick Christiani. Life is more enjoyable when you ignore ERAs like Bell’s 67.50

In some ways, this discussion is unfair to Bryan Price. He’s been forced to deal with injuries to Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Broxton, and we all expected Hoover and LeCure to be better than they have been, given past results. On the other hand, there’s never any justifiable excuse for using Ondrusek in a high-leverage situation, and yet, Price continually does just that.

Way back in spring training, Price caused a few of us to get a little excited when he indicated that he didn’t want to manage his bullpen using rigid roles. Specifically, he said he wanted to use Chapman for more than one inning when he could, and he didn’t want to get caught up in using lefties (such as Sean Marshall and Manny Parra) just to get one out. Those of us who were optimistic about our new manager read this as a repudiation of the way former manager Dusty Baker handled his bullpen. At this point, there is no question whatsoever that Price has not managed his relievers as he said he would. In fact, he appears to be even more rigid than Baker had been.

Aroldis Chapman did throw two innings in one outing (on May 19), but that was a situation where Chapman blew the save and was forced to pitch the tenth inning as well. On June 19, Chapman recorded four outs in one game; that was a tie game that Chapman entered with two outs in the ninth, remaining in the game to pitch the 11th. So Chapman has appeared in 19 games, but Price still hasn’t found an opportunity to bring him into the game before the ninth inning. Contrary to his preseason predictions, Price has pretty much handled Chapman by the book: bring him in during the ninth inning if there is a save opportunity. High-leverage situation in the eighth, or seventh? Price always uses someone else (and far too often, that someone else is Ondrusek.)

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Unfortunately, solutions to the problems we are seeing in the bullpen aren’t readily apparent. Ondrusek, LeCure, and Parra have all seen their fastball velocities decrease this season, but they aren’t going anywhere (and in the case of LeCure and Parra, shouldn’t go anywhere). There was an expectation that Alfredo Simon would return to the pen at some point, but he’s pitching so well in the rotation that he isn’t going anywhere, either. Tony Cingrani is struggling (even in relief). Sean Marshall may never be healthy again. The Reds called up Jumbo Diaz, and I expect him to help, but he was pretty bad in his first outing.

Honestly, the best bet would be for Bryan Price to do what he said he’d do. He should get creative, and use Chapman and Broxton at the most important moments in the game rather than limiting them to their assigned roles. If the most high-leverage situation occurs in the seventh inning, well, there’s no rule against using your closer if it’s not a save situation. It seems obvious that a manager should use his best pitcher to record the most important outs. That rarely happens with any manager. This is something that needs to change.

Actually, there may be one other option. Nick Howard’s college season will end this week (be sure to watch him pitch for Virginia in the CWS while you can). Howard has great stuff, and a great makeup, and we already know he can throw more than one inning in relief. The Reds could sign him, bring him straight to the big leagues, and install him in the bullpen.

Instead, the Reds are reportedly going to turn Howard back into a starting pitcher. And that’s the right decision, but you can forgive me for dreaming. I’m afraid it will take something drastic to improve this Cincinnati bullpen.

Chad Dotson is a contributing writer to our Reds Blog. He is also the founder of Redleg Nation and a contributor to ESPN’s SweetSpot blog.

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