Blaming the Reds’ Bullpen

A so-so start to the season falls squarely on what was supposed to be a strong staff of relievers.

Cincinnati’s steadfast refusal to begin playing like the contenders everyone expected has continued into the season’s third week. Entering the second game of the Ohio Cup series against Cleveland, the Reds were 5-6, actually in second place but already four games back of first-place Chicago. (A second consecutive loss to the Indians dropped them to 5-7 and five games out.) Still no reason to panic, obviously, but so far the Reds have seemingly played uninspired baseball more than a sixth of the way through this shortened season.

 

But have they really played uninspired ball? Depends on where you look. Sure the wins and losses are just meh—and wins and losses are ultimately what it’s all about—but Cincinnati’s starting pitchers have been the best group in either league. Seriously, go back and read that sentence again. A tear streamed down my cheek as I typed the words. It’s just so glorious to imagine the Reds actually having a good rotation.

And it’s actually true! Reds starters lead all big league staffs in Wins Above Replacement, and only Cleveland’s starters rival Cincinnati’s group in many of the rate stats. You don’t have to take my word for it; check it out for yourself. Luis Castillo (0-1, 4.50 ERA), Sonny Gray (3-0, 0.96), and Trevor Bauer (1-0, 0.68) rate in the top 10 for WAR among starters in all of baseball. Let’s not forget Tyler Mahle either, who has a 1.80 ERA in two starts.

OK, so the starters aren’t the reason the team has been treading water. Can’t really blame the offense, either. Reds hitters have had trouble getting runners across the plate at times, but on the other hand they’re roughly among the top third of all offenses in baseball, judging by runs scored (and many other stat categories). Eugenio Suarez and Jesse Winker haven’t gotten hot yet, and Shogo Akiyama is still trying to adjust to American baseball, but pretty much everyone else is producing. At the top of that list is Nick Castellanos, who looks like an MVP candidate, hitting .368/.442/.921 with six home runs, which ties him with the Yankees’ Aaron Judge to lead all of baseball.

No, the starters aren’t the problem. The offense isn’t (entirely) the problem. You know where this discussion is headed: the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Bullpen. It’s difficult to overstate how bad the Reds bullpen has been in the early going of the 2020 season. Precisely two relievers, Amir Garrett and Lucas Sims, have been good so far (if we don’t include the lone appearance out of the pen by Tejay Antone, who allowed just one run in 4.1 innings in his big league debut). Literally every other pitcher in Cincinnati’s bullpen has encountered troubles.

Look, ERA is a ridiculous way to evaluate relievers, especially when we’re just a dozen games into the season. But I’m going to do it anyway, because this is my column and you can’t stop me. Be forewarned, however: It’ll make your eyes hurt.

Michael Lorenzen: 12.27 ERA
Brooks Raley: 12.00
Cody Reed: 12.00
Raisel Iglesias: 6.23
Nate Jones: 6.23

By WAR (again not a great way to evaluate relievers at this point in the season), the Reds’ bullpen is in the bottom three of the league. But you probably already suspected all of this, because you’ve been watching the games. And you’ve seen the bullpen blow leads left and right.

In the four-game losing streak after Opening Day, the pen surrendered 15 runs in 18 innings. On the season, in five of Cincinnati’s seven losses, the bullpen has surrendered the winning run. In two of those, the starter left with a lead after an excellent outing only to see the pen cough it up. In one other contest, the August 2 game against the Tigers, the bullpen blew another lead, but the Reds came back to win.

Lorenzen, of course, has been the primary culprit, surrendering home runs in each of his first three outings this season, all of which contributed to Reds losses. Iglesias, supposedly this team’s closer, was smacked around his first two times on the mound, both losses.

It has been bad, no question about it. On the other hand, I cited a few stats above that made Cincinnati’s relievers look awful, while cautioning you not to give them too much weight. There’s a reason for that. This bullpen is not as bad as you might think. And if you squint just right, you can find reasons to believe that the Reds bullpen is likely to be much, much better as the season progresses.

First of all, before the season, most observers looked at the group of relievers on this roster and saw one of the better staffs in the league. Over at The Athletic, Keith Law predicted that the Reds would have the best bullpen in the NL Central. In his baseball newsletter, Joe Sheehan noted the presence of “a pretty deep pen here, especially from the right side, where Chicago ex-pats Pedro Strop and Nate Jones have arrived to deepen the group.” Plenty of other outlets concurred (see here and here, for example). Of course, those are just predictions, so let’s not give them too much weight. Let’s look at the stats.

Yes, the Reds have the fifth-worst bullpen ERA in MLB (6.21). But if you look at xFIP, a statistic that estimates a pitcher’s expected run prevention independent of the performance of their defense, Cincinnati’s relievers are right in the middle of pack when compared to other pens around baseball. Let’s start the chant now: We’re Number 15!

See, I caught myself looking at dumb stats again. It’s far too early in the season to do that; the sample size is just way too small to draw any grand conclusions. Sure, the bullpen hasn’t performed as we would have liked so far this season. But Lorenzen is not this bad. Iglesias is not this bad. Brooks Raley may be this bad, who knows? This is still the same deep pen that everyone was excited about just a couple of weeks ago.

Was the excitement for the bullpen overblown? Probably, at least somewhat. But, as with everything early in the season, take a deep breath. After all, it has to get better. Right?

Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.

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