The Reds received yet another blow to their pitching staff last week when it was announced that starter Graham Ashcraft had been scheduled for season-ending surgery to repair a stress reaction in his right big toe. The sophomore right-hander struggled early in the year but had been superb in recent weeks, posting 10 quality starts in his last 12 outings, just when the Reds needed it most. Ashcraft was 4-3 with a 2.58 ERA during that span.
It was the latest in a season-long series of failure and disasters for Cincinnati pitching. Just two weeks ago, I lamented in this space that the Reds staff was patched together with duct tape and hope after a perfect storm of injuries and a COVID outbreak eviscerated four-fifths of the Reds rotation over a single weekend.
Since then, just one Reds starter completed as many as five innings in a game (Hunter Greene, who did it twice) until rookie Connor Phillips, who started the season in Double-A, performed the trick on Monday night in the best performance of his young career. This notable lack of success from the starters didn’t deter these unpredictable Reds, of course; over that span, they posted an 8-5 record, including six wins in their last eight games. After defeating the Minnesota Twins in the first game of a crucial six-game homestand, the Reds are once again tied for the final National League Wild Card spot.
For a few weeks now, I’ve been thinking about writing about manager David Bell again. What he’s done with bubble gum and paper clips to keep this staff together, and keep the Reds in the playoff race, is nothing short of astonishing. As one Friend of the Column (FOTC) said this week: “Starting on Opening Day, David Bell and (Reds pitching coach) Derek Johnson have had to navigate a pitching staff plagued with an unimaginable amount of injury, illness and ineffectiveness. They’ve done a fantastic job to get the Reds where they are now.”
I couldn’t agree more. Remember, if you will, that Cincinnati began the season with only three actual big league starters: Greene, Ashcraft, and Nick Lodolo. Rounding out the Opening Day rotation were Connor Overton and Luis Cessa. Overton started three games, posting an ERA of 11.45 before undergoing Tommy John surgery for the second time. Cessa posted a 9.00 ERA in six starts before the Reds designated him for assignment. He isn’t currently on any big league roster.
The next man up was Luke Weaver. Somehow, despite being the worst starting pitcher in baseball, he was allowed to start 21 games. His ERA of 6.87 was far and away the worst mark for anyone in the big leagues with that many opportunities. Cincinnati finally cut bait on Weaver in August, whereupon he was picked up by Seattle. The Mariners tried him in the bullpen, were not satisfied with his 6.08 ERA and released him, whereupon the Yankees picked him up. The guy has more lives than a cat.
Meanwhile, Greene, Ashcraft, and Lodolo have been injured off and on all season long. Greene is the last man standing of The Big Three™. It’s been a rough year for Cincinnati starters.
And then there’s the bullpen. Cincinnati’s only All-Star, Alexis Diaz, came from this group, but he’s surrounded by a motley collection of has-been and never-was relievers who have somehow been effective. I mean, seriously, look at this list of Reds relief pitchers who have been above-average (according to ERA+) in 2023: Buck Farmer, Ian Gibaut, Fernando Cruz, Derek Law, Daniel Duarte, Lucas Sims, Alex Young, Silvino Bracho, Alan Busenitz, and Chasen Shreve. And don’t forget Jason Vosler! (The 29-year-old first baseman posted a 119 ERA+ in two late-game appearances.)
Some of those guys have had limited success in the big leagues, but none were what you would call sure bets to be reliable relievers in 2023. Somehow David Bell has figured out usage patterns and lefty-right matchups that have allowed these guys to be effective more often than not. He didn’t assemble this bullpen; it was forced upon him. But by some measures, they have been one of the best bullpens in the entire league.
By fWAR (admittedly a dumb way to measure individual relievers, but that won’t stop me in this particular paragraph), the Reds have the third-best bullpen in baseball. But even if you discount that statistic, Cincinnati’s relief ERA of 3.90 is above-average while being forced to pitch more innings than all but four other teams in MLB.
Reds fans have been loudly critical of Bell’s bullpen usage in the last couple of years, but I can’t see any way to explain this year’s success other than to give him a significant amount of the credit. Only Cleveland and Oakland have more innings pitched from rookies this season. Because of management’s neglect of the pitching staff, Bell has been forced to depend on untested kids and unreliable veterans, and somehow he’s kept this team in the playoff hunt.
If and when the Reds eventually make it to the World Series next month—ya gotta believe!—they’ll have to rely on rookies like Andrew Abbott, Brandon Williamson, and Connor Phillips to start huge games. And then they’ll need Law or Cruz or Gibaut to pitch key innings to get the game into Diaz’s hands.
That entire paragraph would have sounded ridiculous five months ago. I mean, it sounds kinda ridiculous now. But somehow, David Bell has the Reds in a position to compete for the playoffs. Is he the National League manager of the year?
Maybe. Maybe not. But, despite his occasional preference for goofy lineup construction, it’s time to give Bell credit for what he’s done to keep this pitching staff together and keep the Reds in the race.
Chad Dotson helms Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His newsletter about Cincinnati sports can be found at chaddotson.com. He’s @dotsonc on Twitter.