Bullpen Blues

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Near the end of Monday night’s Reds game, a 5-1 loss to Colorado, I saw this tweet from Red Reporter’s Wick Terrell: “the story of the Reds bullpen is not one I want to read.”

That tweet was a reference to the fact that Rockies shortstop Trevor Story hit his league-leading eighth home run of the season against Cincinnati reliever Ross Ohlendorf. The miserable Reds bullpen, of course, has been a topic of conversation for the last couple of weeks and there are, in fact, a number of stories to be written about this particular group of pitchers. So despite the fact that Wick doesn’t want to read this (sorry Wick!), let’s explore one of those storylines.

Over the weekend, Reds manager Bryan Price stated that he was sticking with JJ Hoover as his closer for the foreseeable future. This despite the fact that, at the time, Hoover was sporting an obscene 17.18 ERA, having surrendered eight runs (and two homers) in just 3.2 innings.

The reaction to this announcement was predictable. A certain (boisterous) segment of Reds fans on social media screamed that Price (a) was not intelligent enough to manage a major league baseball franchise or (b) perhaps had some mental health problems* because he didn’t replace Hoover immediately.

*The language, spelling, and grammar used by these fans was perhaps slightly different than the phrasing I used above.

My first thought upon reading Price’s comments was: Honestly, what choice does he have?

Listen, friends and neighbors, you need to understand that this Cincinnati bullpen is bad. Really bad. Like, mispronounce and/or mash-up-their-names bad. It’s one of the worst Reds bullpens that I’ve ever seen, and there have been some pretty terrible ones over the years. This bullpen is so bad that Hoover might actually be the best pitcher in the bunch.

Measured by two “fielding independent” stats that attempt to gauge only things that a pitcher can control, Reds relievers are far and away the worst in the big leagues (FIP: 6.37; xFIP: 5.80). By the more traditional measure of ERA, there are actually two teams (Colorado, Texas) who have a worse number than Cincinnati’s 5.36 bullpen ERA. Reds relievers have issued more walks than any other team, and rank second in home runs allowed.

On last week’s road trip, the struggles of the relief corps took center stage. Over 26 innings, Reds relievers allowed 23 runs as the Reds limped home with just one win on the trip.

The worst part of all this is that Cincinnati’s relief pitchers have had to throw more innings than all but two other teams, thanks to the occasional struggles of a young and/or ineffective starting rotation (I’m looking at you, Tim Melville and Alfredo Simon). So not only is the bullpen atrocious, but Bryan Price is forced to use those guys a lot. That’s a recipe for disaster, I’d say.

How bad has Hoover been, specifically? Well, I already mentioned his double-digit ERA, but Hoover’s FIP is 12.38 and his xFIP is 8.19; only Keyvius Sampson has worse numbers. Hoover has walked four and struck out two in his 5 appearances, and he surrendered one memorable grand slam. I’m sure you remember that one.

But wait! Isn’t this an awfully small sample size? Yes, since you asked. Hoover had only pitched 3.2 innings over five appearances going into Monday night’s game, and you can’t draw any conclusions from that limited pool of data. (Note: Hoover did pitch a scoreless, hitless, walkless inning last night, with two Ks.) Also, keep in mind that this is the same JJ Hoover that went 8-2 with a 2.94 ERA just one season ago, setting up games for some Cuban flamethrower that used to be employed by the Reds. Remember that spectacular 30-appearance scoreless streak that Hoover posted last year? That was fun.

Is this the same Hoover? Maybe not. Certainly the results thus far are different, and there may be a couple of red flags that merit watching. For most of 2015, Hoover’s average velocity on his four-seam fastball was above 94 mph (in July of last year, for example, his fastball averaged 94.65 mph). Hoover’s average fastball in 2016, according to FanGraphs, is averaging just 91.9 mph. That’s the difference between a good fastball and a meatball.

You also have to be concerned about the continuing precipitous drop in Hoover’s strikeout rates. In 2014, JJ struck out 10.77 batters per nine innings. Last year, that number dropped to 7.27. So far this year: 4.91. (But it’s a small sample size!)

Okay, so we know that it’s a bad pen. Surely there’s at least one pitcher we’d trust more than Hoover, right?

Tell me who.* Jumbo Diaz and his 7.37 FIP with two homers allowed might actually be the next-best option in a crowd of underwhelming relievers. Diaz still throws hard and has a gorgeous slider; his propensity to give up the long ball rivals Hoover’s however, and he’s not likely to be less frustrating than the current occupant of the closer role.

*Don’t even mention Brandon Finnegan’s name to me right now. Finnegan is young and talented, and the Reds need to give him every opportunity to prove that he can be an effective starter in the big leagues. Yes, I know he has relief experience. I don’t care. It would be incredibly shortsighted for the Reds to move him to the pen solely because of a short-term need in the bullpen, when Finnegan has a chance to prove himself capable of starting games effectively.

Tony Cingrani? Maybe, but the lefthander has walked five batters in his 5.1 innings so far this season, and has struggled with his command and control since arriving on the big-league scene. What about Ross Ohlendorf? He has a fun, funky looking windup, but also has a 9.45 ERA to go along with it. No thanks.

Caleb Cotham? Please. Blake Wood? Yes, Wood closed some games in the minors, but he’ll be 31 years old soon and before this season, he hadn’t even pitched to a big league hitter since throwing 6.1 innings for Cleveland in 2014. This is the guy you want closing games for your favorite major league team?

Of course Bryan Price is sticking with Hoover. Again, what choice does he have? Take a look at that cast of misfits that the Reds call “relief pitchers.” I wouldn’t trust any of them to mow my lawn, much less enter a game with the tying run at the plate.

Hoover simply might be the only decent option to close out games (if you can squint and call Hoover “decent”). There is a dark horse for the closer’s role, however, if Michael Lorenzen gets healthy and also gets crowded out of the Reds’ rotation plans. Lorenzen was a good reliever in college, and might be better suited for that role with the Reds. He throws hard, has an improving slider and changeup, and most importantly, he can’t be worse than what Bryan Price is currently running out there every day.

Miss you, Roldy. (Sort of.)

Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, ESPN’s SweetSpot blog, and the founder of Redleg Nation. You can follow him on Twitter at @dotsonc.

 

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