The 2017 Cincinnati Reds could shock major league baseball. Just not in the way you’re thinking.
They may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.
Did you feel it? Most in attendance didn’t. There was a seismic event at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, PA on April 10, 2017. The ground shook, but it was felt in Cincinnati, Ohio, not the Keystone State.
Leave the Cincinnati city limits and head north on I-71, past the sign by the interstate that warns “HELL IS REAL” (Bengals fan?). Ease past the bicentennial barns and the futbol home of the Columbus Crew. Four hours of rolling Ohio scenery later delivers you to the aptly named Progressive Field, the tipping point of the revolutionary baseball idea christened with the title “Bullpenning.”
Terry Francona came to the 2016 postseason a desperate man. Minus his №2 and №3 starters, Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, he rode one starter (Corey Kluber) and three relievers (Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen), relying on them for 53 percent of the innings thrown by Indians pitchers. Had this occurred in the dog days of June and the experiment failed, baseball might still be spinning on its familiar axis. Neither happened. Instead, Andrew Miller and Francona turned the postseason and the game on its ear.
Nearly six months later in Pittsburgh, a Reds starting pitcher began to fail in the third inning. Who it was is of little note for our purposes here. What was important was who entered the game to stop the bleeding. In this era of brass-plated roles for every conceivable situation, Bryan Price brought in the Reds’ 8th inning guy, Michael Lorenzen. Not Long Relief guy. Not Mop-Up guy. Michael Lorenzen, Elite Setup Guy. Serious Heat Guy. Bryan Price — wittingly or unwittingly — tore out page 167 of Brian Kenny’s book, Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution — and concluded that in the third inning, the game was on the line.
Kenny starts with the premise that “the game is always on the line.” What does that mean? It means there are consequences to every decision made at any and all moments in the game, not merely the ninth inning, and not all of them are of equal importance. We do this all the time in sports. We attach undue emphasis to the end of games — the last possession, the final shot — at the expense of earlier moments when in hindsight, the outcomes were truly determined. In the NFL, a head coach will almost always take a field goal from near the goal line late in the game, down by two scores. The chances of getting to the 6-yard line again with an opportunity to put the ball in the end zone might be remote, but if a head coach looks at the clock and knows he’s going to get the ball back, he’d rather delay the big decision to the bitter end when no other options remain. Avoid the dreaded Second-Guess at all cost.
Mr. Kenny has lots of ideas, many of them controversial. All of them well thought out. In Brian’s world, we eschew our black and white, musty museum-like approach to baseball, taking the picture off the wall, removing those brass-plated titles — Closer, Starter, 8th Inning Guy — and do a little restoration in the hopes of creating a run-prevention masterpiece. In other words, there are no longer roles, only pitchers in service of the greater good.
What Price and GM Dick Williams have done so far is remarkable within the confines of a conservative organization not exactly known for its progressive thinking. But, so far, we’re still playing checkers.
Let’s play chess.
Imagine there’s no starter. It’s easy if you try.
Perhaps the toughest inning to negotiate for a pitcher is the first inning, the only time in the game the opposition can optimally deploy its hitting attack. Conversely, starting pitchers begin the game at a marked disadvantage. They are there to pace themselves for what will hopefully be a 7 inning start or more. It’s a matchup that places the thumb decidedly on the offensive side of the scale.
Let’s look at how bullpenning could truly work, putting Bob Castellini’s employees into the Petri dish.
Imagine that Tony Cingrani takes the mound for the Reds — no longer the Starting pitcher — merely The Opener, as Kenny refers to him. Cingrani pitches until his turn comes up in the batting order (probably two innings) whereupon he is lifted for a pinch hitter. Cody Reed enters the game and pitches the third through the sixth inning, assuming he’s effective. Who pitches next depends on situation and leverage. If the Reds have a 3-run lead, Blake Wood enters. If the Reds are behind a run and the heart of the batting order is up, perhaps Michael Lorenzen takes the mound for one inning to throw heat and keep it close. Raisel Iglesias can protect a close game in the 8th, and even pitch a second inning to hold the ninth.
The following night, Lorenzen is the Opener — he pitched just one inning the day before. He’s followed by Amir Garret for four innings. RHP Robert Stephenson and LHP Wandy Peralta matchup the next two innings, depending upon platoon splits or the score. Drew Storen is there to finish the game.
What have the Reds accomplished with this outrageous, fantasy, two-day betrayal of Baseball tradition and its unwritten book?
Because a starting pitcher arrives on the bump knowing he must conserve resources while facing the opposition’s best hitters to begin the game, it’s no surprise the 1st inning has proven to be the most productive inning for offenses. By starting the hard-throwing Cingrani — who is there to give max effort for a short period of time — that advantage is now minimized, if not completely flipped.
By pinch-hitting for Cingrani in the third, the Reds have effectively turned themselves into an American League DH lineup to begin the game. Bat Billy Hamilton 8th and imagine the opposing pitcher having to face this in the Reds’ half of the 3rd inning: Hamilton, Gennett [PH], Cozart, Suarez and the dreaded Votto.
With traditional starter Cody Reed taking the hill in the 3rd, the opposing team now sees a different arm, different release point, different skill-set. Entering the game later means Reed goes deeper into the game, yet never sees a hitter a third time through the lineup, the point in the game where hitters begin to thrive — and starters predictably fade.
The rest of the game the Reds use pitchers as the situation dictates, roles be damned. Remember, relievers are merely failed starters. They still have considerable value. They have limited but demonstrative skill-sets that got them to the majors in the first place and can now be used to their greatest effectiveness, based on platoon splits or batters vulnerable to a particular pitch repertoire.
That’s not to say there are NOT reasons to reject Kenny’s revolutionary pitching model. Veteran pitchers are set in their roles. We’ve forever heard about ballplayers who like to come to the ballpark knowing their routines (see, e.g., Aroldis Chapman). But the Reds are now one of the youngest teams in baseball. The kids just want to play and prove themselves:
“I’m just going to do whatever they ask and take advantage of the opportunity that I’ve got.” — Cody Reed
The Reds’ future now depends upon the development of the young guns. Bullpenning gives the club a unique method of getting those young guns experience without asking for Cueto-like returns or logging too many innings as July turns into August and beyond.
Last fall during The Great Tito Francona Experiment, talking heads reminded us that while this was a creative use of resources during the postseason, it was unfit for regular season play. So, let’s do the math.
9 x 162 = 1458 innings, the landscape a manager has to cover across a season, plus the occasional extra inning game. With 13 pitchers on today’s 25-man roster, that’s 112 innings per pitcher. Of course, those innings won’t be divided evenly. Cody Reed might pitch 150 innings, while Robert Stephenson and Brandon Finnegan approach 200 or more. Anthony DeSclafani and Homer Bailey can return to the mound at a pace that fits their recovery process from elbow issues. Raisel Iglesias might pitch only 85 innings to guarantee a healthy shoulder.
And should too many high leverage moments threaten to overload Lorenzen, Iglesias, et al., the Reds can use their considerable assets 100 miles away. Whoever is there at any given moment — Rookie Davis, Sal Romano, Jackson Stephens, Barrett Astin, etc. — can be brought up to eat innings at a moment’s notice, then uber-ed back down Interstate 71 to Louisville Slugger Field a couple of series later.
The team that breaks through and embraces full Bullpenning will wield a tremendous advantage. Unlike sabermetric nuggets like pitch framing and shifting, which provide measurable but limited advantages that diminish each year as other teams discover and adopt them, Bullpenning will measurably improve offense with the increased use of pinch-hitters in a typically NL-compromised lineup, contrary to conventional wisdom. It’s a strategy that finally works to to each individual hurler’s strength instead of baseball’s dusty 19th century roles that have been carried forward decade after decade like some hoary, sacred manuscript. And some other teams will be unable to copy this new strategy as easily as they have others, like the discovery of the value of OBP.
Some organizations simply don’t have the young pitching assets to make Bullpenning work. Big money teams like the club dwelling in the House that Privilege Built in the Bronx have too many high-paid stars and player agents demanding Wins and Saves. Think Scott Boras will let his clients sacrifice contract incentives for team wins? Think again.
Baseball, long the province of the HAVES, may now see the advantage swing to the HAVE NOTS. Youth over Money and Entitlement. Ask Terry Collins and Matt Harvey about that in Game 6 of the 2015 World Series:
“Letting even a dominating Harvey face Cain, Hosmer and Moustakas — the 3–4–5 batters in the lineup a fourth time — was managerial malpractice, despite the FOX announcers’ declaration otherwise. Surely you let Matt Harvey have a chance to close this thing out. He’s earned it, they proclaimed.”
The closer you examine it, the more of an Occam’s Razor moment the Cincinnati Reds are facing. If the long, tedious slog of The Joey Votto Process Controversy, played out night-after-night on talk radio, social media and in the newspapers did nothing else, it has largely convinced most Cincinnatians of the value of the Walk, also known as not making outs. Isn’t it time we learned the lesson on the other side of the coin? Giving away extra outs to the opposition vis-à-vis sub-optimal pitching deployment results — ultimately — in losing baseball. Even casual visitors to Great American Ball Park understand the concept of free pizza.
Somebody is going to do this. It’s merely a question of when. As Kenny writes in his book:
Bullpenning will happen, but it will have to come from a GM with the autonomy and equity to see it through.
So, to owner Bob Castellini and GM Dick Williams, I offer — no, I implore — with apologies to John Lennon, this: