The Cincinnati Reds bullpen has been, for lack of a better word, horrendous in the 2021 season, posting an ERA over 5 thus far. But before discussing why their 2021 bullpen has struggled so much, we have to first discuss the last time their bullpen was truly great: the 2012 season.
Of course, the main strength of this bullpen was the fact that they had one of the best relief pitchers on the face of the Earth during the 2012 campaign, Aroldis Chapman. Chapman’s 2012 was all around fantastic, as his 1.51 ERA and 0.81 FIP were backed up by a triple digit fastball with over 11 inches of vertical movement and a slider with 7 inches of total movement. In addition to Chapman, the Reds of 2012 had an electric supporting cast of middle relievers and setup guys to aid Chapman. Chief among them was Sean Marshall, who posted a 2.24 FIP in 2012 with a devastating 5 pitch mix that held lefties to a .196 slugging percentage. The rest of their relief arms were also great, as none of them posted am ERA+ below 120 in 2012 with at least 20 innings pitched. Also worth noting is that only one of these relievers, Alfredo Simon, was over the age of 30, and yet none of these pitchers are still with the team today.
The Reds of 2021 have a variety of issues with their bullpen: in particular, closer Amir Garrett is no Aroldis Chapman. Garrett currently has an abysmal 2.67 WHIP over the course of six innings, and his expected numbers don’t really do him any favors either. His expected opponent batting average is an absurdly bad .342, up from his rather impressive 2020 where his expected opponent batting average was just .187. One of the main reasons for this sharp decline in performance is that Garrett has stopped being the strikeout machine he used to be, as he’s now only striking out 12% of batters faced whereas he struck out over 30% of batters faced in both 2019 and 2020. Additionally, Garrett seems to have lost control, with his walk rate jumping from 10.1% last year to a horrendous 21.9% this year. All of this combined has made Amir Garrett one of the least effective pitchers in all of baseball, and his supporting cast isn’t nearly what Chapman’s was in 2012 either.
Reds manager David Bell has primarily utilized three non-Garrett relievers so far this year, those being Sal Romano, Jose de Leon, and Carson Fulmer. Romano, if you were to just look at his surface level statistics, would look average with his 3.95 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. However, his more advanced statistics paint him in a much worse light, as his 6.76 FIP and 6.19 xERA are definitely not closer material, and certainly don’t compare to any of Cincinnati’s 2012 arms. Conversely, Jose De Leon is essentially the opposite of Romano, with his surface level stats making him seem like a bad pitcher considering his 1.62 WHIP and 6.92 ERA. His expected stats paint a very different picture however, as he’s striking out 43% of batters faced and rocking an expected opponent batting average on the Mendoza line. Even though de Leon is an extremely promising young pitcher, his changeup is a large cause for concern as the expected slugging percentage on this pitch is .925, easily making it the worst pitch in his repertoire. Finally, Carson Fulmer has been the definition of slightly below average in 2021, with a WHIP of 1.18 and a below average spin rate on his four seam fastball. All in all, none of the relief pitchers that the Reds have relied on in 2021 have been particularly good, or even close to anything they had in 2012, however, some of the lesser used pitchers on the team may be the best options.
David Bell has made it abundantly clear this season that he struggles with riding the hot hand when he calls in relief. The primary example of this is Tejay Antone, who despite having an ERA+ of 539 and a 0.75 WHIP this season, has pitched less innings than Romano, de Leon, or Fulmer. Antone also holds some of the highest spin rates in the league, which makes his pitches particularly lethal: his curveball has the 14th highest spin rate in all of baseball at 2982 RPM, and currently ranks second in RV/100 (run value per 100 pitches thrown) among all curveballs in baseball. Furthermore, both his sinker and slider are in the top 10% in spin rate for their respective pitch, with the sinker ranking ninth in MLB among pitchers that have thrown at least 10 sinkers. However, despite how well Antone has pitched, Bell has declined to make him either the closer or a fixture in the rotation, instead choosing to keep him in a long relief role, a true disservice to his skill. In addition to Antone, Lucas Sims has also been one of the best relief pitchers for the Reds this year despite some of his stats. Sims has not been getting results this year to the least, as his ERA sits above 6. However, his advanced statistics portray him as being among the best in the league at what he does. His expected ERA so far this year has been 1.99 and he’s striking out over 37% of batters faced, clearly making him a prime candidate for a lot of innings out of the bullpen. However, Bell has not used Sims particularly often, as he’s only pitched seven innings this season in sharp contrast to Sal Romano, who despite being worse than Sims, has pitched nearly twice as many innings.
Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson is often considered one of the best pitching coaches in baseball, a reputation backed by the excellence of Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, and of course, Trevor Bauer. I haven’t lost faith that these pitchers will turn it around under Johnson, but maybe it’s time for guys Antone and Sims to go into the spotlight instead of letting guys like Garrett and Romano blow game after game.