2016 has been a hard year for the Reds, but it's been toughest for the bullpen, which is on pace to be one of the worst in MLB history.
A bullpen that's already set one record for futility this season and in danger of even further dubious achievements found a new way to make itself even more unwatchable: walk the ballpark. On Tuesday night against the Indians, Reds reliever Steve Delabar issued four straight walks with the bases loaded, the first time that’s happened since 2004. Amid what was already expected to be a trying season of rebuilding, the Cincinnati bullpen is setting itself up as the majors' worst in more than half a century.
Granted, there wasn't much on the line when Delabar entered Tuesday night's game in the bottom of the fifth. Starter Alfredo Simon had been peppered for an MLB season-high 14 hits in 4 1/3 innings, leaving the Reds in an 8–0 hole. Delabar—who in five previous appearances this season had walked four batters in 6 2/3 innings—entered the game with runners on first and third, walked Jason Kipnis to load the bases, struck out Francisco Lindor, then proceeded to walk Mike Napoli, Jose Ramirez, Yan Gomes and Lonnie Chisenhall in succession, forcing in a run each time. To borrow a famous line that according to legend was first uttered by early 20th century Braves manager George Stallings while on his deathbed, “Oh, those bases on balls.”
Each walk Delabar issued came via a 3–2 count. By the looks of the plots at Brooks Baseball, none of the balls four were particularly close to the strike zone, though a couple of the batters fouled off better pitches just prior. Thankfully, no video supercut exists; somebody at MLB Advanced Media either sensibly burned the footage or at least showed some mercy.
Reds manager Bryan Price finally gave Delabar the hook after the walk to Chisenhall, and Blake Wood ended the misery by inducing Marlon Byrd to ground out to end the inning. Delabar's final line: 36 pitches, 16 for strikes, with one out recorded and no hits, two runs and five walks allowed—one more free pass than Clayton Kershaw has issued in 70 innings this season, by the way. Via ESPN's David Schoenfield, it was the first time since May 9, 2004 that four bases-loaded walks had been issued in a row, but that took three Dodgers pitchers (Jose Lima, Darren Dreifort and Tom Martin, the last of whom walked two) to do it against the Pirates. The last pitcher to walk five out of six batters faced in a single game was the Phillies' Pat Combs, on June 26, 1991 against the Cardinals.
In all, it was not a great day at the office for Delabar, a 32-year-old journeyman who made the AL All-Star team in 2013 but hasn't had a season with more than 30 major league innings since. In his postgame comments, Price conceded that he had been overusing Delabar, "every other day, an inning-plus." Indeed, Delabar’s previous five appearances totaling 6 2/3 innings and an average of 25 pitches came within a seven-game span; even with a night off prior to Tuesday, that's a 135-inning pace for a full season.
But Delabar is hardly alone in his futility, because the Reds' bullpen has already earned a spot in the record books. From April 11 through May 5, the unit allowed at least one run in 23 straight games; according to the Elias Sports Bureau, that broke the previous record of 20 games owned by the 2013 Rockies. During that span, Cincinnati relievers combined for a Boeing-esque 7.68 ERA in 79 2/3 innings, serving up 21 homers (2.4 per nine) and 45 walks (5.1 per nine) against just 67 strikeouts (7.5 per nine). The team went 7–16 in those games and is 15–24 overall, last in the NL Central and worse than every other Senior Circuit team besides the Braves.
While that does suggest things could always get worse for the Reds, Price might look longingly at Fredi Gonzalez’s freedom, because the freshly-fired Braves manager doesn’t have to watch historic levels of self-immolation. His bullpen’s collective 6.46 ERA is the worst in the majors since 1950 and in the class photo for the worst since at least 1913:
Yikes! The 1930 season featured the highest major league scoring level (5.55 runs per team per game) since the turn of the 20th century, so having two teams from that year isn’t all that surprising, nor is having the leader hail from the team that set the modern ERA record (6.71). Per game scoring levels rose above 5.0 runs per game four times from 1925 to '36, so capturing a few other teams from that span isn’t a surprise, either; in fact, the AL was above five runs per game every year from '29 to '39, and they were at 5.05 in '50, when the St. Louis Browns did their share. That the Reds own the worst mark in 66 years since is still pretty awful, though, given that major league scoring is at a comparatively stingy 4.34 runs per game.
The biggest problem for the Reds' bullpen has been the long ball. The unit’s 1.98 homers per nine is one of three from this season that are ahead of the full-season high since 1913, that of the 2001 Rockies (1.56 per nine); the Rangers (1.84) and Brewers (1.56) have also been dreadful in that department. J.J. Hoover, who began the season with the unenviable task of filling Aroldis Chapman’s shoes as closer, was sent to Triple A Louisville after yielding six homers in 10 2/3 innings. He’s just one of five Reds relievers with a home run rate of at least 2.8 per nine, albeit in minuscule sample sizes; none of the other four, including since-demoted setup man Jumbo Diaz, has more than 9 2/3 innings under his belt. The aforementioned Wood, who along with current closer Tony Cingrani is just about the only reliever Price can trust, is the only one of the 20 pitchers used by the Reds this season who hasn’t allowed a homer.
Meanwhile, the Reds bullpen’s walk rate of 5.18 per nine is the majors’ worst and the 35th worst since 1913. Their strikeout rate of 7.9 per nine is just 10th in the league, and so their FIP, based on their peripheral stats, is still a grisly 6.12. To quote the late James Brown, “People, it’s bad.”
What can the Reds do? Other than shuffle through the pitchers in upper levels of the organization in search of ones who can withstand the crucible and scouring the waiver wire for castoffs who might be worth a flier, not a whole lot. This is a rebuilding team, and general manager Dick Williams recently made clear that he’s not panicking based on small-sample results or deviating from the team’s long-term plan, though he understands fans' frustrations and had previously identified the bullpen as a particularly problematic area. Though Price’s job has been rumored to be in jeopardy multiple times since the start of the 2015 season, Williams said he would be “evaluated on his whole body of work over the course of three seasons.” If Price does eventually go, who knows what that means for the Reds' pitching and bullpen coaches (Mark Riggins and Mack Jenkins, respectively). They’re not the ones throwing the pitches, but there may be something to their staff’s preparation that can be improved. Beyond that, trading assets for a short-term fix isn’t the order of the day, and any real success in 2016 would work to the franchise’s long-term disadvantage in the form of a lower draft pick next year.
In other words, Price and the Reds will have to grin and bear it with this bullpen. The rest of us are probably better off tracking their lack of success from afar, because you never know when one of their relievers is going to have another night like Delabar did.