Dominant bullpen has Reds hoping for familiar ending to the season
PHILADELPHIA -- The adjective "nasty" is a great compliment in baseball, a descriptor for a pitch that's interchangeable with "unhittable." Nowhere is this more prevalent or spark such memories as in Cincinnati, which was home to the Nasty Boys -- Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers -- a trio of heat-throwing relievers who helped the Reds to a World Series championship in 1990.
And now Ohio's Queen City is again witnessing relief-pitching history with a new batch of nastiness harvesting in the Reds bullpen, this time with a septet of hard-throwers and curveballers who are collectively carving up opposing lineups and striking out 10.11 batters every nine innings, the best rate of any team of relievers in any season in baseball history.
The bullpen's 2.78 ERA this year leads the majors and is the third-best mark of any team since 2000. Cincinnati also ranks third in batting-average-against (.223) and fourth in inherited-runners-scored percentage (22.8).
Not bad for a team that lost its high-priced free-agent closer, Ryan Madson, for the season after he underwent Tommy John surgery in spring training and lost its top set-up men from the previous season, righthander Nick Masset and lefthander Bill Bray.
"You've seen in the past a little bit, teams that respond to the great adversity like we have early on in the bullpen shake-up," righthander Sam LeCure said, "those are big storylines as the season goes on."
Though Cincinnati lost three important pieces from its bullpen, it also traded for Sean Marshall from the Cubs during the offseason and Jonathan Broxton at the trade deadline, as well as claimed Alfredo Simon off waivers from Baltimore back in April. They joined two 2005 draft picks, LeCure and Logan Ondrusek, and Jose Arredondo, who signed before the 2010 season after the Angels non-tendered him.
Those relievers, all leading to closer Aroldis Chapman, have been mixed and matched regardless of inning by manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Bryan Price. It's a largely unsuspecting group to be keying a Reds turnaround that has resulted in the National League's second-best record and a seven-game divisional lead in the Central.
Bullpens are notoriously fickle, with annual reliability among relievers lower than at any other position. But creating an effective bullpen is also the finishing touch of championship building.
In the last five years there have been 12 teams whose win totals increased by 12 or more games as they made the playoffs after failing to qualify the previous season. It's probably no surprise that 10 of the 12 teams saw its bullpen ERA improve, but in most instances the improvement was substantial: nine clubs saw their bullpen ERAs decrease by at least 0.39, and the average change was a decline in ERA of 0.69.
This is not to suggest that improving one's bullpen is the sole determining factor in a club's turnaround, but to note that if the other core pieces are in place, that quality relief can complete the job.
With the Reds, for instance, they returned most of an offense that ranked second in the league in runs in 2011 and added starter Matt Latos to a rotation that had proven starter Johnny Cueto, veteran Bronson Arroyo and promising youngsters Homer Bailey and Mike Leake. Their progression and health -- the five-man rotation has started every game except the second half of last weekend's doubleheader -- have been at least as much of a factor, particularly in its effect on the bullpen. Reds starters are averaging 6 1/3 innings per outing, which ranks third in the majors, meaning their relievers have had fewer innings to cover.
"One of the other things we're trying to cultivate here with the starting pitchers is that there's an obligation that goes with being one of those five guys, and that obligation is to keep yourself in the game as long as possible," Price said. "That is directly going to affect our bullpen. We want to stay away from six innings being the barometer for a successful start. I believe seven innings is where you have a quality start. That makes a huge difference on [relief] appearances and workload."
The bullpen deserves attention for its historic success. When told of his cohorts' prodigious strikeout rate, LeCure quipped, "Thanks, Chappy." Indeed, Chapman is on the precipice of history, with a personal K/9 of 16.3, which would be the best in the annals of baseball. Subtract his season totals -- 112 strikeouts in 62 innings -- from the team and that group 10.11 K/9 quickly becomes a still-impressive 8.70 that would rank 11th in the majors this year.
But the 6-foot-5 lefthander from Cuba, whose ERA is a paltry 1.31, is not the only strikeout artist in the Reds' bullpen. Five other relievers have K/9s of above or near the gold standard of one per inning, with a minimum of 40 innings: Marshall (11.1), Arredondo (9.4), LeCure (9.0), and Simon (8.6).
The consensus among the Reds was that Chapman's assumption of the closer's role was a difference-maker for the complexion of the whole bullpen. After sporting an unsightly 7.4 walks-per-nine-innings last year, Chapman has cut that to just 2.2 this year while maintaining an absurdly low hit rate of 4.4 per nine innings.
"During the offseason and spring training I worked on my command and my location," Chapman said through a Spanish-language interpreter. "I worked a lot on that, and I think that's the reason why."
Price thinks Chapman's maturity as a pitcher is the most prominent reason for the lefthander's breakout season. "With a delivery, emotions are directly correlated with mechanics," Price said, noting that Chapman's mechanics are largely the same, though more consistently executed.
What sets the 2012 Reds apart from the 1990 Reds' Nasty Boys is the depth of their bullpen. All seven relievers with at least 18 innings have an ERA of 3.50 or less. With Chapman closing, Marshall is the only lefthander who pitches before the ninth inning, though the club often employs Arredondo in a situational role. Thanks to a devastating split-fingered fastball, lefthanded hitters are hitting a paltry .153/.286/.247 against him.
Chapman was, deservedly, an All-Star this season, and Marshall's track record the last few years helps set him apart, but most of the other relievers were acquired for a pittance -- other than Broxton, that is, who was as dominant as anyone in the game in 2009, but is now more of a complementary reliever than a showstopper. By and large, this is a bullpen whose sum is greater than its parts.
"I don't want to say evolving roles, because other than whoever was closing, your role is to pitch when the phone rings," Price said. "This is the first time I've ever really gone through this with a bullpen where roles were not as defined and are as loosely defined as any other team I've ever been with. I like it this way, and I wish that every bullpen that I have moving forward will be able to be this selfless."
Even Marshall, who began the year as closer but moved to the eighth inning to accommodate Chapman, raved not only about the bullpen's unity in picking each other up by stranding inherited runners but also about how much he loves watching Chapman pitch. Now that he pitches before Chapman, Marshall often has a dugout view of the domination.
"What I had always hoped," Price said, "was that we would be able to cultivate something here that would be able to separate us from the Big Red Machine and from the Nasty Boys and the team from 1990, and do something that was independent and that wasn't a comparison -- something that was so awesome that it manifested its own title or moniker. "
What better way to do that than to follow the lead of that group, who combined to allow just one earned run in 24 1/3 postseason innings during that '90 World Series title year.
"Some fans will yell out and call us the 'New Nasty Boys,' but you don't want to get satisfied being good for some of the time," Marshall said. "We want to be good all of the time. We have a lot of baseball left to play.
"When the season's over, hopefully we can win a World Series title and then can look back and find out how nasty we were."