Givens, Lorenzen Help Keep Reds’ Leaky Bullpen Afloat in Its Time of Need

As the end of the regular season draws near, the Wild Card race in the NL is as tight as it comes. The Dodgers currently control the top spot, while the Padres, who held onto second for most of the year, have faltered in the face of adversity, going from 91.7% playoff odds on July 27 to 24.2% as of today. That has left the door open for the Reds and Cardinals, with the former riding a torrid August and withstanding a slow September for a 36.2% chance to make the playoffs (though the latter currently leads in the chase for the second wild card by half a game).

Cincinnati’s success this season is in large part due to contributions from players like Joey Votto and Wade Miley. One unit that hasn’t helped, though is the bullpen; Reds relievers carry the fourth-highest FIP (4.69) in the majors and account for just 1.0 WAR. But in the last month and a half, the bullpen has shown some improvement, albeit modest, with a 4.40 FIP since August 1 and a 4.02 mark in the month of September, which ranks 11th in baseball during that time. That improvement has been particularly noticeable in the late innings:

Cincinnati Reds Bullpen Performance in 8th and 9th Innings
Month FIP xFIP
Mar/Apr 5.76 5.88
May 4.01 4.50
Jun 4.80 4.13
Jul 5.22 4.39
Aug 4.20 4.69
Sept/Oct 3.79 2.57

All that is despite a closer situation has been fluid, to say the least — one riddled with injuries and poor performance throughout the year. Back in the offseason, the Reds surprisingly sent incumbent closer Raisel Iglesias to the Angels for middle reliever Noé Ramirez, betting that their stock of young arms and less expensive veteran alternatives would make up for his departure. The plan backfired. Iglesias is following up his excellent 2020 with a career year in which he’ll challenge previous career highs in saves and strikeouts, and his WAR this season is nearly twice that of the entire Reds relief corps.

In Iglesias’ absence, Cincinnati has spread out the save opportunities, to mixed results:

Cincinnati Reds Saves Leaderboard
Player IP FIP SV Hold BS
Heath Hembree 42.1 4.51 8 6 2
Lucas Sims 40.1 3.51 7 6 3
Amir Garrett 39.1 5.15 7 7 4
Mychal Givens 16.0 3.60 7 3 1
Tejay Antone 33.2 3.25 3 8 4
Michael Lorenzen 19.2 4.08 3 8 0

A few weeks ago, I noted some of the trends of bullpen usage when it comes to saves. Of all the contending teams (i.e., those with playoff odds of 5% or greater), the Reds and (unsurprisingly) the Rays are the only ones without a reliever who has recorded at least 10 saves this season (although Diego Castillo did log 14 saves for Tampa Bay before being traded).

That’s about where the similarities between those two bullpens end. The Rays pioneered this approach and have done so with great success over the last few seasons, with 2021 being perhaps their best year yet. Tampa Bay relievers lead all of baseball with 622.2 innings pitched, accounting for 7.1 WAR and a league-best 3.62 FIP. They’ve done this despite a wide distribution of the workload: only Andrew Kittredge has crossed over the 50-inning threshold, but 12 different pitchers have logged at least 20 innings in a Rays uniform.

Why have the Rays had so much success with a carousel of closers and high-leverage relievers while the Reds have sunk to the bottom of the league? One of the benefits of having a multitude of arms is that it gives a team more options to provide different looks to the hitter. Last season, MLB.com’s Mike Petriello lauded Tampa Bay’s arsenal of relievers for the diversity of release points among the group, and even with some turnover in the bullpen this year, the Rays are once again providing a lot of looks for opposing hitters.

The Reds also have a mix of release points within their relief pitchers, although most if it runs along the x-axis; if one of the advantages of having a multitude of options is variance, they are not seizing the opportunity. This could have been what drew them toward Givens, the ex-Orioles and Rockies reliever they acquired at the trade deadline. He doesn’t quite have the extreme low release point of someone like Ryan Thompson, but it is significantly different from the rest of the Reds’ right-handed relievers; note the purple cluster in the bottom left quadrant of the graphic below.

Over 16 innings in Cincinnati, Givens sports a 2.81 ERA and a 3.60 FIP, which has helped him earn plenty of high-leverage work and saves. He’s accounted for 1.08 win probability added (WPA) since joining the Reds and has an average leverage index of 1.79, which is tops on the team since July 30. He has made a noticeable change in his pitch mix as well. Givens has an excellent fastball with an average spin rate of 2,533 rpm, which ranks in the 96th percentile in the majors. This season, though, he’s been throwing it much less and turning more to his changeup.

With the Rockies, he was throwing the changeup nearly 40% of the time and his fastball just 46.3% of the time. It’s an adaptation that has worked for him, but the Reds tweaked his approach, mixing in the changeup less (32.8%) in favor of both his fastball and slider. That seems to have had an impact on his ability to elicit weaker contact, with significant drops in hard hit rate (27% to 22%) and barrel rate (10.8% to 7.3%) from Colorado to Cincinnati. With half their games coming at Great American Ballpark, the most homer-friendly stadium in the big leagues, it behooves Reds pitchers to limit fly balls allowed. Givens is doing just that, with a GB/FB rate that has nearly doubled since the trade.

He’s not the only new arrival making a difference. In mid-July, Lorenzen was activated from what had been a season-long stint on the Injured List due to a strained shoulder and immediately provided a boost, with 19.2 innings pitched, three saves, and a 4.08 FIP. He looks healthy, too: His average four-seam fastball velocity has clocked in at 97 mph so far, just shy of his best mark as a major leaguer. Lorenzen has also been aggressive early in counts, with a first-strike percentage of 84%, well above his career average of 57.9%. As a result, his strikeouts are down, but that comes with a career-high 30.4 CSW%. He has turned into a real weapon for the Reds, and he’s seeing more high-leverage innings than ever before, with an average leverage index of 1.67.

Consistency for this bullpen has been elusive, and the improved numbers in September are a bit misleading because the sample is so small. And while the combination of Givens and Lorenzen worked wonders in August, both pitchers have struggled somewhat in the first two weeks of September. In a close race for the last remaining playoff spot and with a favorable schedule ahead (nine of their remaining 14 games come against the Pirates and Nationals), the Reds cannot afford to lose any late-inning leads from here on out.





Chet is a contributor for FanGraphs. Prior to FanGraphs, he wrote for Purple Row. When not writing about baseball, he is a data scientist and outdoor sport enthusiast. He can be found on Twitter at @cgutwein.

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JoeyVottoIsGod
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JoeyVottoIsGod

This bullpen is missing Alex Blandino’s knuckleball.