The Reds Actually Chose Kevin Gregg Over Aroldis Chapman

It’s far too early to put serious weight on just about anything (save for injuries, or growing concern about those injuries) you see in the first 36 hours of a baseball season. It’s far too early to do much of anything other than say, “hey, baseball’s back, isn’t that great?” I mean, Buddy Carlyle and Chris Hatcher are on pace for 162 saves. The Red Sox are on pace for 810 homers. Probably not going to happen. Could happen. Won’t happen.

So we know not to look at the in-season numbers for at least a few weeks, lest we forget what Charlie Blackmon and Dee Gordon did last April as compared to the rest of the season. But it’s not like we’re simply not going to talk about baseball until then, and it’s not like there aren’t takeaways we can make from what we’re seeing right now. Like this one, for example: Seemingly years after most smart baseball team gave up on the save rule, why are we still seeing managers risk victories in service of it?

This is going to be about the Reds, Bryan Price, Aroldis Chapman, and Kevin Gregg, but know that this could apply to a dozen other teams. It’s just that so far, the other teams didn’t make moves that led to this enormous WPA dip like we saw in Monday’s eighth inning:


Source: FanGraphs

“But the Reds won the game,” you might protest. Indeed they did, but A) that doesn’t make this right, and B) that’s entirely thanks to Johnny Cueto and Todd Frazier, isn’t it?

For seven shutout innings, Cueto was just outstanding, striking out 10 Pirates and showing the form that is going to make him an incredibly sought-after piece when the Reds inevitably sell right after the All-Star Game. With Cueto up to 100 pitches in his first start of the year, and the Reds up 2-0, Price decided to call for the bullpen in the eighth with likely pinch-hitter Andrew Lambo (lefty), Josh Harrison, Gregory Polanco (lefty), and Andrew McCutchen (awesome) due up.

So you’ve got a lot of options there, what with it being the first game of the season and with a scheduled off-day on Tuesday. There’s no concern about rest or work, there’s just “who is the best man for the job.” That means that you look at the bullpen card to see Aroldis Chapman, Kevin Gregg, Manny Parra, Burke Badenhop, J.J. Hoover, Jumbo Diaz and Tony Cingrani — the Opening Day bullpen — and you can do whatever you want.

I know that you already know what happened, but we’re going to play this out anyway. Think about all the things you can do. You can play with lefties for the inning, or use both around a righty for Harrison, knowing you have Chapman for the ninth. You can just bring in the flame-throwing Diaz and see what happens. You can see what the groundball specialist Badenhop can do, perhaps in tandem with a lefty. Cingrani could be pretty good as a reliever, you know. Might as well try him out.

Or, just keep it simple. “I have one of the most dominating pitchers baseball has seen in years, just sitting there. He isn’t tired, because it’s Opening Day. He’s not pitching tomorrow, because there’s no game tomorrow, and it’s not even like we have to travel. Maybe let’s just use him for two innings.” It’s the kind of thing that just about never happens, because “save situations,” I guess, and again this isn’t so much specific to Price as it is endemic across the game, but it’s willfully keeping the best pitcher out of the biggest spots. For as far as we’ve come in understanding baseball, it’s the kind of thing that’s just infuriating.

It’s not like Chapman’s never done this before, either. 25 times, he’s pitched more than one inning. In 36.2 innings, he struck out 63 and allowed one earned run. I haven’t looked at all of his appearances after that to see if it affected him at all, but again, the Reds don’t play on Tuesday — and for a team that needs almost literally everything to go right to contend, you need to get the most of your stars as you can.

Instead, the call went to Kevin Gregg, probably in the conversation as the posterboy for “mediocre reliever most overrated thanks to saves.” It’s true that Gregg has 177 saves, including 33 as recently as 2013 for the Cubs. It’s also true that his career ERA and FIP are both north of four, that he was released by both the Orioles (2012) and Dodgers (2013), that he gave up 10 runs in nine innings in his age-36 season for Miami last year, and that he didn’t even land with the Reds on a minor league deal until Feb. 7.

We have him as being a replacement-level reliever for the last seven years in a row. And, well, he has been: Cincinnati is his seventh different stop since leaving Anaheim following the 2006 season. All of our projection systems see him with ERA and FIP north of four; there’s really nothing, not in 2014 performance or 2010-14 performance or 2015 projections or age or anything at all that makes him more appealing than Sam LeCure, himself a flawed reliever, sent down to Triple-A last week — except for saves, that lovely destructive junk stat that has been ruining bullpen decisions for years. There’s little to recommend Gregg being the proud owner of a big league roster spot at this point, really, but generally it’s not worth losing sleep over fungible back-end veterans unlikely to last the year.

Of course, those guys usually end up with the Jamey Wright treatment, mopping up innings or serving as a long man. They don’t show up in the eighth inning in huge spots on Opening Day, particularly not when Chapman exists. Rather than use one of the best relievers of a generation against the top of a competitor’s lineup in a huge spot, the call went to an aging, soft-tossing journeyman. You can’t be surprised that it got real ugly, real quickly, and you already know that McCutchen hit a game-tying homer.

It’d be one thing if it was just a case of one of baseball’s best players turning around a good pitch, because hey, even Felix Hernandez gives up homers to Mike Trout. That wasn’t this. This was a mess from the start, as Gregg never topped 91 mph, and got just two swing-and-misses on 17 pitches:

  • Lambo flies out to deep center on 13 pitches, two of which came within feet of being homers.
  • Harrison hits a sharp line drive to Byrd for a single.
  • Polanco slashes a line drive over Byrd’s head, saved only by an outstanding defensive play.
  • McCutchen crushes a meatball to dead center to tie the game.

And I do mean a meatball:

gregg_mccutchen_homer_chart

That’s 90 mph, right down the middle, to one of the five or so best players in the game.

Even the local beat writers could do little more than muster “beats me”:

“You could feel it coming,” said the Pirates’ broadcast. “I mean, rocket after rocket in this inning,” chimed in the Cincinnati team, after first noting even before Polanco’s appearance that “this is where a manager makes his money.” That this ended poorly wasn’t a surprise. That Frazier saved the Reds doesn’t make it okay. Just as we’ve seen for years, big league teams are doing their best to shoot themselves in the foot in the late innings by saving their best pitchers for the wrong spots.

Basically, it comes down to this: I’m not entirely sure what McCutchen was saying in the dugout here after his home run…

mccutchen_talking

… but I’m just going to assume it was something like, “damn, I’m glad I got to face Kevin Gregg rather than Aroldis Chapman.” Who wouldn’t?





Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

newest oldest most voted
Thufir
Guest
Thufir

great piece….