On August 5, the Cincinnati Reds bullpen set a franchise record. In a home game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Reds reliever Mychal Givens became the 10th Reds reliever to pick up a save in 2021.
Since that game against the Pirates, Givens has split the closer role with Reds reliever Michael Lorenzen. This wasn’t a change in bullpen strategy by Reds manager David Bell, but instead a continuation of what he has been doing all season.
“I see it the same way, I still see (the ninth inning) as very important,” Bell said. “You want one of your best pitchers pitching in that situation, there’s no question. I’ve always felt that way.”
At no point of the 2021 season has Bell committed to just one closer. But unofficially, with very few exceptions, Bell has had two pitchers he leans on in the closer role at any given point of the season.
The way Bell has organized his bullpen, one of those two potential closers can come into the game in a high-leverage situation earlier in the game, particularly in the middle of the inning. Tejay Antone often filled this role entering in the sixth inning with runners on base.
Then Bell has saved the other high-leverage reliever for the ninth inning.
“We have had that quite a bit this year, where we’ve had multiple pitchers that I feel comfortable pitching in high-leverage situations,” Bell said. “I do identify two particular parts of late-inning situations as very high leverage. The ninth inning is one of those.”
The Reds began the season with Amir Garrett and Lucas Sims splitting the closer role for the first three weeks of the season. Between Opening Day and April 21, either Sims or Garrett pitched in the ninth inning of a game where the Reds were tied or had a lead of four runs or fewer.
Antone emerged as the most productive reliever on the team, and Garrett blew a save on April 21. Beginning on April 22, Antone and Sims became the duo at the back of the Reds bullpen.
Between April 22 and June 6, either Antone or Sims pitched in all but three ninth innings when the Reds were tied or had a lead of four runs or fewer. In two of the three exceptions, Sims and Antone were both unavailable to pitch due to how much they had pitched recently.
As a result, the only time when Bell burned both Sims and Antone before the ninth inning was a wild 13-12 win on May 2 over the Chicago Cubs.
After pitching June 6, Antone went on the injured list. Garrett took Antone’s place as the second potential closer. Between June 7 and June 22, either Garrett or Sims pitched every ninth inning in close “up games,” The other pitcher often came in for high leverage spots earlier in the game.
The bullpen was in flux between June 22 and June 24. During that time, Antone came back from the injured list and then suffered a strain in his right forearm. Sims also suffered an arm injury during that window and went on the IL.
With both Sims and Antone unavailable beginning June 24, Garrett and Heath Hembree became the two options at closer.
Between June 25 and August 3, Garrett or Hembree pitched in all but two high-leverage ninth innings. Even after the Reds got Lorenzen off the injured list and traded for three relief pitchers, Hembree and Garrett held onto those roles.
Those roles changed for good in early August. On August 3, Hembree blew a save opportunity against the Minnesota Twins. By then, Givens and Lorenzen had emerged as the Reds most effective relievers.
Since August 5, either Lorenzen or Givens has pitched in every high-leverage ninth inning. They have traded off pitching in the ninth and pitching in a high-leverage spot earlier in the game.
Bell has said he sees Givens splitting the closer role. In Friday’s 3-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers, Lorenzen was back pitching in the ninth, and he picked up his fourth save of the season.
In 77 Reds wins in 2021, the team has only had six exceptions to the rule of two closers. There have only been six times where Bell has leaned on an unexpected reliever to pitch the ninth inning when the Reds had a lead in a close game or were tied.
And in three of those six games, neither one of the Reds primary closers were available to pitch. Even though 10 Reds players have saves in 2021, Bell said he has used the same reasoning behind those decisions for the entire season.
“I think the thing that changes is our personnel and what guys respond to in different roles and different situations,” Bell said. “My overall belief and philosophy on it hopefully evolved, but for the most part it stayed pretty constant.”