On Friday night, the Cincinnati Reds were in the top of the seventh inning in a tie game versus the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Brewers had leadoff hitter Christian Yelich, a former MVP and a left-handed hitter, due up fourth in the inning. If the Brewers got past Yelich's spot in the order in the seventh inning, the Reds would have to face the rest of the top of the Brewers lineup with the game on the line.
Reds manager David Bell's plan entering the inning was for left-handed reliever Ross Detwiler to start the inning and pitch through Yelich's spot in the lineup. Then, Bell was going to have Joel Kuhnel enter the tie game to face the heart of the Brewers order.
Neither player was on the Reds' 40-man roster at the start of the season. And yet even though the Reds had an off day on Thursday, Bell planned to call on Detwiler and Kuhnel with the game on the line. Detwiler allowed a solo home run to Keston Hiura, the Brewers' ninth hitter, and took the loss.
Now, it's clear why Alexis Díaz wasn't in the mix on Friday. The Reds placed Díaz, an All-Star candidate and clearly their best reliever, on the injured list on Sunday with right bicep tendinitis.
The Reds now have seven relief pitchers on the injured list, including some of their best relief pitchers in Díaz, Lucas Sims and Tony Santillan.
Behind Díaz, the Reds don't have a single relief pitcher who has been reliable in a high-leverage role in the bullpen across the entire season. Due to the inconsistency, Bell said he’s weighing factors like the “hot hand” and who’s throwing the ball well recently to determine who pitches in the highest-leverage situations.
“Confidence is important,” Bell said. “Even at this level, it’s a big deal. Definitely guys having success, you want to keep getting them out there. It’s not the only consideration, there’s a lot of considerations. Health, availability, what they’ve done recently, conversations you have with guys where you know where they are with their process. You take all that into consideration.”
Here’s a look at who the Reds currently have in the bullpen and how they have factored into Bell’s plans for managing the group.
Cessa was one of Bell’s most-trusted relievers in 2021, and he entered 2022 as the favorite to be used in the most high-leverage roles at the start of the season. Cessa didn’t receive consistent work in high-leverage situations as the Reds started the year 3-22 and played in so many blowouts, and his role diminished as he struggled in May.
In May, Cessa posted a 6.75 ERA and was relegated to pitching in low-leverage situations. After taking a loss on May 21, Cessa pitched in low-leverage situations in five of his next six games.
Cessa is now at the other end of that tunnel and has been recently used as the top relief option behind Díaz.
On Friday, Cessa was going to pitch the 10th inning if the game had gone to extra innings. He has a 3.52 ERA in June with 10 strikeouts and three walks. In his last four outings, Cessa has two holds and a win.
No Reds relief pitcher has moved up the bullpen depth chart more rapidly than Kuhnel. He entered spring training as a longshot to contribute in 2022, and he wasn’t on the 40-man roster. He has a 3.12 ERA with 18 strikeouts and three walks, and no pitcher epitomizes Bell’s “hot hand” strategy more than Kuhnel.
Kuhnel’s role started to shift on June 10 when he pitched a dominant eighth inning versus the St. Louis Cardinals to lower his ERA to 2.57. While Kuhnel blew the save the next day, Bell said he let Kuhnel pitch too deep into the game and relied too much on Kuhnel in that moment.
Bell showed his continued confidence in Kuhnel with how he used Kuhnel in high-leverage situations in each of his next two outings. In Friday’s loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, Kuhnel was lined up to pitch in a tie game in the seventh inning before Ross Detwiler allowed a homer. He still pitched the eighth inning of a game the Reds were trailing by one run.
With the way Hunter Strickland has been used recently, it looks like Cessa and Kuhnel have recently leapt Strickland as well as Art Warren on the bullpen depth chart.
In May, Strickland had a 2.38 ERA and pitched in crucial situations out of the bullpen, including a save versus the Cubs and consecutive holds in close games versus the Giants and Red Sox. In June, Strickland started the month by allowing six runs across his first three appearances.
He has been very reliant on his fastball and has struggled the most when his command hasn’t been consistent. Strickland still has an important role, earning a save last Monday and pitching the ninth inning of a one-run game last Friday because the Reds bullpen was short-handed in both cases.
Most of his recent opportunities in high-leverage situations have come when the options ahead of him were already used or unavailable.
It’s usually clear very quickly in a relief appearance whether or not Warren has his best stuff on any particular day. He often sets the tone by beginning a relief appearance with a walk or a strikeout.
Warren almost exclusively pitched in high-leverage situations in May, but that changed after he allowed four runs in a bullpen meltdown on May 29 against the Giants. He got back into the high-leverage mix last week as the Reds bullpen has been shorthanded, and he got a few game-changing outs with runners on base in close games versus the Cardinals and Diamondbacks.
That success gave him a shot to pitch the eighth inning of a tie game last Wednesday, but he allowed four runs in the eighth inning versus Arizona and took the loss.
Reiver Sanmartin and Ross Detwiler
The Reds have two left-handed relievers in the bullpen –– a rookie who had never been a relief pitcher in professional baseball before this month and a 14-year journeyman.
Sanmartin and Detwiler have each pitched in high-leverage situations in the last week, and Detwiler took the loss on Friday versus the Brewers after he allowed a solo home run. While neither pitcher is expected to become a true setup reliever, Bell targets spots in the opposing team’s lineup that have left-handed hitters for Sanmartin or Detwiler to face.
While they both will mostly face left-handed hitters in the short-term future, the hope is for Sanmartin to adapt to his new role in the bullpen and develop into a more consistent reliever with a bigger role down the road. Sanmartin’s recent results between Triple-A and MLB as a reliever have given Bell increased confidence in putting Sanmartin in higher-leverage spots.
Jeff Hoffman and Dauri Moreta
Even though Hoffman has a 2.87 ERA, he has only pitched in four “late and close” games all season. In those four games, opposing hitters have a .375 batting average and a .944 OPS.
Hoffman has been at his best in a long relief role in the middle innings. While the combination of his fastball and his splitter make him one of the more impressive talents in the Reds bullpen, his command hasn’t been consistent enough for him to earn more high-leverage innings.
The Reds promoted Moreta from Triple-A on Sunday and optioned outfielder TJ Friedl to Triple-A. Moreta entered Sunday with a 9.88 ERA on the season after spending the first month of the season in MLB and the second month in Triple-A. During his first stretch in the Reds bullpen this season, Moreta pitched in low-leverage situations.