Things like this often change on a daily basis this early in the season, but entering the Thursday the best record in all of baseball belonged to the Cincinnati Reds at 7-2. They also own the best run differential in baseball at +25. Needless to say, they've played like an elite team in the very early-going.
One of the major differences from last year to this year has been the bullpen.
To put it mildly, the Reds' bullpen in 2016 was bad. Again, that's the mild point of view. Here are some of the stats from the 2016 Reds relievers and how they ranked in the majors. Avert your eyes temporarily, Reds fans.
Also, the Reds' bullpen in 2016 coughed up an MLB-record 103 home runs. Not that they were alone. The Reds as a team set the major league record by allowing 258 home runs. But we'll just focus on the bullpen here for now.
That is downright awful.
Things have changed, though. With the likes of Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen and Cody Reed now full-time relievers from the get-go and the addition of Drew Storen, things have changed. Youngster Wandy Peralta and righty holdover Blake Wood and lefty holdover Tony Cingrani are throwing well, too.
Of the Reds' nine relievers to have appeared in a game this season, six have a 0.00 ERA. Wood sits at 1.93 with Storen at 2.25. Robert Stephenson holds the bad ERA (7.36), but it's only 3 2/3 innings and he's struck out eight. He threw two scoreless innings in the Reds' 9-2 win over the Pirates on Wednesday night, too.
Speaking of, Reds manager Bryan Price has been excellent with his use of the bullpen this season. I wanted to give him a virtual hug when I saw this beauty:
Bryan Price's explanation for how he's using the bullpen: "Don't worry about saves, holds, etc...just help us shake hands after the game" 👍— Dan Hoard (@Dan_Hoard) April 11, 2017
It sounds so simple that it's frustrating more don't do this., the Reds and A's are forgoing what has become a traditional bullpen setup in favor of using relievers at different times depending upon the game situation. The comment above came on the heels of the Reds getting seven perfect innings from their bullpen, including three each from Lorenzen and Reed.
Price deserves loads of credit here, because most teams wouldn't dare try to stretch two relievers for six innings in this day and age. Or at least maybe they wouldn't have two years ago and things are finally evolving.
The combination of the better talent with Price's use of the bullpen this season has yielded exceptional results in the early-going. Let's circle back to that chart above, but plug in the 2017 numbers.
That's gotta be a beautiful view for Reds fans, and get this: The Reds relievers haven't yet allowed a single home run.
Further, sometimes ERA isn't the best measure of a bullpen, because bullpen pitchers are tasked with cleaning up the messes of starting pitchers. The 2016 Reds' relievers allowed 29 percent of their inherited runners to score, which was slightly better than league average (wow, we found something that wasn't bad!). In 2017, the bullpen has inherited 12 runners and allowed zero to score.
Quite simply, the Reds couldn't have hoped from a much better start from the bullpen, which was a disaster in 2016.
Here's where I'm obligated to point out the Reds have played nine games and still have 153 left on the schedule and that, yes, things could fall off the rails starting in game number 10. First off, they obviously will allow several home runs -- probably sooner rather than later -- and the ERA isn't going to stay below 3.00 (the best last year for a team bullpen was 3.35). So things will get worse, it's just a matter of making sure it's not too much worse.
Where are the possible pratfalls?
First off, it's possible the league makes adjustments to those in relief who are just getting their feet wet either in this role or in the majors, such at Reed and Peralta. I think we've seen enough of Iglesias and Lorenzen now in relief to believe they are legitimately good and will remain so.
The biggest concern has to be the workload, so let's pro-rate out how things might look if everything continues at this rate. Not too many relief pitchers can approach 90 innings in a regular-season without getting overworked.
Take a look at some of these 162-game paces in innings pitched based upon the workload thus far:
Michael Lorenzen, 110 IP
Raisel Iglesias, 102
Cody Reed, 90
Blake Wood, 84
Wandy Peralta, 78
Whoa there. Only 11 teams in history have ever had three relievers with at least 90 innings pitched (funnily enough, three of those teams were the Reds -- 1975, 1997, 1999). The last time a team had two relievers with at least 100 innings was the 1999 Reds with Danny Graves and Scott Sullivan.
So this would be a tall order, but there's a caveat. As the season progresses, starting pitchers will become more stretched out and be capable of working deeper into the game. Ideally, Price will have to rely on his bullpen for a lesser workload as the season moves on.
There are a lot of "ifs" here for sure. If Price continues to work so well with his bullpen and if the youngsters continue to throw like they can and if the starters increase their workload to save the young bullpen arms, the Reds will be able to turn some heads this season.
It's only been 5.5 percent of the season, but so far, the Reds' bullpen is a complete 180 from the 2016 Reds and that's a very welcome sight in Great American Ball Park.