What the Reds can learn from college baseball’s best relieve.
The University of Arkansas Razorbacks baseball team is currently the number 1 team in the country and has been for the last three months. They entered the NCAA tournament last weekend with a 46-10 record, they won all 10 of their SEC series, and beat multiple top-10 teams on the road. They also have the best pitcher in the country in Kevin Kopps. Before 2021, Kevin Kopps was a solid pitcher for the Razorbacks but not the world beater he turned into this year. He put up an ERA of 3.31 his freshman season in 2017 and made 20 appearances, including 5 starts. He missed all of the 2018 season due to Tommy John surgery and then turned into a full-time reliever in 2019, where he put up a 3.89 ERA and struck out 11.2 per 9 innings. 2020 wasn’t great for anyone, but Kopps gave up 10 ER in 11 innings in a COVID-shortened season.
2021, however, has been much different for Kopps. He has been virtually un-hittable. Going into the NCAA tournament, he has thrown a career high 66.1 innings and struck out 105 batters while walking only 15. He currently sports a BB/9 of 2/0, a K/9 of 14.2, and a K/BB rate of 7.0. That performance was enough to earn him SEC Pitcher of the Year and Collegiate Baseball’s National Player of the Year honors. What is perhaps most interesting about how well Kopps has performed this season, though, is how he has been used. I mentioned that Kopps has pitched a career high 66.1 innings, but he did that in only 28 appearances which averages out to about 2.1 innings per appearance.
That average goes up to roughly 3 innings per innings in conference play. So Arkansas approach with their best pitcher isn’t “You’re going to face him for 6 innings on Friday night.” It’s “You’re going to see him for 6 innings, but it’s going to be spread over 2 games when you are already behind. Good luck trying to come back.” Arkansas is pretty much turning a 9 inning game into a 6 inning game twice a week, knowing that once the 7th inning rolls around they are putting in Kevin Kopps and they are walking out with a win.
What in the world does this have to do with the Cincinnati Reds? Well, the Reds currently have the worst bullpen ERA in baseball at 5.78. Their hard-hit rate (36.5%) is the worst in baseball, their xFIP (4.59) is second worst, and their BB/9 (5.01) is also the second worst in baseball. They do, however, have one man in the bullpen who has been nearly unhittable this year. That man is Tejay Antone.
Tejay Antone, like Kevin Kopps, also started his career as a starter. In fact, he was strictly a starting pitcher in his entire journey through the minor leagues. After getting called up in 2020, he made the majority of his appearances from the bullpen, starting in only 4 of 13 appearances. Antone has also been absolutely nails as a reliever, sporting a 1.41 ERA, 40 strikeouts, and only 11 walks in 32 innings this season. Knowing what we know about the Reds bullpen, and knowing what we know about Antone, what if the Reds approached his usage similar to how Arkansas approaches Kopps’?
Before we dive deeper into this, there are some obvious caveats that makes this a little more difficult. First, the college baseball season is obviously very different from a MLB season. Most teams’ best pitchers are reserved for weekend series and Kopps was no different, only appearing in one midweek game this season. The college baseball season is also much shorter. Second, college baseball uses the designated hitter, which makes this thought experiment a little easier to pull off, while the Reds obviously do not have that luxury.
I started thinking about (and writing) this last Friday while the Reds were in the midst of nearly blowing a 6-1 lead. Two days later, they blew a 7-0 lead in one inning and nearly lost the sweep against the Cardinals. What if the Reds put in Antone for 50-60 pitches in a high leverage situation and allowed the Reds to have less of a chance to give up a lead, or take a one-run deficit to an out-of-reach deficit?
This obviously couldn’t happen every night and it would only leave Antone available 2 out of every 5 games or so, but when you really only have one weapon out of the bullpen, why not utilize him in a different way to keep the ball out of the hands of some of the more volatile bullpen pieces? If he isn’t going to be stretched out to rejoin the rotation, he could effectively be a second starter and eat some innings a few times a week. And if you take a look at his usage so far, it wouldn’t be that difficult to pull off.
As of Sunday, Antone had made 20 appearances this season. He pitched at least two innings in seven of those outings and at least three innings in two of them. He has taken on the traditional “closer” role only three times and has entered games as early as the 5th inning so far. He already only pitches roughly every 3 days and has only appeared in back-to-back games three times this year. His highest pitch count has been 60 pitches (over 3.2 innings) but he has also been incredible efficient, not going over 40 pitches in any of his 2+ inning outings.
This strategy could be particularly effective down the stretch. Let’s say that the Reds get healthy and are still in contention toward the end of July. The Reds will almost undoubtedly have a similar bullpen situation as they do now. With the lack of reliable arms in the bullpen, they could easily take a Kopps-like approach for the last 50-60 games and use him in longer outings to nail down as many wins as possible. While I noted earlier that he has already had a lot of 2-3 inning outings, his overall usage at this point in the season has kept his innings low enough to make this possible. The majority of his outings have still been less than two innings and he has still thrown fewer innings than he had at this point in 2020. Obviously, the lack of designated hitter makes this more difficult to work in actuality since nobody is going to give a late-inning at-bat to a reliever if they don’t have to, but it’s certainly possible from a usage standpoint.
The number one weakness of the Reds in 2021 has been the performance of the bullpen. If the front office continues to show their commitment to spending as little money as possible, maybe it’s time to start utilizing their best weapon in a different way.