Sunday, June 20, 1999

Reds' pitching backward




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The statistics suggest the Cincinnati Reds have their pitching staff upside down. That the relievers should be starting. That the starters ought to be banished to the bullpen. That the rotation should be revised, even reversed.

        Every pitcher tells a story, and Brett Tomko's is a tale of woe. Scott Williamson, meanwhile, couldn't humiliate any more hitters if he served subpoenas. The Reds produce quality starters on roughly the same schedule as Halley's Comet, but their bullpen is curiously inexhaustible.

        This is one baseball club that's a lot like a lobster: You have to get past the first layer before you get to the good stuff.

        It begs a question: Shouldn't the guy who gets people out with the greatest of ease be given the greater opportunity to pitch?

        Answer: Not with the Reds. Not yet, at least.

        “We always kick it around,” Reds manager Jack McKeon said Saturday afternoon. “But it's sort of like robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

        Sort of. But when Paul keeps getting pounded like a rented anvil, perhaps it's time to start rifling through Peter's pockets. Ron Villone lasted one-third of an inning in Saturday's 10-1 blowout by the Milwaukee Brewers. He was charged with six runs and raised the composite earned-run average of Reds starters to 5.01.

        You couldn't do much worse by putting the ball on a

        tee. You might do much better using your most effective arms at the beginning of a game, instead of consigning them to clean up other people's messes. Just a thought.

        It's more complicated than that, of course. Relief pitchers are conditioned to pitch frequently and furiously, while starters must pace themselves for pitching a longer stint every fifth day. Starters require a varied repertoire of pitches, while relievers generally rely on only two. Starters tend to have high-strung, artistic temperaments in contrast to low-maintenance, high-efficiency firemen.

        Not every pitcher is suited to both roles. Some starters don't recover quickly enough to relieve on a regular basis. Some relievers don't respond well to four days of brooding between performances. Still, at least one member of Reds management says the club might have three potential 15-game winners in the bullpen: Williamson, Dennys Reyes and Gabe White. At least one of the three ought to be worth a longer look.

        Williamson (1.39 ERA), Reyes (1.91) and White (3.93) all were used almost exclusively as starters in the minor leagues. All three of them have more strikeouts than innings pitched, and their combined totals feature fewer home runs than Tomko, fewer walks than Steve Avery and less bewilderment than Jason Bere.

        The names change, but Cincinnati's pitching paradox has been a constant throughout the decade. The Reds are always scrounging for starting pitchers and almost cavalier about relievers. Five former Reds have at least 13 saves this season: John Wetteland, John Franco, Jeff Shaw, Trevor Hoffman and Mike Jackson. None of them has really been missed.

        What began this spring as a bullpen by committee — a bullpen that has yet to benefit from either Stan Belinda or Mark Wohlers — owned a baseball-best 2.73 earned-run average at the end Saturday's game. Three Reds' relievers — Williamson, Reyes and Scott Sullivan — have held opponents to batting averages below the notorious Mendoza line (.200).

        “I know it looks like relievers are growing on trees,” Reds bullpen coach Tom Hume said. “But I think a lot of it is confidence. When one guy's doing well, it rubs off on the other guys.”

        Pitching coach Don Gullett said the organization once placed so much priority on relief pitching that “anybody who had a "plus' arm was made a closer.” Gullett argued for more emphasis on starters, and the franchise's philosophy since has shifted. General Manager Jim Bowden says the organization's current blueprint is for the five top pitchers at each level to be starters.

        Whether that blueprint applies at the major-league level is unclear. That the Reds starters are getting strafed is beyond dispute.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.


- Reds' pitching backward
Are Reds looking at Wells?
BREWERS 10, REDS 1
He may be Greene, but he's learning
REDS NOTEBOOK
Box, runs