Coach Price a key to Reds' success on the hill
The 2012 Cincinnati Reds' rotation has accomplished one of the rarer feats in baseball: to date, not one of its starters (Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Mike Leake, Homer Bailey and Bronson Arroyo) has missed a turn.
Why is that?
"Some of it is just good fortune," said Reds pitching coach Bryan Price. "There are a lot of things that can happen to pitchers [other] than just general arm soreness or ineffectiveness. That's the thing that we have avoided -- No. 1 -- is injury. But No. 2 is that the guys have been effective.
"The fact that they have continually taken the ball and give us a chance to win games [plays a part], and that obviously keeps them in the rotation. But missing out on injuries to this point [has been huge]. Beyond the arm, it's not uncommon for guys to have lower back issues, running bases [and] pulling hamstrings, things of that nature. We've avoided it to this point. Certainly, the training staff and the strength and conditioning coach, Matt Krause, have had a lot to do with that."
But there's another explanation that Price neglected to mention. And that's Price himself.
Price, 50, has been with the Reds since 2009, but his work has gone largely unnoticed until now.
The coach discussed the extensive work he does to prime his pitching staff for each series.
"First of all, we go over the opponent with the relief pitchers and the catchers," Price said. "We have a full scouting report that's on paper as well what's in the bullpen with [bullpen coach Juan] 'Corky' Lopez and [bullpen catcher] Mike Stefanski and all of the relievers so that they can stay well-educated on our opponent.
"The starting pitcher and the starting catcher will sit down with myself and [assistant pitching coach] Mack Jenkins and review the lineup and the bench players to see how the starting pitcher's stuff matches up best with the lineup he is going to face. We do want to make sure that we're typically pitching to the strength of the starting pitcher as opposed to the weakness of the hitter. And if you can put them both together, you're in pretty good shape," Price added.
Price certainly had some challenges to deal with at the start of the season. The Reds acquired closer Ryan Madson from the Phillies only to have the reliever suffer a season-ending injury before he could throw a pitch in Spring Training. Fellow relievers Bill Bray and Nick Masset also suffered setbacks, with Bray managing only a few ineffective appearances after a lumbar strain and Masset spending the season rehabbing an inflamed shoulder. But perhaps the toughest decision to make was whether to use Cuban phenomenon Aroldis Chapman as a starter or as a reliever.
"I was very aware of the fact that we had lost two guys that were our primary setup guys," Price said. "Masset had pitched in 75 games [in 2011], Bray pitched in  and we were expecting Madson to close.
"So now we were going to use [Sean] Marshall as a closer, which means we lost our left-handed setup guy [since] we didn't have Bray. That was going to bring up [Logan] Ondrusek, [Jose] Arredondo and [Sam] LeCure in the primary right-handed setup [role]. To me, it just didn't seem like the best our bullpen could be -- going in there with one left-hander and him being a closer. So I thought that it made sense to at least start the season with Aroldis in the bullpen."
"I don't think any of us had projected [Chapman] being the closer," Price added. "But he pitched so well in that setup role that he transitioned into that quite well."
So well, in fact, to yield an ERA of just 1.23. Earlier in the season, Chapman had a club-record 29-game scoreless streak working in his advantage.
But Price had no idea any of that would happen back on Opening Day.
"It just seemed where our strength was actually was in our starting rotation," Price said. "You have to give a lot of credit to the fact that ... many of ... their roles were increased, as far as value, and they stepped up and got the job done."
Price became even more confident in the capabilities of his charges with the acquisition of Jonathan Broxton from the Kansas City Royals on July 31.
"I think we were good before Jonathan came over in the trade from Kansas City," Price said. "I think we were excellent. In fact, I think we were No. 1 or No. 2 in bullpen ERA at the time.
"I think the big thing that happened with Jonathan is that we were able to get a quality closer who was willing to come over onto a team that was in the pennant race and comfortably agree to be a setup man, and that's not easy to do. Because with these guys, it's not just about ego, some guys [will be] free-agent eligible and want to up statistics and numbers going into free agency, or maybe it's an arbitration situation.
"So to put all of that stuff aside and put your ego aside and accept a role on a team that may have a chance to get to the postseason -- and do it willingly with a great attitude -- made a big difference for us. And because [Broxton] hadn't been overworked in Kansas City, it's given us an opportunity to give a breather to guys that have pitched a lot, like Ondrusek and Arredondo, giving them a little bit of a break leading into the ninth inning."
And now, Price's bullpen boasts a National League-leading 2.70 ERA, and the entire pitching staff's ERA of 3.44 is second only to Washington in the NL.
Oh yeah, and the Reds' two aces, Cueto and Chapman, are both in the NL Cy Young Award talks.
"If you have a team that has two pitchers that are being considered for top awards, I think that speaks well to the type of situation you're probably in," Price said. "That typically means that they're starting and winning games and they're throwing quality innings and their ERA is good, or in Aroldis' case, throwing really well out of the bullpen and picking up some saves. So that combination has been terrific.
"I think it's only a great conversation piece. I think the debate will always go [on about] if relievers should qualify for the Cy Young [Award], that would be an argument [for] the media and anybody that wants to speak about it. For me, I'm just glad we've got two guys that are pitching so well."
At this point, it looks like Price and Co. will be preparing for a playoff run.
"I think that being in a pennant race, we're not in the same situation as a lot of other teams," Price explained. "We're trying to stay in first place and try to secure a playoff spot, so we'll probably utilize our players in a similar fashion. The young guys, the new guys, will get to see what kind of preparation goes into our pregame ... and also see how we do things as far as our structural way with our regular day-to-day routine."
However, Price refuses to jump too far ahead.
"I don't think you ever want to take for granted that you are in," he said. "We've got a nice lead, but we're certainly aware of what St. Louis did last year and some other teams, as all of the playoffs came down to the last day. So you never take it for granted that the lead's always going to be there.
"If things continue as they are, we certainly are going have to talk about what type of information we would like from our advance scouts [about] who [we] are going to be looking at [for] all of the other teams we might be playing if we do make it into the postseason. That would be the biggest difference."
Presumably, if Price can continue to work his magic, there won't be a whole lot of difference in the Reds' dominant pitching performance -- whether it's in the first inning or the ninth.
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.