Some of the greatest sports mysteries of all-time will never be solved. One of those for me is the 2020 Cincinnati Reds. I wouldn’t say that I was the driver of the Reds bandwagon last season, but there were a lot of passengers and I was one of them with a front seat. Lots of people had lots of reasons to love the Reds.
The 60-game season resulted in a 31-29 season for the Reds. That came on the heels of a 75-87 season in which the alternate standings metrics suggested a team that got about as unlucky as possible. The Reds were 12 games under .500, despite finishing -10 in run differential. They were an 84-78 team by BaseRuns and an 86 or 87-win team by 3rd Order Win%. As an aside, if you want to know if a team’s win total odds will definitely go up, look at their actual win-loss record compared to their BaseRuns and 3rd Order Win% records.
A lot of people put a lot of money on the Reds for a lot of different things. There was season win total over money. There was Reds to win the NL Central money. Reds to win the World Series money. Reds to achieve world peace money. Reds to cure cancer money. Reds to find Jimmy Hoffa’s body money.
Everybody had this team on a pedestal. A rocket to the top of the NL Central. And then the offense was pretty much as bad as it was in 2019.
A point of emphasis in last year’s season preview had nothing to do with the players the Reds had or picked up. It had to do with what they did as an organization. They hired Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball as the Director of Pitching Initiatives. They hired Caleb Cotham and Eric Jagers, two sharp pitching minds with ties to Driveline. The Reds were unquestionably going all-in on the pitching side to cultivate and develop talent from within.
It all started when the Reds were able to hire pitching coach Derek Johnson from the Milwaukee Brewers. Johnson orchestrated and then oversaw a transformation from the Milwaukee pitching staff. In Johnson’s first season, the Reds went from 24th in ERA to eighth. They went from 27th in FIP to ninth. They went from 21st in xFIP to fourth. They went from 24th in K% to fourth. The hire paid immediate dividends and the Reds furthered their commitment by essentially hiring the heartbeat of Driveline Baseball.
Driveline’s most recognizable client in Trevor Bauer may be gone, but Driveline’s influence on the pitching staff is only going to get stronger. Jagers is now the assistant pitching coach, while Cotham and Boddy work primarily with minor leaguers.
The only problem for the Reds is that you have to score runs, too. Run prevention is great, but you also have to create runs and push them across to win games. With what appeared to be an improved offense, the Reds didn’t really improve at all. They were 30th in batting average and batting average on balls in play. Only four teams had fewer batted balls of 95+. The Reds were 23rd in wRC+ and only saw a big spike in the walk department.
With Bauer gone after a Cy Young season and continued offensive worries, are the Reds going to fall short again in 2021?
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win NL Central
|Team||Odds To Win|
|St Louis Cardinals||+100|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+23 (4.25/3.86)||+28 (4.51/4.34)|
|3rd Order Win%||31.3-28.6||86.4-75.6|
|Record in One-Run Games||7-8||24-33|
Additions: Tyler Naquin, Cam Bedrosian, Shane Carle, Braden Shipley, Dee Strange-Gordon, Nicky Delmonico, Sean Doolittle, Rocky Gale, Edgar Garcia, Josh Osich, Matt Ball, Bo Takahashi, Cheslor Cuthbert, Dwight Smith, Kyle Holder, Cionel Perez, Hector Perez, Art Warren, Scott Heineman, Leonardo Rivas, Noe Ramirez, Jeff Hoffman, Case Williams, Brandon Bailey, Max Schrock, Deivy Grullon
Losses: Curt Casali, Brian Goodwin, Archie Bradley, Travis Jankowski, Freddy Galvis, Tyler Thornburg, Anthony DeSclafani, Trevor Bauer, Luke Berryhill, Jose Acosta, Raisel Iglesias, Jameson Hannah, Robert Stephenson, Robel Garcia
Usually I try to be optimistic in the transaction sections. I like to give teams the benefit of the doubt that they’ve isolated the players that they have acquired for one reason or another. Usually teams don’t do things just for the sake of doing them.
The list of additions for the Reds features a ton of minor league contracts with some non-roster invites. The only guaranteed money was given to Sean Doolittle and Edgar Garcia. Jeff Hoffman is another name that people will know from his time with the Rockies. Hoffman is a Driveline Baseball client, so that trade acquisition makes a lot of sense.
The Reds lost more Major League players than they acquired. Cionel Perez and Noe Ramirez could very well make the MLB bullpen, but it would be hard to say that any of those guys stack up to what was lost with Raisel Iglesias or even Robert Stephenson. Michael Lorenzen could move back into a starting capacity with the losses of Anthony DeSclafani and Trevor Bauer.
Overall, this was a pretty uninspiring offseason for the Reds. I presume they isolated skill sets in the guys they acquired, especially the pitchers, but I don’t see a ton of MLB impact and the losses of quality MLBers like Freddy Galvis, DeSclafani, and Bauer will hurt.
|Batting Average (BA)||.212 (30th)||.244 (24th)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.312 (24th)||.315 (22nd)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.403 (18th)||.422 (21st)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.312 (17th)||.312 (22nd)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||91 (22nd)||87 (25th)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.245 (30th)||.288 (26th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||25.2% (24th)||23.5% (19th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||11.3% (2nd)||8.1% (22nd)|
You know that old joke before memes were a thing about the skeleton sitting on the bench waiting for Mr. Right? Well, that’s me with the Reds offense. This group has so much talent and so much potential and just cannot put it all together for whatever reason. You have to go back to 2010 for the last time that the Reds posted a wRC+ over 99.
In present day, contact quality is the issue. Carrying an 11.3% BB% is great, but when you pair it with a 25.2% K%, you are hitting in a lot of deep counts. The Reds were 18th in average exit velocity and 27th in number of batted balls of at least 95 mph. Hard contact is what generates offense. Only the Rockies, Marlins, and Cardinals had fewer batted balls of 95+ mph.
The Reds are trying to do the right thing. They were sixth in FB% and had the fifth-lowest GB%. They are trying to elevate. They are trying to use Great American Ball Park to their advantage, as the ball really carries well on those hot summer days by the Ohio River. The Reds even had an IFFB% (pop up rate) of 5.4%. That was the best in the league with teams like the Dodgers, Braves, and Yankees as the next closest. Pop ups are wasted outs, much like strikeouts, so the fewer, the better.
It is my belief that the Reds were too patient last season. Their Swing% was 43.8%, which ranked as the seventh lowest. The Reds swung 48.1% of the time in 2019. Walk rates were up a lot last season, as hitters simply swung less often, so you do have to account for that and weigh the plate discipline metrics accordingly, but they had the eighth-highest Swing% in 2019.
It makes me wonder what approach the Reds take this season. My guess would be that it was a conscious choice and a message from the top down to swing a lot less often. Walks were up around the league, but not to the point where a team’s BB% should increase by 3.2%. That was easily the biggest increase in baseball. It didn’t really help the Reds much either. Instead, all it did was hurt their contact quality with the lowest BABIP in baseball.
Walks are important. Don’t get me wrong. A walk is a guaranteed baserunner. You reach base on 100% of walks. Most guys reach base on less than 30% of their batted balls. I fully understand the approach and it is an approach that you cannot take lightly. The problem that you run into with such a selective approach, though, is that you end up getting chances with RISP, hit in deep counts, put balls in play with poor contact quality, and then come up empty-handed. It would be reasonable to suggest to teams to be patient to get to that point, but then be aggressive in higher-leverage situations. Swing at that first fastball. Lock in on a pitch early in the count. Try to do damage. Take the game to the pitcher instead of letting him bring it to you.
There were five regulars for the Reds that had a wRC+ over 100 plus backup catcher Curt Casali. Jesse Winker was the leader with a .396 wOBA and a 146 wRC+. He also showcased a lot more power potential than he did previously with 12 HR in 183 PA. Winker had a 40% HR/FB%, though, so that won’t be sustainable. He hits too few fly balls, but did make a concerted effort to pull the ball more and also had good contact quality when he did swing.
Joey Votto had a 114 wRC+. He hit more fly balls than the previous two seasons and saw a big spike to around his career HR/FB%. He just isn’t the feared hitter that he once was. His .235 BABIP should come back up and he could post a nice OBP again, but the days of slugging percentages in the .500s are long gone. If those are long gone for Eugenio Suarez, too, then the Reds have a major problem. Suarez was returning from a major shoulder procedure, so a drop-off was expected. He had a .214 BABIP, but managed to hit 15 HR in just 231 PA. Home runs don’t count towards BABIP.
I liked a lot of what I saw in the underlying metrics for Suarez, who increased his FB% and his Pull%, so that should undoubtedly lead to good power numbers. I think he fell on the wrong side of bad luck with his .214 BABIP because he did make some good contact overall.
Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos were the other two above average bats for the Reds. Castellanos was another one hurt by a huge BABIP drop, even though his exit velocity went up. He also saw a huge increase in K% due to a decrease in contact outside of the zone. He swung a lot less often, but swung and missed more often.
The Reds are a bit of a perplexing offense. They were -.021 in BA-xBA, a Statcast metric that takes into account batted ball data and puts together an expected batting average. The Reds were more like a .233 team in xBA, but that’s still pretty bad. It means that they’d have been bad anyway, but not quite as bad. A .233 xBA was the sixth-lowest per Statcast.
What concerns me the most is that the Reds are clearly trying to draw a lot of walks to set up innings. They are looking for the guaranteed baserunner instead of taking a chance by putting a ball in play. You know the team that was last in number of plate appearances with a runner in scoring position? The Reds. They had 28 fewer than any other team.
When they did get them, they were seventh in wOBA. There has to be a happy medium here, I’m just not sure that the Reds will find it. The lineup doesn’t look any different. I don’t know if the offensive philosophy will.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||3.89 (8th)||4.18 (8th)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||3.92 (6th)||4.23 (9th)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||3.95 (4th)||4.10 (4th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||28.9% (1st)||25.6% (4th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||10.0% (22nd)||8.9% (19th)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||72.8% (13th)||73.7% (12th)|
It had better because the Reds will miss Trevor Bauer. The Reds were able to overcome the bad version of Bauer after the 2019 trade to have a top-10 pitching staff in a lot of categories. In 2020, though, Bauer, who won the NL Cy Young, was a huge factor in having the highest K% in baseball. He struck out 36% of opposing batters. He was also one of just a handful of Reds that didn’t walk batters. His BB% was 6.1%. Only Raisel Iglesias was better among regular pitchers. Of course, he’s also gone now, too.
The Driveline Baseball connection is extremely strong with the Reds. They’ve placed an emphasis on increasing spin rates. They’ve looked to do more with strikeouts. Just like walks are guaranteed baserunners, strikeouts are outs probably 99.9% of the time or so. You’ll get the occasional passed ball or wild pitch on a strikeout, but those are usually pretty rare. This is a philosophy I can fully get behind.
Before I dive fully into the Reds pitching staff, here is some information direct from Driveline Baseball on fastball spin rates and their importance and then a detailed explanation of “Bauer Units” and how to evaluate pitches and their spin rates.
Nine different pitchers for the Reds struck out over 30% of the batters that they faced. Tyler Mahle was close at 29.9%. You will get increased walk rates trying to rack up strikeouts because you’re pitching in a way that attempts to prevent a ball in play. Not surprisingly, the Reds were second in fastball velocity, which is an organizational goal, and they were also in the bottom third of the league in fastball percentage. The Reds were a slider-heavy organization per FanGraphs. Only the Twins and Royals threw more of them.
Only the Brewers allowed fewer batted balls of 95+ mph. Part of that was because of the poor offense in the division, but also it was because the Reds are actively trying to pitch away from the barrel. Elevated fastballs. Breaking balls with lots of spin that are hard to center. They’re very advanced on the pitching side to say the least.
Bauer leaves, but the Reds have a lot of options. Luis Castillo was frankly better than Bauer in a lot of ways. He didn’t have the same K or BB numbers, but induced a ton of ground balls and had a lower FIP because he gave up fewer home runs. Castillo had a 3.21 ERA with a 2.65 FIP over his 70 innings. His changeup didn’t even grade out as well in 2020 as it did in 2019 when his FIP was over a run higher. Castillo significantly cut down his HR/FB% from 17.9% in back-to-back years to 12.5% in 2020. I already mentioned how Aaron Nola will be a Cy Young pick for me. Luis Castillo will be, too.
Sonny Gray saw a BB% increase from 9.6% to 11.1%, but also a K% increase from 29% to 30.6%. I’m not overly worried about the BB% increase because hitters simply swung less often against Gray. His chase rate was lower, but he dramatically increased his Z-Contact%, which stands for percentage of pitchers in the strike zone that hitters made contact with. A decrease in Z-Contact% is indicative of good stuff, good sequencing, or both. Hitters that can get swings and misses in the zone have a much greater margin for error than other pitchers. Because Gray maintained a similar SwStr% to the previous season with fewer chases, that is a sign to me that his stuff was as good or better.
Gray also had a 54.9% first-pitch strike percentage, which was the lowest of his career. As that increases, the BB% should go down and the chase rate will go up. I’d expect Gray to be really good again and even better with fewer walks.
With Bauer gone, the rest of the rotation needs to step up. Tyler Mahle did last season. We saw signs of it in 2019. His K% increased and his walk rate decreased. He had a 5.14 ERA, but with a 4.66 FIP and a 3.99 xFIP, so that suggested some positive regression heading into 2020. Mahle’s K% shot up 6.7%. He, too, saw a walk increase amidst a velocity spike. The Reds ditched his curveball and went back to a slider instead. Mahle saw a huge increase in spin rate on his fastball, splitter, and slider.
I think it’s fair to suggest that some of these BB% increases for guys are because they’ve increased their spin rates and have to get used to commanding a baseball with a lot more life. I can’t help but wonder if all of the Reds will see decreases in walks now that they’ve had more time to get used to harnessing these improved pitches.
Wade Miley is what he is. I think there’s mild upside there, but I can see why others disagree. He’s an extreme ground ball guy that became very cutter-heavy with the Brewers two years ago in 80.2 solid innings. I think the Reds can work with him, just like they can keep working with Michael Lorenzen or Tejay Antone or Tony Santillan, or Cionel Perez, or Brandon Bailey, or whoever winds up filling out this rotation.
Perez has a high spin rate slider and I’m sure the Reds will look to add more to the fastball. Antone saw some spin rate increases and was actually pretty close to Bauer while they were teammates. I’ll be curious to see who fills out the rotation.
Basically, what the Reds are trying to do is maximize each individual pitch for their pitchers and they are doing this at every level in the organization. The additions list above likely features a lot of pitchers where the analysts saw the opportunity to increase spin rate and therefore increase production and potential.
For example, a guy like Sean Doolittle saw a drop in his spin rates in 2020, likely due to injury more than anything else. The Reds are betting on a return to health and then a return to his normal spin rates. Certainly that has been the plan with Hoffman. We may end up seeing a closer-by-committee approach with a lot of guys that can be deployed in a lot of different areas. The bullpen was a bit of a disappointment last season and could be again this season, especially with the loss of Iglesias, but it won’t be from lack of trying.
Positives & Negatives
The Reds are maybe the best example of data at work in Major League Baseball right now. Their commitment to drawing walks at all cost, while attempting to hit everything in the air and as much of it as possible to the pull side is straight from the analytics playbook.
Going all-in to upgrade pitch spin rates is why Boddy and the Driveline crew are so engrained in what the Reds are doing. The Reds are a small-market team. Their market size is about that of Cleveland’s, which is bottom five in baseball. They have to find their own improvements within the organization because lavish luxuries from the free agent market are not flocking to the Queen City. The Reds need to maximize potential from all of their controlled assets and then watch as they go packing for another city once control runs out.
These are the types of teams that I like to bet on because I know that they are finding creative solutions to maximize otherwise undervalued players. I just wonder if the offense will ever come around.
Cincinnati Reds Pick & Prediction: Over 81.5
At some point, this will all come together and I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer when it does. What the Reds are doing on the pitching side is very innovative. To some degree, they are serving as trailblazers. Individuals have been going to Driveline for a long time, but to see Driveline front and center with a MLB organization is something to behold.
Now that the pitching gains have taken hold, the Reds have to be focused on the hitting side. They’ve made some hires at the minor league and instructional levels in hopes of getting their prospects up to speed. Whether or not the MLB squad actually takes that leap this season is anybody’s guess. I wish I had a concrete answer for you.
What I do know is that this pitching staff, even with some losses in the bullpen, is plenty good enough to take this team places. If the offense simply moves up 8-10 spots in some key categories, this is a team that can very easily emerge from the weakest division in baseball.
I’m not confident enough in that outcome to place a bet on the Reds, at least not yet. I want to see how Spring Training plays out and see if there are any visible adjustments. The Reds are looking to pull and elevate and that should yield some good returns in Arizona.
This one is on my mind. It is not a bet at the time of publish, but it is a stronger lean and a pick for the Guide.