Why the Cincinnati Reds won’t sustain early-season success


Following a plethora of trades last midseason and the recent offseason expectations for the Cincinnati Reds were understandably and defensibly modest.

The team’s top two starting pitchers, it’s electrifying closer and all-star third baseman were all elsewhere. The starting rotation featured a bundle of options no older than college seniors. Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips — both cogs in the Cincinnati lineup for about the past decade — were both offered in additional offseason trades, but each fell through due to medical issues and a no-trade clause. Zack Cozart and Devin Mesoraco were coming off of season-ending injuries, Billy Hamilton still hadn’t learned how to hit, the left-field opening was a five-player battle and Eugenio Suarez was learning a new position.

But early-season success, much the same as first-week sensation Trevor Story, has a way of disregarding the inevitable.

The Reds began the year with a three-game winning streak, won five of their first six and currently sit in second place of the National League Central at 8-7. Despite the bullpen struggles we highlighted recently and the array of uninspiring options they have to correct the issue, the Reds’ starting pitching has been generally strong — at least for five innings — and the offense continues to hit, especially in timely fashion.

But pitching. For Cincinnati it all comes back to pitching. As good as the pitching has been at times, it is still pretty bad and it’s bad in all of the wrong ways.

Arguably the best method of getting a batter out is via the strikeout. Sure a one-pitch groundout is more efficient, but the ground ball is also more effective for getting a hit than is a fly ball. The base on ball is the most ineffective method to get through an inning. To simplify, it is accurate to say more strikeouts the better, the less walks the better. The Reds didn’t get the memorandum. Their K-BB percent (7.2) and strikeout percent (18.6) rank 29th in Major League Baseball ahead of only the Brewers in each category. For comparison the leaders for each is 21.5 and 27.4 respectively.

Subsequently the Reds are battling a lot of balls in play, and thus, a lot of baserunners. Which would not be an issue if the Reds pitched well with runners on. Instead they are stranding runners at one of the worst rates in the league (71.3 percent) — with only five teams stranding at a lesser rate.

Another alarming issue for Reds pitching is their susceptibility to the home run. Great American Ball Park is universally recognized as a poor pitcher’s park, and after finishing last season seventh among all 30 teams for the stadium with the most home runs allowed — 1.137 HR per game — there is data to support that. Thus, despite the ground ball resulting in a hit more often than the fly ball, a well-hit fly ball can in turn result in a run (or more) much easier than a well-hit ground ball. Again, the Reds are not well-equipped. Their ground ball rate (39 percent) is third worst in the league which highlights the elevated number of fly balls (39.2 percent) they’re allowing. A non-issue if the fly balls weren’t well-hit but the numbers illustrate otherwise. Their HR/FB rate (15.2 percent) is seventh highest in the league, their HR/9 (1.59) ranks fourth highest and opposing hitters are registering hard contact 31.8 percent of the time — seventh highest in the league.

Essentially, the Reds are in the lesser third of the league in regard to striking batters out, not walking batters, not giving up easy runs and allowing good contact. Analyze the metrics all you want, but that’s not good. It is actually really, really bad. The only thing worse would be allowing runs at a similarly alarming rate. But wait … there’s more!

The Reds’s pitching hasn’t been any good at preventing runs either. Their ERA (4.78) is fifth worst in the league and their BABIP (.257, fifth best in the league) suggests that it can only get worse. And FanGraphs xFIP illustrates that perfectly.

The xFIP of Reds’ pitching (4.88) ranks dead last among all 30 teams. Cincinnati’s pitching, analyzed at it’s most naked form, absent of defense-reliant plays is the worst in baseball. The Reds have had the worst pitching in baseball and very little suggests it will get any better. A handful of pitchers returning from injuries could certainly help keep the Reds afloat, but who’s to say Zack Cozart, Eugenio Suarez and Jay Bruce will sustain their torrid starts at the plate?

As Cleveland might say … there’s always next year!