Did you realize that the 2016 Reds currently have the worst pitching of any team in the last 40 years?
Watching game after mediocre game, I’ve become desensitized to how bad the Reds’ pitching really is this year. Somehow, in the long grind of the season, with all the different players and storylines, between the rebuilding and reloading and rehashing, the Reds pitching can end up feeling just bad. But it isn’t just bad, and we shouldn’t think of it that way. Our pitching is historically terrible. If there is one thing the Reds have done really well this year, it’s put together an appalling pitching staff.
The Reds collectively have an ERA- of 129, which means that together they have given up 29% more earned runs per inning than an average MLB pitcher, after controlling for ballpark. While that might not seem like a huge number, it’s pretty staggering considering it’s for our entire team. Imagine a baseball team that has only one pitcher and that pitcher is Jose Acevedo, and in every game and every situation that team just has to keep sending him out there to get shelled. Statistically, that team is the 2016 Reds.
To put it in historical context, 129 is the highest team ERA- since the 1974 Padres, some 42 years ago. (Pete of course was on the Reds in 1974, but I couldn’t resist with that hat!) That means if you’re under the age of say 45, there’s no chance that you’ve seen a major league team that is this bad at pitching, and if you are exactly 45 you would have to have liked the Padres as a 3-year old. Before that you have to go back to the 1954 A’s. So even if you are 65 years old, if you say “I’ve seen worse” in reference to the Reds’ pitching, you’re still only talking about the 1974 Padres. 129 is the 11th worst team ERA- in the last 100 years.
For those worried that ERA isn’t the best measure of pitching, and that maybe the Reds have just been unlucky in run scoring, the Reds have an xFIP- of 123 (the same statistical concept, but based on underlying peripheral statistics rather than runs), which is the worst team score for any year that the statistic can be calculated (about 20 years).
Now, you can’t have a historically abysmal pitching staff without a lot of blame to spread around. We know that the Reds have traded away some good pitchers (Cueto, Leake, & Chapman). We also know that two of the Reds best starters have been hurt this year (Bailey & Desclafani). The Reds clearly weren’t thinking that they would contend this year.
Then the Reds fired their pitching coach Mark Riggins after just half a season, having declined to renew the contract of their last pitching coach last year, which is the same as firing in baseball. Walt Jocketty said after the firing that “unfortunately, the pitching on our big league staff has not improved over the course of the season as we had hoped, and it is time for a new voice.” So while the Reds didn’t plan on having a great pitching staff this year, the front office expected more, especially out of some of the younger pitchers that represent the team’s future.
I wondered if the Reds really should have expected more out of the young pitchers, especially the young starters. One thing research has shown is that historically, a pitcher’s strikeout, walk, and homerun numbers in the minor leagues (especially the higher minor leagues) are correlated with those same statistics at the major league level. Of the 27 pitchers that the Reds have used this year, I’m going to designate 6 of them as the “young up and comers” to look at (Reed, Finnegan, Stephenson, Lamb, Iglesias, and Lorenzen). Iglesias doesn’t really have a minor league track record and he’s pitching out of the pen now, as is Lorenzen, so that leaves the three starters we got for Cueto and Stephenson.
Below you can see their current rate stats for homeruns, walks, and strikeouts.
Brandon Finnegan has pitched the most so far these season, and has had an up and down time of it. So far his homerun rate is about double what it was in the minors, and his strikeouts are down 30 percent. I think we can reasonably expect a few less dingers and a few more missed bats from Brandon, though he may not get back to the same rates he had in the minors. The scary thing to me is that he’s got the highest walk rate of the four, but its right in line with his minor league numbers. It’s going to be very difficult for him to be more than a 4th or 5th starter while giving up that many free passes, and there’s really nothing to suggest he’s going to stop.
Cody Reed was the least known but most promising prospect the Reds got back in the Cueto deal. So far his walks are in line with his minor league numbers, and his strikeouts are up a little bit. Unfortunately the big lefty has been victimized by the long ball, with his current rate being about seven (!) times his minor league rate of .5 per 9. So far 41 percent of all the flyballs he’s given up have gone out of the park, and reality simply won’t allow that to continue. Once that number comes back to earth (so to speak) he should be a solid 2nd or 3rd starter.
John Lamb has given up a few more long ones than his minor league numbers would suggest, and his strikeouts are down from 8.6 per 9. That said, there’s nothing that stands out as alarming. Based on his minor league numbers, pitching a league average season in the bigs would be a good year for Lamb, who also probably slots into the 4th 5th starter role.
Robert Stephenson has only pitched in two games so far, so his major league numbers are basically meaningless at this point. What they do is give me a chance to point out that in the minors he walked more than 4 per 9, and that is most likely going to be a problem going forward. He’s got such good stuff that he could still be someone like Danny Salazar, but the vast majority of top-tier pitchers have walk rates below 2, and certainly below 3.
So what does all this say about the Reds historically bad staff? Well, probably that they won’t end up being quite as historical. Whether it’s the new pitching coach, or just young guys adjusting to the major leagues (Chad recently wrote a good piece for Cincinnati Magazine urging patience with young pitchers, and that has to serve as a caveat through all off this), these guys are all likely to be better in the second half than they’ve shown so far. Then there’s the possible/probable return of Homer Bailey. That should be enough to move the Reds ERA- score back into the routinely miserable range.
Because of control problems, I don’t necessarily see a true ace in this group, but you have most of a solid rotation aside from the top. Maybe one of them dials it in, or maybe Amir Garrett is that guy. By next year the 1974 Padres should be well in the rearview mirror.